It has been twenty days since the new year came, bringing with it that long-awaited special episode of Sherlock, The Abominable Bride. To fans of the show, it was a welcome reprieve from the wait for the new season that is such a prominent part of experiencing the series. But many were disappointed. Some – I cannot be bothered to cite examples – have called it the worst episode in the series. I feel Season 3 had even weaker episodes, but I can see why people would say this. The plot is how Mycroft described the death of Moriarty: ‘pure reason toppled by sheer melodrama’. However, I’d like to say a few things to answer friends who said that it left questions. Unlike Season 3, the episode left none (at least none worth asking, I think), as I shall try to show. What follows is a discussion of the plot, so be warned; and for safety’s sake, I solemnly declare that I do not own Sherlock or any of its characters/scripts/trademarks.
The majority of the episode (I mean episode of the series) is a mental experiment – a very, very elaborate thought experiment that Sherlock conducts in his mind after learning that Moriarty is alive, or ‘back’. The entire story of the 1895 murder mystery is fiction. It’s happening inside Sherlock’s head; it did not occur; it never occurred. The confusing parts are either parts of the experiment, or the present day interfering with Sherlock’s thoughts, or just ‘fan service’. Like a filmmaker, Sherlock uses faces or actual people he knows, even the steward on the plane as Mrs. Carmichael.
Why does he do this? Well, in the end, it’s to entertain viewers. The idea is to solve the mystery of how Moriarty could return by trying to solve a similar case. Let us proceed to a step-by-step analysis.
The story begins by recapitulating the events leading up to the finale of the last season. Then the thought experiment begins. Sherlock painstakingly goes through a simulation that begins when he ‘meets’ Watson after his return from the Second Afghan War. I don’t think it’s unlikely that this goes on for a considerable, unknown length: Sherlock does have incredible mental abilities, after all. We then see the duo after many years, when Mary comes to talk to John. It is here that we get our first clue to the metacinematic character of the episode: Sherlock says a few lines to himself, about a curtain rising on a stage and going deep into himself. As part of his simulation, the people around him are surprised at his behaviour. In the morgue, Sherlock is thinking aloud inside his mind, rather like in a lucid dream. He uses the male pronoun because Moriarty is constantly on his mind, being the object of his experiment. The following inability to recognise Hooper as a woman is part of the fiction – it’s virtually impossible that Sherlock would not actually have seen through a moustache that even his viewers did. Why must he imagine this? Is it actually a subconscious desire to be outsmarted by his friend? Interesting possibility. It bears mentioning in this connection that Sherlock greatly resents Mycroft’s mental superiority, as evidenced by his (imagined) study of the obliquity of the ecliptic. Again, he evidently enjoys the idea that he would miss John if he left, while also amusing himself with his apparent coldness in front of Lestrade.
His conversation with Watson as he waits for the bride to appear is one of the most baffling parts of the whole series. Is Sherlock conversing with himself? What exactly is his position between reality and fiction? Is the imagined Victorian Sherlock a man who actually changes his habits to match his fictitious form? Is the man we’re seeing on screen Sherlock’s idea of his fictional self? Is Sherlock imagining a fictitious self within his simulation – that is, a kind of ‘true form’ that is only revealed to Watson (his friend, his creation, or both) in that dark room, like Macbeth with the Weird Sisters? Perhaps this is the confusing case of Coleridge countering the creation (Xanadu) of his creation (Kubla Khan), by creating a damsel who helps him create a pleasure palace in the sky, based on Kubla’s creation? I, for one, don’t have the answer. For simplicity’s sake, we may assume that Sherlock imagines his friend rebuking him for his unnatural apathetic demeanour.
The next point of interest is the note that wasn’t there when Sherlock found the body. It’s supposed to be a token of Moriarty’s posthumous message. Finding it begins the scene with Mycroft that I don’t think happened even in the simulation. The angle of the camera reminds us of a similar moment in His Last Vow. Sherlock has made a list – probably different from the list of ingredients in the real world (the real Mycroft only meant that Sherlock would make a list of things he’s getting high on). Mycroft’s conversation shows him aware of the situation, and the lighting indicates that this is a mental state between waking and full immersion in the simulation. The next scene (with floating snips of papers) is another simulation inside the simulation, as is the one following (when Moriarty appears). Moriarty might have visited Sherlock in this Victorian reality, but that has little to do with this apparition. The vision ends when Sherlock’s jet lands.
The conversations in the plane and the scene at the end, where Sherlock has figured out Moriarty’s next move are real. What is almost certainly not real is the part where everyone goes to the cemetery. That is clearly part of the thought experiment, segueing into the Reichenbach scene. The central problem of the episode is the return of Sherlock’s nemesis, and so the scene at the deconsecrated church ends when Moriarty asks if it’s gotten silly enough, and why it is him that Sherlock must meet in the end before ‘waking up’ in the jet again. ‘Do not forget me’ is essentially Moriarty’s message. We see that his nemesis haunts Sherlock in his mind, and his friendship with Watson is his redemption from his inner demon.
I think that about clears it up. This is certainly not meant to be an authoritative essay with a magisterial finish – I’d be happy to discuss the episode with anyone in the comments. I grant, in conclusion, that it is a weak installment in a good franchise, but it is certainly better than some of us gave it credit for.