Previously on Sherlock: His Last Vow.
There are no ghosts in this world. Save for the ones we make for ourselves.
This is the story of five minutes in the life of Sherlock Holmes. Five minutes in the real world, but a lifetime in another — in Sherlock’s Mind Palace, to be precise. In the time it takes for the plane to turn around and come back down to land in His Last Vow, as John speaks the foreboding words, “There’s an East Wind coming,” Sherlock has already gone deep into himself, into the recesses of his mind, to solve a mystery that has kept us on the edges of our seats for two years.
How is he alive?
I like that this wasn’t a fever dream, wasn’t a coma or a hallucination. Sure, drugs were involved, and I feared more than once while watching that Sherlock had inadvertently overdosed, after all. But this going back to Victorian London, this journey through time and space, it served a purpose. It was deliberate, and what happened in it was, for all intents and purposes, real. It wasn’t a passing fancy, something for Sherlock to wake up from and forget, it wasn’t to be retconned later. Sherlock put himself into his Mind Palace and imagined himself in 1895, the year of the case of Emelia Ricoletti, to try and figure out how he would have solved the case had he been alive back then, complete with the usual cast of characters that we know live in his Mind Palace with him. And it’s all happening to lay the groundwork for Series 4, and to answer one burning question: is it really Moriarty? Did he survive putting a bullet through his own head at the end of The Reichenbach Fall?
It’s a luxury that they devoted an entire episode to this, a luxury they can afford, combined with the luxury of experimenting — what if this were a period series? What if we could have the costumes and the hansom carriages, after all? If Series 4 were to have three episodes, then perhaps the entire first of it would have been spent in agony over this conundrum, and I’m glad it didn’t. Setting it in Victorian London and within such a Gothic case story gave it a novelty that a contemporary episode would have very likely lacked, I daresay. And now we have the answer: Moriarty is back, yes. But he is also very, very, very dead. As much as I adore Andrew Scott, and I do, this is good news, I think. We need a new villain, reprising Moriarty would have become monotonous. Someone using Moriarty to terrorise everyone from beyond the grave, now that’s something.
Also, is it just me, or is Mycroft only having years left to live not entirely a fanciful imagination? Sherlock wouldn’t have put it in if it weren’t important, that is what we must assume, even if he does have a penchant for the dramatic. It’s to illustrate the on-going injoke that Mycroft’s weight is jojo-ing, sure, and it also lampshades the fact that, in the novels, Mycroft Holmes rarely ever moved except between his house and the Diogenes Club. But the emphasis on betting on Mycroft’s remaining years… perhaps I’m seeing things, but Mycroft’s surprising gentleness with Sherlock, his insistences that he will always be there for him counterpointed with his plea with John to look after Sherlock… I have a feeling something’s wrong. I hope my feelings are deceiving me.
An Exercise in Lampshading
Everything is being lampshaded in this Special — the role of women in Victorian life and in Arthur Conan Doyle’s fiction as well as the disparity between illustration, illusion, and the meta canon of the fictional character named Sherlock Holmes as we know it — or, rather, him.
Let me count the ways:
- Rather than recasting Louise Brealey and making the role of Dr Hooper a man, they stuck a beard on her. A woman pretending to be a man to do the job she wants to do — as John says, the things a woman has to do to get ahead in a man’s world. That’s right. And if people think that they should have just given the role to a man, that this disguise business was ridiculous, then, well, joke’s on them. Because it’s not this casting and plot choice that’s ridiculous, it’s that women ever had to do this in the first place.
- Many of the exchanges are so delightfully meta — something that they could not have achieved had they not used the opportunity to deliberately reference the stories in the Strand so much. It affords them the opportunity to comment on the original stories and Arthur Conan Doyle’s treatment of his characters in the best possible way. Mrs Hudson complaining about being their landlady, not a plot device, the maid asking why John never mentions her, and Mary going off on her own and John a) not really knowing where she is and b) ostensibly not really caring, either. Sherlock’s arguably in a greater haste to get to her than he is, within Sherlock’s Mind Palace.¹
- The ridiculousness of the woman being the domestic, unseen part of any relationship is lampshaded by the maid asking why John always leaves her out of any story in the Strand and, even more obviously so, by John saying that he’ll have a word with his wife about having a word with the maid. The husband does not want anything to do with the household, bah. It’s brilliant. It’s funny on the surface, because it’s comedic dialogue — but it’s also rather accurate commentary.
- Mary works for Mycroft — and John has no idea. Mary is not home — and John has no idea where she is. Mary is in danger — and John has no idea that she might be. This is lampshading the fact that Doyle conveniently forgot about Mary half the time and then simply killed her off-screen (to no great anguish of John’s) to make room for the Dynamic Duo so hard that the bulb is about to break.
Mycroft was right, Watson. This is a war we must lose.
The one thing I found rather idiotic, however: the KuKlux Klan like robes and hats for the women. That was… over the top, and reveals, perhaps more than Sherlock’s flair for the dramatic and fanciful, the detective’s own not-yet-unlearnt bias against women. It smacks of the concept of the feminazi, and it doesn’t exactly help.
Sherlock, tell me where my bloody wife is, you pompous prick, or I’ll punch your lights out.
¹ We must be mindful of the fact that things that happen within Sherlock’s Mind Palace in this story tell us two things: One, lampshading novel canon and modern interpretations of what the hell’s going on with women. Two, what we see and perceive is what Sherlock perceives. Usually, on Sherlock, John is our focaliser, John is the audience stand-in. In The Abominable Bride, it’s all Sherlock. We are literally walking around inside his head, and so when John is not really concerned with Mary being God knows where, it’s not just a scathing comment on canon treatment of her, it’s what Sherlock sees — or, possibly, what Sherlock wants to see. For all we know and believe, John is in love with Mary, and cares for her deeply. But here, he doesn’t jump up at the mere mention of her name. This runs counter to him receiving a telegram from Sherlock, with the familiar entreaty:
Come at once if convenient. If inconvenient, come all the same.
For all John knows, it could be anything from a severed head to a failed chemistry experiment, and yet he’s at Sherlock’s door immediately. That’s how Sherlock sees it. And that’s how Sherlock wants it. He’s kind to Mary in 1895, they get along well. At the old church, they peer through one of the arches together while John stands at another — Sherlock stands with Mary, and they bounce off each other and off John, separately and together, and sometimes Sherlock replies to things that were directed at Mary. And not just because he’s not great about the details of emotion a lot of the time, but because, and this is the clincher: whatever John says to Mary, it could well be meant for Sherlock. And it would be true.
I thought I’d lost you. I thought perhaps we’d… neglected each other.
Well, you were the one who moved out.
It’s classic Holmes and Watson, and it shows that Sherlock is practically John’s second spouse.
But I digress.
The Great Love of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson
At the end, Sherlock is back at Reichenbach — the real waterfall, this time, and he’s losing. The Moriarty of his Mind Palace is, if that was possible, even more savage and ruthless than the real one. As Mycroft says: solitary confinement means locking Sherlock up with his own greatest enemy. So when Sherlock ventures so deep inside himself, he gets lost, and he may not get out. Moriarty’s his weakness, and Sherlock is still afraid of him. In dreams and Mind Palaces, anything’s possible. Even losing. Losing everything to Moriarty, after all.
But whenever Sherlock Holmes falls, John Watson will be there to catch him. Without fail and with a lot more ability than Sherlock may give him credit for.
That’s not fair, there’s two of you!
There’s always two of us.
And Sherlock, the Great Unfeeling Beast, smiles. Smiles the way he only does for John, knowing that as long as there’s breath in him, John will never leave him to fight his demons alone.²
That scene between them on the precipice is so gentle, so quiet — and when Sherlock goes quiet, it’s important. They’re so open with each other here, so honest and grounded in their understanding that, together, they can do anything. And this time, Sherlock is not alone before he falls.
Thank you, John.
Since when do you call me John?
That’s the other thing — when John nags Sherlock about needing someone, when he asks him, “Why do you need to be alone?” — that is Sherlock knowing that John worries about him. Perhaps his Mind Palace is the only place he can acknowledge this, and it’s a mark of how much this means to Sherlock that this exchange makes it into a fantasy, so to speak, that should serve only the purpose of solving the case. But it doesn’t, because John’s worried, he’s asking who made Sherlock this way — essentially, asking who he should kneecap for hurting Sherlock so badly that he locks himself away. And it’s Sherlock’s innermost answer that no-one has made him this way. He made himself.
That scene is also a fantastic mirror of a scene from The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, a movie Mark Gatiss has gone on record to say he absolutely loves because, in it,
The relationship between Sherlock and Watson is treated beautifully; Sherlock effectively falls in love with him in the film, but it’s so desperately unspoken. There’s an amazing scene where, to get out of a situation where a Russian ballerina wants Sherlock to father her child, he claims Watson and he are gay. Watson is outraged and, when he calms down, speaks of the women all over the world who could attest to his sexuality. He says to Sherlock, “You do too, don’t you?” Holmes is silent, and Watson says, “Am I being presumptuous? There have been women, haven’t there?” Holmes says, “The answer is yes – you are being presumptuous.” Sensational.
This is precisely what Watson’s asking. And Sherlock’s answer is precisely as evasive.
² What Sherlock also sees in his Mind Palace, however: John not taking his crap, and challenging him. He leaves the graveside, because he doesn’t agree with Sherlock digging up the body. So he leaves. It’s a mirror of him leaving Sherlock at St. Bart’s, it’s a mirror of his fury in The Empty Hearse. John leaving the grave doesn’t contradict his care for Sherlock. It accentuates it.
I’m taking Mary home.
Mary’s taking me home.
Victorian Sherlock’s a little less accessible, perhaps — made by propriety and manners, less by actual politeness. But John also frames the conversation he wants to have about Sherlock possibly fancying Irene Adler but still being alone as “perfectly normal.” So much for Victorian gentlemen never talk about their feelings. Sherlock is uncomfortable with emotions but doesn’t want to admit it, and it’s very well illustrated by him physically shifting in his seat as John asks him about it. That’s where Sherlock becomes a lot more accessible to us as viewers, because here the Sherlock we know through John, the Sherlock we know as we are inside his Mind Palace, and the Sherlock that the public (technically also meaning us) have been confronted with are overlaid; and we see that the images do not exactly match. The point is made that Sherlock has feelings, he is flesh and blood, and that there is more to the heart behind that mask than we can know. The Great Unfeeling Beast is as real John’s moustache (that he despises) and the deerstalker (that Sherlock hates wearing). (Moriarty even mentions Sidney Paget, if not by name, the illustrator who John and Sherlock have to thank for them.)
This creates a necessary distance between what we know as novel canon and what Moffat, Gatiss, and Thompson are building on Sherlock. It gives them leeway to interpret, to show us Sherlock’s heart, because there is no proof that it doesn’t exist. Only stories on a page.
It helps if I see myself through John’s eyes sometimes. I’m so much cleverer.
Visually and creatively, this journey back to 1895 was incredibly well done. Narratively, the whole thing holds up remarkably well, and it’s a nice touch that Sherlock gets flashes of Moriarty early on and then not for a while, that modern expressions and idioms creep into his conversation with Mycroft, that things turn to a dream-like state when the water in the painting of the Reichenbach Falls starts flowing; and when Baker Street starts to shake like it’s been hit by an earthquake because the possible return of Jim Moriarty is, quite literally, tearing Sherlock’s world apart.
Also, the case of the abominable bride is wonderfully Gothic — a specialty of Mark Gatiss’, as we know. The last thirty minutes probably could have done with one less “waking up,” but I still enjoyed Sherlock digging his way out of his Mind Palace/into Emelia’s grave immensely.
Next: The Six Thatchers.