Previously on Sherlock: The Abominable Bride.
Let’s get one thing out of the way first. If this episode felt off, wrong, out of whack, off kilter, and very much disjointed and uncomfortable — that’s because the writers want you to feel that way.
What is wrong with Sherlock?
Sherlock is an unreliable narrator, and this is how unreliable narrators make us feel. A staple of the crime (and horror) genre, the unreliable narrator makes the reader and viewer feel as uncomfortable as their protagonist, questioning what they know and second-guessing their assumptions. (Agatha Christie was a master at this.) Details in flashbacks don’t match up, voices and images are distorted, we see and hear things that don’t make any sense.
Series 1 and 2 were told from John’s POV, he was our focal character. There was rarely a scene with Sherlock that he wasn’t in, and even if there was, Sherlock ended up telling him about it — we know, because it’s in the blog; and that is why we saw those scenes in the episodes in the first place. The rule was: if it’s in the episode, it’s in John’s blog post, and so we get to see it even if John isn’t in the scene. The first shift we felt came in The Reichenbach Fall, when for the first time we shared a secret with Sherlock, for the first time, we knew something John didn’t, we knew that Sherlock was alive. And that marked the shift in focal character that segued into Series 3. We started that series with Sherlock, not with John; we watched the reunion through Sherlock’s eyes, not John’s. And then they really amped that up in The Abominable Bride, with the entire episode happening in Sherlock’s Mind Palace/dreamscape/near-OD. This told us that nothing we saw could be trusted.
John as a focal character was safe, he could be trusted. Sherlock, frightened and possibly dying (or at least believing he’s going to his death), really can’t.
Whether this means that Sherlock is in a coma, dreaming, in his Mind Palace trying to solve a puzzle, or just telling all of this to Ella in an Iron Man 3 kind of twist (albeit unlikely), what we see isn’t reality. Or at least not reality-only.
- We hear water where there is none in the scene.
- Sherlock’s face is superimposed with a sliver of a Thatcher bust that crumbles when his focus is pulled back into the scene.
- Water is being vividly and explicitly connected to death — we see the fish at the aquarium long before the final scene, with voice-over from Sherlock telling us the story about the merchant who had an appointment with Death — in Samara. We’ve never had voice over like that before, either.
Pay attention. Everything’s important, in a sense, but if it’s weird or out of character, it’s definitely important.
If things feel disjointed, that’s because they are. Memories don’t run like a movie, they jump and they skip and you go back to things trying to make sense of them. And in Sherlock’s case, distorted audio, video, and seeing and hearing things that aren’t there… he’s either really high as a kite, or he’s dying. (Or both.) In any case, he’s frightened.
Those aren’t just whacky directorial choices by Rachel Talalay (who did terrific work on this episode) — this is supposed to feel absurd, because it isn’t real.
So, following on from what I said at the beginning: if not all of this is real, then we can take nothing that we see at face-value. None of it. Everything we see can be turned on its head, everything has a flip side and we can’t be sure what characters are really thinking, or what their true motives are (John’s grief). Of everything we see, the opposite may be true even if the characters, in the moment, believe it to be otherwise (Mary loving John, Mary being dead, John cheating), and none of it may be what it seems. And thus, I will present different and contradicting interpretations in this review, based on different and contradicting theories. If you choose to change your interpretation of just one piece of the puzzle, the entire picture will change with it. And so, there’s different reasons and outcomes for a lot of what the characters do in this episode, and I’ll try and present them as coherently and cohesively as I can.
It’s All About Love
If Series 1 and 2 showed us John’s heart, then Series 3, TAB, and 4 are showing us Sherlock’s soul. We know this.
We also know that love will be a recurring motif. It’s not ammo, it’s amo, Latin for “I love.” And we know from the trailer that Sherlock does say, “I love you,” at one point. Whether it’s an answer to a question or a declaration or a realisation, we can’t know. But this wasn’t the last time we’ll have heard about love.
What really gets me about this episode is that Sherlock’s reactions, through it all, seem genuine. We understand him better than the rest of them this time, whereas before Sherlock was the mystery John was trying to puzzle out. Sherlock is consistent, and as the cast said in interviews, “less of a dick.” He’s warmer, gentler, less abrasive. He’s still an arsehole, but aside from the flub about the
daughter son, what he said to the couple who’d lost their son was… appropriate. And respectful, even bordering on kind. He agrees with Mary that only “most people” are stupid, and he’s really cute with Rosamund. He has a photo (or possibly about a dozen) of Rosie on his phone, and shows them to Mycroft — and even Sherlock’s surprised that all his brother can manage is “she seems… fully functional.” Sherlock loves that kid, man.
“If you want to keep the rattle, do not throw the rattle.” (Doink, the rattle says as it impacts Sherlock’s impressive nose.)
Moreover, he’s happy. He smiles, he laughs, and both times it’s because of Mary. He wants to protect her, he promises to slay dragons (a thing said about Sherlock that pops up in Series 2, 3, and now 4; along with Mycroft repeating what he once said to John about Sherlock wanting to become a pirate as a small boy — we even see a flashback to their childhood, Sherlock and Mycroft playing pirates) for her and John, he made a vow. And he intents to keep it. He tells AJ as much.
“She’s my friend. She’s under my protection.”
When John and Mary have their heart-to-heart in Morocco, they don’t ask Sherlock to leave the room. He fades into the background until you notice him, sure, but he’s there. He belongs with them, he has a right to be there. This is a departure from The Abominable Bride, where Sherlock thinks they see him as an intrusion on their relationship, but the opposite is true. They pass out on the settee in 221B and Sherlock watches Rosie — they trust him with a baby. Sherlock and Mary banter like they’ve never done anything else. He holds out his hand without looking, knowing she’s going to hand him a gun. They’re as in sync in Morocco as he and John ever were when in danger. I know a lot of folks aren’t going to want to hear this, but this looks and feels like an OT3. Like they’re a triad. Whether Mary turns out to be Moriarty’s right hand or not, this seems to be what Sherlock truly believes, at least for a time, otherwise those things wouldn’t be in there. Some of these assumptions will be exposed to be lies, but it’s incredibly difficult to predict which ones.
“I know, but your face!”
“Come home and everything will be alright, I promise you.”
That’s not just the husband’s best friend asking. That’s the exhausted, tired, worried third of a triad asking Mary to come home.
Sherlock is willing to call in ALL the favours he still has with Mycroft and, by extension, the intelligence community to keep Mary safe. He’s willing to help a woman he, subconsciously, still doesn’t entirely trust.
“Is that sentiment talking?”
“No. It’s me.”
“It’s hard to tell the difference these days.”
“I told you, I made a promise. A vow.” … “Not on my watch.”
Mary writes, in her letter, “I don’t want you and Sherlock hanging off my gun arm.” Not “you and Rosie.” You and Sherlock.
And when Mary dies, she dies for Sherlock, and he’s fighting not to cry. When John looks at him with such… hatred in his eyes, Sherlock’s frightened. He looks devastated, like someone’s pulled the rug out from under him. Like his “whole world’s come crashing down” around him. Ella’s words. John and Mary were his whole world, and now she’s dead and John wants nothing to do with him. Blames him — and Sherlock blames himself. He makes Mrs Hudson swear that she’ll remind him of this day whenever he gets too arrogant, or cocky. He feels he shouldn’t have asked Mary along, feels he should have gone alone.
He feels he should have died.
But Mary wasn’t going to let her past take Sherlock away from John for good, and so she took that bullet.
Or did she?
The prevailing theory in fandom has been and still is that Mary is working for Moriarty. The two are definitely intertwined, as every time Sherlock is sure the game is back on, the game leads him to Mary, instead. And I’m certain that Moriarty had his fingers in the Georgia/embassy hostage situation pie. Vivien, when Sherlock asks her why, says, “Why does anyone do anything?” Which is one of the lines Moriarty once fed one of the bomb vest victims, too. Vivien is also the mirror of the cabbie from A Study in Pink. She’s invisible, but cleverer than them all. The cabbie, too, told Sherlock that, to his passengers, he’s “just the back of an ‘ead.” This thing has Jim Moriarty written all over it.
If Sherlock believed himself to be part of a triad, of a family — when one part of that triad has been working for Moriarty all along… then that would be devastating. Sherlock would have been the victim of a huge, huge lie. In Series 3, he had doubts about Mary, but he repressed them, for John’s sake. He didn’t act on his intuition, and he was surprised when Mary shot him. She calls attention to this too, as she dies, telling him she’s sorry for that one.
“Fresh paint to disguise another smell,” is something that floats on the screen during the scene at John and Mary’s house, where they ask Molly and Mrs Hudson (and Sherlock) to be the baby’s godparents. Something’s majorly UP with Mary, but what?
The End of a Triad
As I wrote earlier, Sherlock seems genuine. Mary seems consistent in leading a “normal life.” John is the one acting really, really fucking weird.
No, seriously. I said earlier that Sherlock used to be the puzzle John was trying to solve, but this time it’s the other way around. John is acting utterly strange.
For a start, Five Continents Watson strikes again — which is my fannish way of saying that John is suddenly back to flirting with anyone female that looks at him sideways. We see John contemplating (and possibly following through) cheating on Mary (and Sherlock) with a strange woman off a bus.
This might be true. It might not. The scenes where we see John do all this are cross-cut with the accusations levelled against Lady Smallwood. She refutes these by telling Mycroft that she didn’t do one of the things he accuses her of. “Not one.” Things are being repeated weirdly often in this episode, this is one example of many, with emphasis that is either telling us something or leading us on a wild goose chase. Her insistence on “not one,” follows directly after we see John smiling at “E” after meeting her again at the bus stop, after telling her that this (whatever this is) can’t go any further because he’s “not free.”
(At that bus stop, we also see the first glimpse of this series’ new villain, Toby Jones as Culverton Smith.)
So, could this be telling us that John isn’t doing what we think he’s doing?
The only scenes Sherlock is not in in this episode are the ones with Mary, John, and him possibly cheating. If we follow our “if it’s in the episode, it’s because the focal character knows about it” rule that I established earlier, then we are seeing this because Sherlock knows about it. You see, I was asking myself after those scenes: how does John keep something like that from Sherlock? Sherlock, who’s told so many husbands and wives that their spouses are cheating, now get out, over the course of three series and a special. Sherlock knows everything about this man, how would he expect to keep this a secret? Granted, Sherlock didn’t notice he’s been talking to a balloon, but that’s the domestic stuff.
I agree that the evidence is damning at this point, and I would HATE John for even contemplating cheating on his wife, and I would hate such a storyline. But John Hamish Watson is a man of his word. We knows this, we’ve seen this. Mary calls him, “handy and loyal.” And certainly, John’s insistence that he’s not a good man, not a perfect husband, and the attempt he made to tell Mary something important before Sherlock calls them to his side, point to a guilty conscience. And I can’t think of an explanation other than cheating right now. The evidence is damning, but Moriarty once built a damning case against Sherlock Holmes, too, and we believed in him then. I’m not sure giving John the benefit of the doubt is the right thing to do here, but I’m not sure of anything right about now.
John is an army doctor. He has dealt with hundreds of bullet wounds to the gut in Afghanistan. John “Save the Life” Watson does not even attempt to help Mary. He could bark orders to fetch something to stem the bleeding, to get Mary into a position that will delay her blood loss. He does nothing but press his hand to the wound. We saw him barking “nurse” at Sherlock once, but here… nothing. He told people to let him through, “I’m a doctor,” after he watched Sherlock plunge off the roof of St. Bart’s, with an even slimmer chance of survival. But now: nothing.
John also grieves differently. He doesn’t scream like this, he goes catatonic. He goes still, he goes numb, and he shuts down.
Multiple possible outcomes:
A) So either it’s Sherlock’s memory screwing with us because we’re not seeing the real John, but it’s Sherlock showing us the pain and anger John is keeping bottled up at all times. What we are seeing could simply be a distortion of reality because this is how Sherlock knows what John feels.
B) Or John is putting on a show. Mary isn’t dead, she’s faking, and John is helping her pull it off. He whispered something in her ear, but it’s inaudible to us. This would be the ultimate deception — John turning around and pulling the same trick on Sherlock that Sherlock once pulled on him. Getting this past Sherlock… it would decry the “you know I value your small contributions,” at the beginning (with the balloon substitute). It would fit with John chiming in that the tracker on the memory stick was his idea. → See Outcome C-1 under Mary, the One with Her Face Half in Shadow.
C) Or John is just finally going off the deep end. Considering his wife just died, it would be plausible. Perhaps, after everything he’s been through, his reaction to death has changed, and maybe I’m just overthinking all of it. (Ahahahahahaha.)
But also: he clenches his left fist when he’s alone at the house, which is always his tell just before the limp comes back. The limp comes back when he’s alone after losing Sherlock. We know this, we’ve seen this. But they didn’t play his soundtrack cue for PTSD. When John lost Sherlock, his theme reverted back to “War.” (Listen to it on YouTube.) It did not do that this time, suggesting that he isn’t actually grieving. Which would point to outcome B). John and Mary also debated calling Mrs Hudson to watch Rosie before settling on Molly. It’s a protracted scene that doesn’t fit with the rest of it, so there’s got to be a point there.
Molly helped Sherlock fake his death.
Molly gives Sherlock a note from John. We never see him read it.
And now, Sherlock is in therapy because he doesn’t know what to do about John. In therapy. Never thought I’d write that down. (Ella’s got to have had a heart attack and a half when he turned up.)
Mary, the One with Her Face Half in Shadow
It has been suggested that Mary is still leading a double life. Where John is shown to be hiding something and Sherlock is having hallucinations interrupt his reality, Mary is… surprisingly one-dimensional. She’s lovely, and an attentive mother, and all she wants is a normal life. It’s repeated over and over again. She’s just a civilian now, a normal person, a mother and a wife. Except she’s also still an agent through and through, which is why she flees rather than remain in London.
If Mary is working for Moriarty, as I said, then Sherlock’s been the victim of a huge lie, and one that he’s being shown to believe, perhaps despite his intuitions to the contrary. If Mary is working for Moriarty as John’s monitor (as he would expect that Sherlock might fake his death and then come back for John one day), then she’s playing the ultimate long con — and going the extra mile, too, in having a baby in order not to lose John when Sherlock comes back and finds out the truth about her.
She says, in the video, that putting “Miss me?” on the disc was her way of getting Sherlock’s attention. But is that all? As I said, everything that Sherlock thinks will lead him to Moriarty leads him to Mary, instead.
Question: why would she send Sherlock a video telling him to save John Watson — and then tell him to go to hell?
Go to Hell, Sherlock
Again, multiple possible outcomes:
A) It’s not real. It’s a distortion, a figment of Sherlock’s hallucinations and his fear. Speculation is that he’s been dosed with something potent.
B) It is real, and it means that Mary hates him. Simple as that. It could be an Easter egg, perhaps the original video has a mysterious run time of, like, ten hours and Sherlock watches it all, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Mary wouldn’t put this in the video somewhere where other people might see it (like Mrs Hudson). It was all a con, and Mary went off alone in order to find AJ and kill him to keep her secrets safe.
C) It is real, but it’s a line that Moriarty fed her. He’s been known to do that.
C-1) If the line is real, and it means to go to hell, but Mary didn’t want to say it — she could be faking her death in order to get away from Moriarty. And in order to protect Sherlock, John is pushing him away, to make it look like Sherlock’s all alone now. Yes, this is putting Sherlock in a very vulnerable position, but it’s a risk John would be willing to take, if desperate. (It would also add another dimension to Mary and the baby. Perhaps it wasn’t a ploy, perhaps she really did love John.) To be honest, I don’t want to believe that everything Mary did — save John after losing Sherlock, having a baby, reacting the way she did when she learnt AJ was alive — was one big, fat lie.
D) This is an interpretation courtesy of my dear friend Inkie, who suggested that it might not be “go to hell” as in “I hate you,” but as in “you gotta go where you don’t want to” in order to save John. As in, “when you’re going through hell, keep going.” Whether hell is something Mary wants him to go through or needs him to go through in order to save John (from himself) is up for debate at this point.
E) Or… there is, quite simply, a place on Earth called Hell. (Google Maps link)
The question is: can Samara be avoided? That’s the question Sherlock is asking himself. He’s already had one close call today, and we know from the trailer that someone who looks a lot like John will be standing at the foot of a hospital bed at some point. What if Sherlock’s been shot, been killed, and this is his last hurrah? What if this is him trying to solve the mystery just before it’s too late?
Next: The Lying Detective.