This year’s long awaited Sherlock special “The Abominable Bride” was uniquely singular in that it was rife with new information and discoveries whilst adding almost nothing to the plot progression. Now, this may be a bit of an overstatement if the clues we uncover in the special have repercussions in later episodes (namely Sherlock’s drug problem & some unsettling hints concerning Mycroft), but for now we have returned to the stasis we had been in since series 3 came to an end.
If anything, the New Year’s Day special provided some unbeknownst character detail, leaving viewers with a wealth of new characterization tidbits if not major plot movement. We learned quite a few truths and were able to formulate dozens of theories concerning our favorites.
Here are five things we picked up on from Saturday’s episode.
Sherlock doesn’t have a very high opinion of himself or his abilities…
This episode really drives home the idea that Sherlock suffers from cripplingly low self-esteem and holds himself in rather deep loathing.
In his Mind Palace, Sherlock is the slow one. He’s clever yet always behind, lacks the compassion of John and Lestrade, misses obvious observations, and spews quite a bit of self-hating ideology. The Mind Palace is not a place where Sherlock’s intellect reigns supreme; on the contrary, he constantly puts himself and his skills down throughout his tenure in the MP.
But he does highly respect the people around him.
Mycroft often quips that he is the smarter of the two brothers, much to present-day Sherlock’s chagrin. But in the Victorian era, Holmes not only openly admits to Mycroft’s superiority but also acquiesces to heavy self-criticism about his own inadequateness.
Lestrade, despite several comments stemming from Holmes’ frustration, is treated with a higher degree of competency in the MP. Holmes expects Lestrade to follow along and reach certain conclusions because he feels Lestrade is qualified to the task. He doesn’t waste time spelling things out to the exasperated detective since he trusts that Lestrade is clever enough to figure out the solution, if not quite as quickly as Holmes himself.
Likewise, in his Mind Palace, Molly Hooper is capable of not only assuming an alternate identity in order to pursue a career in the field she’s passionate about but also of disguising her true self so convincingly that Holmes himself remains fooled.
And John. John not only is credited with being able to see through Molly’s disguise (and exhibit a wider understanding of the female sex in general). MP John fearlessly continues to call him on his nonsense, fight back against his more absurd notions, and take pride in his own reasoning skills. In fact, Watson is constantly observing and making deductions, and while Holmes continues to make degrading quips concerning his talent and perception, Watson is clearly represented as perfectly capable and rather apt at drawing his own conclusions.
Moffat probably thinks his “suffragette subplot” was inclusive & contented the female masses.
In a way, the whole suffragette conspiracy ring in Sherlock’s Mind Palace worked. Entertaining a plot about a mysterious gathering of women determined to take their fate into their own hands can be seen as a Holmesian reaction, since canonically Holmes held women in high regard while remaining uneducated and unexperienced with the female sex. He differentiates between his ability to read women and men, claiming that women’s motives are more elusive, which makes their appearance in his mind a little more explicable. He also had a tendency to turn a blind eye towards those women who do take control of their lives and eliminate the source of their misfortune, admitting defeat in a memorable case instead of turning in the vengeful woman.
This does not change the emptiness of the suffragette subplot within the narrative of the episode. It does not magically prove that Moffat is capable of writing women or sympathetic to any struggles women face. It serves to highlight Sherlock’s own confusing emotions about women, acknowledging how he views them with both respect and mystery. It does not actually have any impact on the story nor does it change the attitude with which the show approaches women. Go figure–an episode supposedly centered around the feminist struggle still manages to both fade away into irrelevancy when the Moriarty drug-fueled plot kicks in AND fail The Bechdel Test.
Though highly uncomfortable with it, Sherlock desperately wants to have a conversation about his sexuality with John.
Discussing his record and sexuality with John has nothing to do with figuring out how Moriarty could survive a gunshot wound through the back of the skull. It’s a jarring moment in an otherwise heavily case-centric trip, so the inclusion suggests a prevailing importance even when Sherlock should be completely occupied in the task at hand. And yet.
Remember, the entire awkwardly entertaining exchange between Watson and Holmes in the greenhouse is part of Sherlock’s imagining. Watson’s probing questions are subconscious bits of information that are completely unnecessary to the case at hand yet a very prominent moment in his Mind Palace. John pushing past the view that Sherlock is simply a calculating machine and pressing Sherlock to open up on his feelings and experiences in the MP reflects this subconscious desire to engage in an open communication with John in the outside world.
Sherlock’s drug addiction is ongoing, Mycroft knows, and there exists a system between the Holmes brothers.
Mycroft’s borderline obsessive love for his brother shines through valiantly in this episode. We also get a firsthand look at the highs the brothers have ridden out together, including one of Sherlock’s infamous overdoses. Mycroft sits patiently at his brother’s side as viewers come to deduce that stopping Sherlock’s drug habit was not on the table for Mycroft, who instead settled for monitoring his activity. We can also deduce that he keeps careful track, as it seems that Mycroft’s notebook is filled with Sherlock’s lists, codewords (Redbeard), and other notes concerning Sherlock’s well-being.
The confrontation of Sherlock’s drug habit gives us a pretty little 7% solution tie-in back in the Victorian Era, but it also explains to viewers another piece of why Mycroft is so concerned about his brother. He makes a lot of heavy-hearted promises that he’ll always be there, and presses the responsibility on to John with urgency. While this is nothing new, since Mycroft and John too have a system for dealing with Sherlock, the special had a more serious tone that hinted at a potentially bleak future for the elder Holmes.
It’s also highly likely that Sherlock had taken enough drugs to overdose before boarding the plane, before he knew of Moriarty’s return. Should this be the case, he had no higher motive for usage and possibly no expectation of surviving the trip. As they found him, Sherlock was mid-high and reflecting on his and John’s meeting via blog posts, which is tragic enough to think about for the next few weeks, thank you very much.
Countless other topics are ripe for the discussion as of Saturday’s airing, and we haven’t even touched upon several big ones yet–Moriarty, Mycroft, Mary! Events have been set in motion, and much remains to discover. In a decade or so, that is, when Sherlock finally returns.