I LOVE Sherlock. I love everything about it; the cast, the writing, the fab background shots of London. As someone who has read all of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories several times over, I love catching the references and feeling all smug and well-read and superior. So when I heard that there would be a special episode released on New Years Day, I immediately booked a flight home to London to ensure the optimum viewing experience. Oh, and see my family, I guess.
The bulk of Jan 1st was spent vanquishing my hangover in time for the main event, and by 9pm I had a pot of tea made and a tin of biscuits at the ready. The moment had arrived. And for the first few minutes I was…underwhelmed. I’m so familiar with the modern-day incarnations of John and Sherlock, that the 19th century Holmes and Watson seemed odd, jarring, like an old friend had suddenly acquired a foreign accent. Given the ingenuity with which Mark Gatiss and Stephen Moffat brought these well-loved characters into the 21st century, a slip back in time seemed a wasted opportunity. Oh, me of little faith.
Once I let go of my inflated expectations and just watched the damn thing, I began to see the little clues that all was not as it seemed. And of course it bloody wasn’t. This is Sherlock, after all. In an early scene the mysterious lady in the parlour of 221B Baker Street, concealed beneath the eerie black veil of a Victorian in mourning, turns out to be none other than Mrs. Watson. The episode is full of veils, disguises and duplicity, with the identity of even the familiar characters thrown into question as we veer between centuries.
Much has been made of the heavy-handed feminist-or-is-it? message woven into the plot, which sees a series of murders attributed to an underground cult of hooded suffragettes. The internet was quick to accuse Sherlock of ‘mansplaining’ as he stands before the assembly of feminists and speaks of the ‘invisible army hovering at our elbow, tending to our homes, raising our children, ignored, patronized, disregarded, not allowed so much as a vote. But an army nonetheless, ready to rise up in the best of causes, to put right an injustice as old as humanity itself.’ But let’s take a moment to recall what’s actually happening here. Firstly, Sherlock isn’t explaining feminism to the collected feminists; he’s doing what he does every episode. He’s explaining the situation to John Watson, the 19th century everyman to Holmes’ forward-thinking genius. The ending of the episode hammers the point home; Sherlock Holmes was a man ahead of his time, a thinker not willing to be confined by the narrow social and cultural expectations of the society he lives in. To Sherlock (and indeed, Mycroft), female equality is a given, a logical conclusion to an intellectual argument. To his peers in the 1890’s, this still required explaining. They could not know that in a couple of decades, this army would indeed ‘rise up in the best of causes’, manning the nurses’ stations and munitions factories of the First World War. And that this work, alongside their many other efforts, helped render them visible enough to win the vote.
In some ways I see this as the writers wrestling with the constraints of their source material. As written by Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes is a man in a man’s world – if they stick to the original, there are few primary female characters. Irene Adler is an exception, a mind to rival Holmes’, but she must work within the constraints of her gender, using her sexuality alongside her intellect to achieve her aims. The modern retelling certainly develops female characters further where possible; Mary Watson is far from the footnote of the books, killed off when it became clear she might cut into John’s crime fighting time. An updated setting allows the women in Sherlock’s world far greater freedoms than their 19th century counterparts could have dreamed of. This episode nods to this in Mary’s complaints about being abandoned by her husband, Mrs. Hudson’s observations on her lack of lines, and of course Molly Hooper having to don a fake moustache in order to be a scientist in the 1890’s. Yet despite these constraints, they are active participants – albeit in a slightly creepy/evil way.
The second point we ought to consider, is that at this point in the episode we are actually inside Sherlock’s mind palace. When he’s explaining the solution to John, he’s really explaining it to himself. That was the purpose of this whole crazy ride in the first place. But why does Sherlock suddenly need to think about women? About a large but overlooked section of society, hiding in plain sight, exercising power though many believe them to have none? We know who all this is for, who is at the heart of this story Sherlock tells himself; Moriarty. Like the Abominable Bride, he is dead but not dead. When Emilia Ricoletti was shot in the head, she ceased to exist; but she lived on through the other members of her group, who were able to assume her identity whenever required. Before Moriarty revealed himself to Sherlock, he too existed only through his followers: what Victorian Holmes would call the ‘criminal classes’, numerous but with no social standing, overlooked by most and thus nearly undetectable. The ability to hide in plain sight is an obsession of Holmes’ in the original books, as well as these episodes; he makes use of his ‘Baker Street Irregulars’ to bring him information, beggars and the homeless who everyone overlooks. When he wants to hide Sherlock disguises himself; as a beggar, as a waiter, as somebody nobody thinks to look at, Think all the way back to ‘A Study in Pink’, and what Sherlock says about the murderous cab driver: ‘Who do we trust, even though we don’t know them? Who passes unnoticed wherever they go? Who hunts in the middle of a crowd?’ Are Moriarty’s followers not another ‘invisible army hovering at our elbow’? The difference is that the hooded ladies in this episode look sinister, they in fact seek the justice denied to them, whereas Sherlock’s enemies look to subvert justice through any means available to them.
Thus Sherlock solves the puzzle he has set himself; how can Moriarty still be committing crimes from beyond the grave? Even without its figurehead, Moriarty’s organization lives on, which goes some way to explaining the events of Series 3. Though seemingly unrelated, the crimes target those closest to Sherlock and John; even the seemingly generic threat to the Houses of Parliament in ‘The Empty Hearse’ links back to Mycroft, who at times ‘is the British Government.’ And in doing so, he also solves his existential struggle, for as this episode states, there can be no Sherlock Holmes without Moriarty. There is a reason that Conan Doyle sent them tumbling over the Reichenbach Falls together: what use is the great detective without the master criminal? The Abominable Bride argues that, though Moriarty is physically dead, as long as there are criminals willing to work for his cause, his spirit lives on. And these criminals are everyday people, people nobody even looks at; they hide in plain sight, blending in to the crowd. Only the keenest of observers, with an understanding of disguise will be able to single them out. There will always be work for Sherlock Holmes…so, roll on Season 4!