Sherlock: The Abominable Episode

After a two year break, Sherlock was back on TV on Friday night, for a one-off ‘period’ special. I want to state, before I get started, that I have been an enormous Sherlock fan in my day. I’m talking fanfiction-writing (eep), theory-making, london-visiting, Moffat-forgiving levels of fandom.

Sherlock was the first show I reviewed when I started my brief student job reviewing pop culture for CultBox, which has blossomed in my absence* into a really reputable, entertaining website.

I went in with high hopes. Like many, I’d felt a dip in quality in the third series, but I’d enjoyed Mary Watson as a character and John’s grudging acceptance that he’s fundamentally attracted to dangerous, dark people. I also found that it improved on the second watch.

I didn’t go into this show wanting to be mean spirited or critical: I wanted to enjoy something that I love. That’s why, when it was the worst thing I’d seen since that lesbian on call the midwife got run over and forgot she was gay**, I was irate. Twitter was my only salvation, and I plunged into its caustic arms like Holmes into Reichenbach. I will be illustrating this piece with some of my favorite Sherlock-related tweets from the live broadcast, so this post is very nearly interactive.

Before we start, I want to also state that I have been very critical of some aspects of Sherlock previously, including, but not limited to: attitudes to class, attitudes to race, overwhelming maleness, attitudes to ability, queerbaiting and the suggestion that men who need to share the rent could afford daily taxi cabs in central London. For an excellent, beautifully written exploration of some of the toxic attitudes inherent in Sherlock, I urge you to head to Magnetic_Pole’s piece ‘Neoliberal Holmes‘. Go on, I’ll wait.

My Mission: I am going to relive the worst 90 minutes of my life, kind of like exposure therapy, and write about exactly what it is in each scene that delights (rare) or enrages (disappointingly frequent) me in each scene. It’s going to be long, it’s going to be annoying, it’s going to leave me unsatisfied, but frankly, I know how to deal with that. After all, I’ve dated writers.

Follow me into this carnival of tears below the break:


In Which My Journey Begins:

I just microwaved some leftover mulled wine and I can’t think of anything more appropriate for this period*** monstrosity than the faux-festivity of nuked aldi slop, to be honest.

iPlayer tells me the episode ‘contains some scenes which some viewers may find upsetting’. Not half.

Flashbacks of some men: I still find the theme music exciting. Why did they choose to start by showing us clips of when the show was good? It’s like putting photos of when you were cuter on Tinder – it’s just setting everyone up for a fall.

This section of the show is pretty much A Study in Pink but olde worlde. Please see this tweet:

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Man beats corpse: Why is Victorian Sherlock such a charisma vacuum but modern Sherlock is genuinely attractive? Wigs are powerful things.

Man shouts about The Strand: This is one of the things I loved about the episode. I like seeing how they interact with the publication of the stories, and the later exploration of how Holmes is different to his fictional portrayal. I especially like it with regard to how Sherlock  sees himself, given we’re inside his brain this whole time. Does it mean he sees himself as a kinder man than he seems to be on the surface? Am I giving Moffat too much credit?

Man shushes woman: I’m not sure I like the jokes about Mrs Hudson not enjoying the stories because she never speaks in them. On one hand, I’m glad they addressed that as one of the few female characters, she pretty much only fetches tea and provides the scriptwriters with someone to endanger, but it feels too easy. Like acknowledging a problem without changing it. This reminds me a lot of when Girls addressed their racist casting by giving Hannah a black boyfriend for two episodes.

Although, if we’re in Sherlock’s head, does this mean he personally feels she’s smarter than he lets her be? More on Sherlock’s subconscious and women later.

Two men are in some rooms: It’s faintly embarrassing how the camera is zooming in on objects in Sherlock’s rooms to show that they’re older versions of things in the modern flat. It’s like when I make a joke and haven’t received enough praise for it so I say “I just did a joke then”. Remember when Sherlock was subtle?

Anyway, Mary’s here, all disguised and full of clumsy foreshadowing. The mysterious veiled figure is just an everyday woman? A wife, a mother? Hmmmmm.

Man goes deep: Second time round, it’s pretty obvious that this unconnected, faux philosophical ramble is Sherlock’s psyche talking about his inception-style adventures, but I’m so used to his dialogue being needlessly wanky that I completely missed it on the first watch.

Man is grumpy: I must admit, I did like the “Thank God that’s over” after all the Merry Christmasses.

Oh fuck: I’m not even 15 minutes in to this and I’ve written so much. And I’m whinging about this episode being overlong. The bride is onscreen now, giving rise to this tweet, which came while we were all still hopeful that the episode might be enjoyable:

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A man talks about blowing: Remember when an English character said ‘cellphone’ in The Hounds of Baskerville and it annoyed everyone until it turned out to be a clue? I really liked that Sherlock saying “blows her own brains out” was sort of the same thing here – it’s anachronism, a clue that we’re maybe not seeing the whole picture yet. Also, I immediately tweeted that I thought this would tell us what happened to Moriarty, thus falling for the world’s reddest herring.

What a fool. To be fair to me, immediately after this I tweeted that this episode was shit, so maybe I was hoping for Moriarty to turn up and save me.

A man is shot: This is genuinely lovely, creepy stuff with the bride. I will say that her strange, sexy flirting and demeanor reflects really poorly on how Sherlock sees women. But Mary’s a suffragette, so it doesn’t matter that women who aren’t complete harpies get very little screen time.

A man is…a woman: I quite liked Molly in drag, although others disagreed:

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At first I couldn’t tell if they just had the actress playing a male character, or a female character dressed as a man to get by, so it was quite the wild gender ride for a few minutes there. I do love the noise Watson makes before he says “a secret twin”, though.

A man rings a bell: Victorian John is such an awful monster to women! He treats Mary poorly, and he’s so mean to his maid. It makes me hate him. I think this might be the writers trying to make some kind of ‘point’ about gender. “Why do you never mention me, sir?” – get it, guys? Women are sidelined in media, and mentioning it is easier than doing anything about it.

A man says ‘potato’: This signing joke isn’t offensive, it’s just bad. Sherlock has always had an element of wry humour that makes you chuckle a bit, but this special seems to be going for much less subtle jokes, to the detriment of its dark tone.

A man eats puddings: Oh, we’ve arrived at fat Mycroft! Here’s the thing: this is the point where the episode died for me. It’s a point of shitness that’s hard to come back from. Fat suits are fundamentally unfunny, even if you put aside any notions of political correctness and just focus on the joke. The whole point is “this person has a different body than normal”. It’s like when a cis man puts on a dress, and that’s the whole punchline, that they temporarily look like a slightly less acceptable member of society. It’s lazy humour, which is why Big Momma’s House, which has both fat suits and men in dresses, is such a remarkable stain on humanity. Before anyone comes for me: I know about Mycroft’s body in the original stories. I know that this is Sherlock projecting an unkind image on his brother. But it still came out of the brain and pen of a BBC writer. And it’s shit.

The jokes about how  Mycroft will die soon due to his weight actually made me incredibly uncomfortable. It’s just… fundamentally unfunny and very callous. And very poorly judged. This is the low point of the episode, without a doubt. I can’t even be funny about it.

A man talks about death: This bit with the fancy couple is really boring, by which I mean it’s actually quite good, and therefore I don’t have anything to be mad about. It’s just a bit of a fun, festive ghostly tale. The best bits of this episode, so far, don’t feature Sherlock, which is a fundamental problem on a show so deeply in love with him.

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A man’s hand appears: One thing that pissed me off (I was already so enraged by this stage that my mother had to pretend to be enjoying the episode to calm me down) was how much effort went into the naff transitions between scenes, such as the maze turning into Sherlock’s hand here. It’s style over substance in a way that Sherlock just shouldn’t be – it really needs to have both, as it once did in spades.

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Two men are in a shed: I like this conversation between the two, mostly because it’s in Sherlock’s head. It shows us that he sees himself as a more caring, emotional human being than we ever normally see. This episode would have been so much more interesting if we’d known the exact setup from the start, and enjoyed a romp through Holmes’ subconscious aware of the import of everything being said.

A man lights a match: I find it incredibly embarrassing when people in fiction set in the past say things like “after all, it is the 19th century”. It’s like a horrible wink at the audience from an unfunny uncle. It’s not writing that belongs in Sherlock, formerly one of the sharpest shows on telly.

A man is missed: “Pure reason toppled by melodrama – your life in a nutshell” is a great line, though, isn’t it? I think at this point we all do miss Moriarty, as well. The show has settled into a lull of being passably entertaining without being offensive or bad, so I have nothing more to say for now. Trust me that it won’t stay this way.

Manachronism: I have to say, it’s so obvious that Sherlock is dreaming or hallucinating this reality that the mean spirited tweets about people being too stupid to understand it just don’t make sense. As if there’s no other reason somebody wouldn’t enjoy this smug, self indulgent tat.

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Luckily, because of the line breaks this looks like a shit poem, making it really easy to make fun of.

A dead man walks: Andrew Scott arriving is like water in the desert. Not just because he is incredibly charismatic, not only because it’s the only genuine tension or excitement so far this episode, but because the writing becomes so much sharper. You can feel everything speeding up, getting slicker and darker and more Sherlock. This is what they’re good at, and I wish they’d given us more of it. (True to my name, I’m a diehard Moriarty stan and would have probably enjoyed a solo Christmas spin off no matter how awful the writing).

He’s the king of innuendos. And he cracks his neck like the world’s most attractive snake. He’s flirting and telling Sherlock he likes the manly smell of the rooms and the softness of his bed, and I’m not going to go all Livejournal on this but this is really interesting with regards to how Sherlock perceives Moriarty. And how the writers literally cannot resist queerbaiting.

The monologue about the skin is the best writing in the show. The interaction between those two is the most believable, dynamic dialogue. BRING BACK MORIARTY 2K16.

A man wakes up on a plane: I truly could not have been happier when the plane landed and we were back in the modern day. Mostly because Benedict Cumberbatch got his Sherlock hair back (which apparently is a wig these days).

He’s all drugged and mumbling and we’re about 30 minutes after the end of the third series. Mycroft makes an OCD joke, which is never ever funny and which you’d think would be too obvious and inaccurate for a Holmes anyway. How hard would it be for the writers to just not do this?

A man’s mind is his palace: Listen lads, mind palaces are not computer simulations for your brain. It’s literally just a way to visualise the way information is stored in there, to try and keep it organised and to have a more mentally visual way to recall memory. It’s also know as the Method of loci and can almost definitely not take you back in time. I’m so glad Mycroft called bullshit on this.

The drugs are something I’m really pleased about. In the third season when Sherlock used, it annoyed me that he didn’t seem to be a habitual user or an addict, because no matter how smart you are, you can’t just decide not to be addicted to the smack you’re on, and to suggest so is an insult to everyone who suffers with addiction. Seeing the real consequences and safeguards around his using is something I’d love to carry on to season 4 – something not unlikely, given Moffat’s assurance that next season will be darker, and about ‘consequences’.

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A man talks about yapping: Mary remains the light in the darkness. I’m sure she’s problematic if you squint but she’s funny and clever and competent and I love her.

This is where the episode really prospers. How wonderful would the episode have been if we’d got to the plane scene fifteen minutes in and spent the whole episode like this? Very, is what I’m suggesting.

Two men enter a church: This is where the episode hits peak exasperation. It’s not quite as eye-gougingly awful as fat Mycroft, but as the resolution to the main plot of the episode, it’s pretty terrible.

After allowing us to enjoy the episode for ten straight minutes, the writers are now treating us to a lecture on feminism from an arrogant white man. All those murders? Women killing their romantic partners for treating them poorly, because that is exactly what we fought and died for.

That is the Suffragette movement – not trying to gain, oh, suffrage, but killing men who piss us off. Moffat clearly saw someone with a ‘Male Tears‘ mug on Tumblr once and never got over the shock.

The problem is, it’s hard to tell if this episode is for or against the Suffragist plan. On one hand, the male characters seems to genuinely understand and care about the inequality in society and realise that change needs to come. On the other, the women are dressed up as gay klansmen and literally murder the participants in their failed romances.

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I struggled to understand the motive in writing this. Was it, as I suspect, Moffat trying to fix his reputation as a misogynist? He’s long been under fire for his inability to write women and churlish response to this criticism – is this him trying to do something So Feminist that he’ll never be called a sexist again?

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I fear it is, and it comes just after the strongest part of the episode, which makes it all the more disappointing. I know Sherlock is the star of the show, but imagine writing an episode about women being too ignored and overlooked, and then having your male character describe their mission to them without having them speak? It’s so ridiculous that it’s actually quite funny. If it’s this or no representation, then I’d actually prefer no women. Just Sherlock, John and Lestrade hanging out in the manly-smelling flat talking about whatever men talk about when they’re alone.

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It’s also strange that this is what Sherlock is imagining. This is the solution he mentally conjures – this is all in his head. Is Sherlock realising that he’s a misogynist? Is this a sign of better gender relations to come? I dread to think.

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A man lifts his veil: And wahey! The ridiculous feminist plot that I will choose to believe had its heart in the right place, if only for my own sanity, gives way to Moriarty with a split lip and a lacy dress, which basically made me feel like this:

“Is this silly enough for you yet?” he asks, and the audience collectively shouts in the affirmative.

A man exhumes a corpse: I said this before, but Sherlock with real addiction problems makes me happy and I’m really pleased it’s being explored. Even if this bit isn’t real.

A man wakes up (but not really): Sherlock is at Reichenbach – but it’s deeper than that. It’s the Reichenbach of his mind, a phrase I foresee cropping up in six million terrible Tumblr posts come Monday morning. Andrew Scott’s back, which is visual shorthand for “this scene is worth watching”. On the first watch, the loud and sudden theme music made me think this was the end of the episode, a release I craved but which seemed to be premature.

Luckily I was wrong, because the Moriarty stuff is once again really strong. The way Scott says “the Napoleon of crime” is really funny, and the “always here, always together” stuff is suuuuper intense. Cumberbatch and Scott have such amazing chemistry in two-hander scenes. I would happily watch them for a whole episode, and sincerely wish I could.

It weakens a little when they drive home the fact that Moriarty is Sherlock’s self doubt, because we’re clearly not smart enough to work it out ourselves…. and I really could have done without the gay jokes, which goes without saying. The reason they finally boot the best thing about the episode over the waterfall is because Moriarty suggests they’re in love, something Sherlock refers to as “offensive”. Sigh.

Sherlock now says the line. You know, the proper Sherlock Holmes line. And wakes up back on the plane looking like his face needs an ironing, all full of drugs but fine because being clever stops overdosing hurting your organs. The Mycroft stuff that follows is subtle and lovely.

We end the episode confronted by the fact that the plot has advanced about five minutes over the last two hours, and that we waited two years for it to do so. After the rewatch, I have to confess that I hated this episode marginally less than on my initial viewing, but still feel incredibly disappointed in how Sherlock has fallen from being the smartest, sexiest thing on TV to something so hit and miss.

Let’s all pretend this didn’t happen until January 2017, hey?

Assorted extra tweets:

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*Hopefully not due to it, though

** I may have misremembered this, based on the Christmas special

***Periody in that it made me unreasonably angry and I can’t believe I’m experiencing it again so soon

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Author: Eve Moriarty

Eve Elizabeth Moriarty is a poet, performer, compère and full time human being. Expect bad jokes, literary overthinking and the sort of navel gazing you'd expect from a girl with a My Chemical Romance tattoo.

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