Review: The Abominable Bride

Warning: Spoilers ahead


England is England yet, for all our fears–

Only those things the heart believes are true.

Vincent Starrett, 221B

The poem 221B by Vincent Starrett is treasured among Sherlockians for its final line, which reminds young and old that “it is always 1895,” but Sherlock’s first holiday special turns my mind to the lines above even more. The Abominable Bride is not really an episode about plot, though it has a good one, and it’s not about advancing the overall arc of the series very much. Instead, it’s about the things the heart believes are true, specifically the heart of Sherlock Holmes. Mycroft Holmes once asked, long ago, in A Scandal in Belgravia, “What might we deduce about his heart?” This episode answers that question.

In the early days of publicity, we were told that the story would be a complete one-off, fully Victorian and unrelated to the series arc as a whole. In recent days, a low-key change occurred, in which cast and showrunners began teasing a series connection after all. The episode began with a confirmation of this in the form of a montage showing the viewer a quick timeline of everything that has happened in the series so far, surely a strange choice if the episode wasn’t going to connect to it. Immediately after, however, we were thrown into an immersive Victorian world, complete with a Doyle-heavy origin story and new-old versions of our favorite characters (with the exception of Vinette Robinson’s Sally, whom I was sad to miss).

The case is brought by a mutton-chop-sporting Lestrade, who introduces Holmes and Watson to the Abominable Bride herself (played by the phenomenal Natasha O’Keeffe), a wedding anniversary murderess-suicide who somehow appears to have risen from the dead to kill her husband—and happens to have killed herself in the exact same way we saw Moriarty kill himself earlier in the series.

What follows is a fairly straightforward investigation that echoes both the style the BBC Series has established and Doylean canon tropes. Two reveals were particularly enjoyable—Mark Gatiss’s Mycroft, bearing the girth and sloth of Doyle’s version, and morgue director Molly in male disguise. At the same time as the case progresses, however, there’s an intrusive subplot that keeps weaving its way through—the female voice in the Victorian Era, with a frustrated Mrs. Hudson going on a silence strike, an angry Mary Watson taking employment without her husband’s knowledge, and a particularly outspoken maid. Hovering above all this is a cryptic tease by Mycroft about an unseen army that needs to win.

It all seems pretty straightforward until it doesn’t. Suddenly, the modern photo of Irene Adler surfaces, and characters begin speaking in increasingly anachronistic terms. The action sequence with the Bride seems like it should be climactic, but it really isn’t, and it’s not meant to be. A Victorian Mind Palace sequence culminates in a visit from Andrew Scott’s Moriarty at his creepy best, and the truth starts to emerge: The case isn’t about the case at all, and furthermore, it’s not even real—the whole thing is a drug-induced delve into Sherlock’s Mind Palace, an attempt to use an unsolved mystery to solve an all-too-modern one.

Knowing this Shyamalan-level twist changes the entire framing of the episode as a whole. No longer are we seeing a surprisingly clever Victorian John; we’re seeing the idea of Watson who lives in Sherlock’s brain. The same is true for each character, and, in turn, they reveal different aspects of Sherlock’s psychology.

The episode’s pre-climax takes place when Holmes unveils the Victorian feminist society that produced the Bride. I’ve seen various confusion and criticism about this, but it’s not a real thing, and it’s not meant to be seen that way. Again, it’s a part of Sherlock’s mind, the working-out of guilt over the women he’s wronged, a gallery led by Molly and including Janine, with whom he engaged in a fake romance. The scene has strong similarities to Sherlock’s courtroom Mind Palace from earlier in the series.

The true climax occurs when the Bride unveils herself and turns out to be Moriarty. As a modern-time, but still dreaming, Sherlock frantically digs up the real-life Bride’s grave to find two corpses (a reference to Lady Frances Carfax), he’s plunged into the canonical version of Reichenbach, a showdown with Moriarty on the edge of the falls.

Except, this time, it doesn’t end the same way. In an echo of long-ago episode A Study in Pink, Watson appears at exactly the right moment and kills Moriarty himself. This is entirely symbolic, Sherlock’s mind finally exorcising the ever-present Moriarty, who has come to represent his weaknesses, by realizing that he will never have to confront his failings alone because he has John by his side.

The end of the episode doesn’t tell us much beyond the fact that Holmes understands the next phase in the (truly dead) Moriarty’s plan and that he’s still using a drugs on occasion, a fact that deeply concerns his brother Mycroft, whose combination of care and anger throughout the episode was played beautifully by Mark Gatiss. We’re left on a cliffhanger, not in a very different place from where we began, but also worlds away from where we began.

Much as The Sign of Three explored the relationship between Holmes and Watson, The Abominable Bride explores Sherlock’s relationship to himself—his fear that he’s far less clever than he’d like to be, his ambivalence about his lack of conformity, and his deep-seated terror of weakness. Ultimately, the series stays absolutely faithful to its own heartbeat, allowing its protagonist to finally, and fully, realize that his hope lies in human connection and in the friendship of his Boswell. The Abominable Bride is the fulfillment of The Reichenbach Fall. The man who fell alone can now fly because he’s not alone any more.

Here dwell together still two men of note 

Who never lived and so can never die

In the context of the series, the Victorian Holmes and Watson of The Abominable Bride never lived, but Starrett said it best: They still dwell together, seated by their Baker Street fire, where Sherlock’s heart, and mine, believe they will live forever.


How to purchase my Sherlock Holmes novels:

(Book 1) The Detective and the Woman: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.

(Book 2) The Detective, The Woman and The Winking Tree: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.

(Book 3) The Detective The Woman and The Silent Hive is available from all good bookstores including   Amazon USAAmazon UKWaterstones UK, and for free shipping worldwide from Book Depository. In ebook format it is in Amazon Kindle.

14 thoughts on “Review: The Abominable Bride

  1. I didn’t like the ending of the previous story, but feel this now gives that added depth, and makes the series stronger as it now feels it’s all about Moriarty and his plan. He said his problem was “staying alive” and whilst we were led to believe this was due to melancholy and boredom we now can think he may have been dying anyway and that there was method in his suicide which previously seemed odd. I expect that as this is leading onto the next episodes that they will further give the Abominable Bride extra depth when they’re explained.

  2. Excellent observations, though you missed a couple of crucial ones.

    You forgot something very important, and liable to be part of the “consequences” the show runners have warned us of in season 4. Sherlock took drugs BEFORE he got on the plane — BEFORE Mycroft told him about Moriarty’s message — BEFORE he had any cause to search his mind palace for answers. This means he took the drugs for a different reason — probably because he was devastated about leaving John and his life behind, after finally murdering someone in cold blood. He was also off to his death, so he probably wasn’t too concerned whether the drugs just made the long lonely flight bearable or whether they killed him. When Mycroft told him about the message, he had four minutes to enter his mind palace and answer, for himself, whether Moriarty could be alive or not. He went too deep because of the drugs, then he lied to everyone about his reason for taking the drugs, saying it was because he wanted to work out the case. When Mycroft mentioned that he had to have taken the drugs BEFORE he boarded the plane, Sherlock tried to obscure that fact by asking what the others had done to solve the case in the meantime, implying that he had been dutifully plugging away at it for four minutes. He even compounded the lie when he told John he even took drugs to solve the case. He was deceiving himself and others in precisely the way a drug addict does. There WILL be consequences.

    Also, you missed the TWO vs THREE theme. We all know the “sign of three,” and that there are now THREE principals, with Mary joining the boys. What’s new is Sherlock saving HIMSELF in his mind palace by bringing John in to kill Moriarty. He says “there are always TWO.” That can’t be dismissed, since Mary is repeatedly aligned with Moriarty in Sherlock’s mind palace. This is most clear in the imagery of Mary in black lace, being unveiled, mirrored by Moriarty in WHITE lace being unveiled. No-one seems to ask why Mary is dressed in mourning clothes. This implies that the flash drive she gave John detailed some relationship between Mary and Moriarty. With the over emphasis on “it’s NEVER twins,” I wouldn’t be too surprised if Mary turned out to be Moriarty’s twin. That aside, I DO think Mary was one of the snipers aiming at John and Sherlock at the pool.

    Think about the fact that Mary had all the answers in Sherlock’s mind palace. Perhaps that was his subconscious trying to tell him that Mary, in fact, DOES have all the answers. Maybe Mary faked Moriarty’s return to get Mycroft to bring Sherlock back.

    Also, going forward, one should be very aware of the fact that anything signed with a single “M” could be signed by Moriarty, Mary, Mycroft, Magnussen; and even a “W” could really be an upside down “M.” Also, what about Moran? Maybe Mary IS Moran; there’s certainly precedent, with her being an assassin.

    On top of all that, do we really know if that baby is John’s? I don’t believe she was cheating on John — I think there’s real love there — but I wonder about the timing. They had not known each other for very long before John popped the question and the wedding was that spring.

    • Interesting ideas. There are certainly many themes I didn’t cover – no review can cover everything, and I didn’t intend to. I don’t necessarily agree with your interpretations, but they’re certainly interesting, and I’m sure Season 4 will be. as engaging as ever.

    • You took the words right out of my mouth! There’s certainly been a lot of talk about Sherlock taking the drugs, and the concensus seems to be that he did it out of pain and heartbreak, then covered it up, which just makes “His Last Vow” even more tragic (and vow, I just remembered that Sherlock’s “last vow” is to always protect John and be there for him and OH MY GOD).

      In relation to Mary and Moriarty, I have absolutely no doubt that there’s some connection. It would be a hell of a coincidence if she was an assassin with a mysterious past while Moran (who has been conspicuously missing from the series) is supposed to be an assassin (albeit with a less mysterious past). I assumed the “M” was from Mycroft, but you’re right, there’s a lot of characters whose names begin with M in this series. And knowing how Moftiss like to play on words, Moran and Morstan and pretty damn similar….There’s also the intriguing “Moriarty’s dead but he’s back” comment from Sherlock, which to me sounds an awful lot like somebody brought the idea/image of Moriarty back, and who better to do that than Moran, his right hand assassin? There’s certainly so much more than meets the eye here, and this episode advanced the plot beautifully in that respect, I think. (So, arguably, I disagree with Amy that the episode didn’t much advance the plot – I really think it did, but in a very coded and subtextual way. Would you expect it to be otherwise in a Moftiss production?)

      So sorry to digress from the original topic of your post – certainly one can’t cover everything in a review! But this just got so interesting.

      • I actually agree that it will have advanced the plot. It’s just that we need S4 to contextualize it. Currently, it hasn’t advanced us, but it will have when we see the next series. It’s a strange concept, but I don’t really disagree

  3. This was a thought-provoking review. I haven’t seen this, and I haven’t read all the books you referenced, but I’m especially intrigued by a Sherlock story that explores the internal workings of his mind and psyche.

  4. Much as The Sign of Three explored the relationship between Holmes and Watson, The Abominable Bride explores Sherlock’s relationship to himself—his fear that he’s far less clever than he’d like to be, his ambivalence about his lack of conformity, and his deep-seated terror of weakness. Ultimately, the series stays absolutely faithful to its own heartbeat, allowing its protagonist to finally, and fully, realize that his hope lies in human connection and in the friendship of his Boswell. The Abominable Bride is the fulfillment of The Reichenbach Fall. The man who fell alone can now fly because he’s not alone any more.

    a)you have me ALL THE FEELS
    b)I couldn’t agree more.

    There’s been a lot of criticism about how the Victorian period doesn’t make sense/is anachronistic/is inaccurate but I think that’s rather part of the point. The Victorian aspects are a reflection of Sherlock’s psyche, and the more you watch it, the more you realize just how damaged his psyche is.

  5. Great review! I loved this special, not just for the production design, cinematography and action, but also the story and the way in bridges between series 3 and 4.

    Whilst I can’t wait for series 4, I’d love another Victorian-based special. Am I hoping for too much? 🙂

  6. This is the best review of The Abominable Bride I have read… Thanks!
    I have a theory about Moriarty. I think he has a brother – quite possibly a twin.
    Moffat and Gatiss have planned some of this from the beginning. In ASiP, Phil says this, “You’re not the only one to enjoy a good murder. There’s others out there just like you, except you’re just a man … and they’re so much more than that.” OTHERS and THEY’RE are the key words – more than one Moriarty.
    In TSiB’s commentary Mark and Steven are talking about continuity…..
    MARK: The one thing we haven’t addressed is that Professor Moriarty and his brother have the same Christian name!
    STEVEN: But we are thinking of it … maybe! We are on the case!
    (Thanks to Ariane Devere)
    At the end of His Last Vow – that teeny clip after the credits of Moriarty saying “Miss me” of course was done by Andrew Scott – but there are discrepancies. His hair didn’t look as black and he was wearing brown. Our Moriarty always wore black and had very black hair. I also thought he looked heavier in the clip.
    My last point is that in TAB that ‘it’s never twins’ bit went on far too long, and ‘it’s never twins’ was repeated several times. It looked like a clue! And as it is in Sherlock’s mind, perhaps he now realizes that it could be twins and that’s why he said that he knew what Moriarty was going to do next.
    My opinion, for what it’s worth! Thanks for the great review…..

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s