Sherlock Special: ‘The Abominable Bride’

The cinematic screening of "The Abominable Bride" illustrates the audience within an audience for whom this episode was made.

Amid Kudos and Criticism, Sherlock: “The Abominable Bride” Finds a Welcoming Audience in Cinemas

Sherlock: “The Abominable Bride” created a polarizing moment within the television series’ viewership. Whereas some critics (e.g., in a particularly scathing Telegraph review) derided series’ co-creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss (or Mofftiss, in fan usage) for a confusing, convoluted script, other reviewers (e.g., a highly positive review in TVLine) praised them for their daring experiment in storytelling and lovingly crafted individual scenes. The range of informal reviews from fans mirrored this dichotomy.

Since the January 1 broadcast premiere of “The Abominable Bride” on the BBC in the UK and on PBS in the US, tweets have summarized widely diverse audience reaction to the much-anticipated special episode. In the two years since season/series three debuted, many fans followed #Setlock tweets reporting what went on during filming in public places, watched a series of promotional trailers, and finally, finally tuned in (or streamed) the episode on New Year’s night. Given so much anticipation and a high level of fan expectations, it’s not surprising that “The Abominable Bride” became a trending topic that reflected viewers’ immediate responses. Some proclaimed it a travesty; others deemed it brilliant. Once many viewers had a chance to watch the episode a second time (or more), however, the response on Twitter became more positive. The number of comments online, however, had not escaped public attention. A January 6 tweet from actor Curtis Armstrong (@curtisisbooger) perhaps best summed up casual viewers’ conclusion about the “discussion” raging online about the meaning or entertainment value of the latest Sherlock installment: “Sometimes I thank God for what an uncritical dork I am. I can luxuriate in the thrills & weirdness of #Sherlockspecial w/ none of the rage!”

The plot, at first, seemed simple. In 1895, Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and John Watson (Martin Freeman) are brought into a frightening murder mystery by Scotland Yard inspector Lestrade (Rupert Graves). On her wedding anniversary, Emelia Ricoletti (Natasha O’Keeffe) publicly shoots herself in the head, but not before terrorizing the neighborhood with shrieks of “You!” while firing a shotgun toward passersby. While her body’s supposedly in the morgue, Emelia hails a hansom cab to track down her husband (Gerald Kyd), who conveniently staggers from a Limehouse opium den in time to be accosted by his dead wife. She taunts him in the street in front of witnesses before handily using her shotgun to dispose of him — and disappears. Holmes gleefully takes the case, because it offers a delightful mix of street theater, murder-suicide, and “ghostly” deeds. Months later, when the bride again rises from the dead to murder men, Holmes is back on the case, setting a trap for the bride. Alas, she outwits Holmes and Watson and escapes, leaving behind another corpse. Up to this point, the Victorian setting provides plenty of opportunities for Holmes — wearing the expected Inverness cape and deerstalker — to have both adventures and man-to-man conversations with dear friend Watson. It’s a pleasantly Gothic outing.

But then the story shifts. Instead of Holmes truly being in the Victorian period, he’s Sherlock’s mental construct of himself. Sherlock, during his brief exile after shooting Charles Augustus Magnussen (Lars Mikkelsen), is on a drug-fueled trip deep inside his mind palace. He needs to figure out how Emelia Ricoletti could commit suicide in front of witnesses and return from the dead to create more mayhem, which Jim Moriarty (Andrew Scott) has also apparently done. By solving the Victorian murder mystery, he can determine if Moriarty is really dead. The episode then alternates between present and past until Sherlock, hastily recalled from exile, can survive his overdose and decide once and for all what happened to Moriarty.

The much-promoted Victorian-set holiday special seemed design to spark opposing opinions. On Twitter and within the comments sections of online television reviews, some viewers adored the insights into Sherlock’s mind, savored the interplay between Victorian Holmes and Watson, or enjoyed the scares of Gothic horror. However, nearly an equal number of viewers noted their displeasure with a plot flipping between the present and 1895, as well as between reality and the fantasy playing out in Sherlock’s mind. While the television viewing experience continues to generate divergent responses from communities of fans or critics, the communal experience of viewing Sherlock in a cinema more clearly illustrates the specific audience within the larger viewership for which “The Abominable Bride” is best suited and, quite likely, to whom it was designed to appeal most: long-time fans who enjoy analyzing each episode’s layers of meaning.

Teasing Fans, or Bait-and-Switch?

The focal point of the polarized reaction to this episode is what audiences thought “The Abominable Bride” would or should be, and what it actually is. Although this special episode was originally promoted in the media as a Christmas special, then a holiday special, and always a Victorian extravaganza, those notions were quickly debunked in a clever, if often confusing, story within a story.

When a shaken Lestrade arrives at 221B Baker Street, he first tells Holmes, Dr. Watson, and Mrs. Watson (Amanda Abbington) that he only wishes to convey best wishes of the season. The characters rapidly wish each other a perfunctory “Merry Christmas”, to which Holmes replies, “Thank God that’s over”. Similarly, “The Abominable Bride” quickly indicates it’s less of a Victorian Christmas card featuring gaslights, soft snowfall, and holiday-minded Londoners than a façade for murder, mistaken identity, and revenge.

The Victorian setting for the death and mysterious reappearance of Emelia Ricoletti, the first hour’s main story, is merely a front for what is really going on inside Sherlock’s head. Sherlock eventually solves the puzzle of the dead woman who returns to avenge other women abused and victimized by men — but only to help him understand how Moriarty could similarly shoot himself through the head and later return to create more chaos.

Some viewers took to the Internet to complain that trailers and media promotion had led them to believe that “The Abominable Bride” would be a one-off holiday special set in the Victorian era. In contrast, it is an epilogue to the previous episode, “His Last Vow”. The good Victorian stuff from which holiday specials are made is a means to an end — a coda to Moriarty’s swan song and a way to stuff as much Sherlock Holmes memorabilia into one episode as Mofftissly possible. Even the episode’s greater purpose — to state that Moriarty’s indeed dead, no matter how much fans love him, and to redirect viewers’ thoughts to Sherlock investigating a national not-really-Moriarty problem in season/series four — is another story within the much larger puzzle of who Sherlock Holmes really is, and how he sees himself through others’ (primarily John’s) eyes. Fans who primarily watch Sherlock to see the title character’s development and enjoy his relationship with John seem happy with “The Abominable Bride”. They acknowledge others’ concerns but find the holiday special on par with previous episodes.

Long-time Sherlock fan Joy Carney best conveyed what many theatergoers were saying after the screenings: “I really enjoyed the episode. I didn’t mind that it didn’t advance the plot very much but was more of a little side adventure. It was fun to see the characters in the Victorian setting with all the Gothic elements present. Typically, I’m someone who hates the old ‘it was all a dream’ device, but this was worked cleverly into the modern storyline”.

Professor James Shoopman admitted that “at first I was afraid this episode might descend into tired clichés on the 19th century Holmes and Watson, but as it became clear that Sherlock was building his mind-palace world, some of that seemed understandable as a matter of Sherlock, in his own head, establishing the rules and ways of that Holmesian world”. A good example of Victorian rules modified the Sherlock way has an aggravated Watson pushing the deerstalker into Holmes’ hands and commanding, “You’re Sherlock Holmes; put on the damned hat!” Shoopman predicts that “someday, when all these Cumberbatch Holmes stories are sold in a single collection, this will be an essential part of the collection and one of the most entertaining”.

The opportunity to investigate Sherlock, more than a case, drove hundreds of fans, even those who had seen the episode via television or PBS livestream, to US cinemas January 5 and 6 to see “The Abominable Bride” on the big screen.

The Joy of Communal Viewing

At the Port Orange Pavilion Regal cinema in Port Orange, Florida, the audience filled all but the first few rows. The AMC in Altamonte Springs, Florida, added a second theater when the first filled rapidly. Down the road, the Regal Winter Park Village was a few seats shy of capacity. These three central Florida venues, although only a small part of the 500 theaters hosting Fathom Events’ screening of the special, suggest why long-time Sherlock fans are the ideal audience for “The Abominable Bride”.

Chasteen Mullins summarized many fans’ reasons for (re)watching the episode in a cinema: “There is a communal feeling experiencing a performance with a group of people. There’s a sense of electricity, almost like if it was live. It’s a time to meet fellow fans, who, if it was not for the cinema, would never meet. It’s a great chance for online friends to meet face to face”.

The opportunity to meet up with online friends or simply enjoy Sherlock with like-minded fans provides an incentive to go to a theater instead of watching at home. Nevertheless, the weeknight (i.e., work night, school night) screenings may have required more effort or planning to attend. For some viewers, heading to the cinema on a Tuesday or Wednesday night made the screening seem more special and worth any extra effort. Because “The Abominable Bride” was a two-night event, not a film that could wait to be seen until the weekend, fans scheduled their week around the event, and some bought tickets and made plans months in advance.

Although Twitter also provides a somewhat communal viewing experience, viewer response still isn’t quite as spontaneous as the immediate, involuntary gasp or cheer heard in a cinema. When Moriarty’s hinted at a Victorian crime scene, people gasped or smothered a scream. When he shows up in Sherlock’s sitting room a few minutes later, they cheered. A worm-ridden corpse and the ghost’s gory head evoked a chorus of “ewwwwww”s. When the screening ended, many applauded, and most stayed to see a post-screening film. Standing in the hallways afterward, fans of all ages chatted and shared their questions or insights about what they had just (re)seen.

Professor Jennifer Wojton notes that a detective story is particularly well-suited to communal viewing. “Figuring out a mystery is more enjoyable with a group. You can whisper to the person next to you about a clue. Everyone is focused on the plot and anticipating what will happen next. Unlike other dramas, a mystery keeps everyone enthralled, and the Gothic theme is scarier when the audience is sitting in the dark, anticipating the next murder”.

The communal viewing experience is enhanced by perks. The Regal theaters, for example, handed out photo cards of Sherlock and John in Victorian costume. Before the screening, fans answered on-screen trivia questions about the actors, Sherlock, and even its connection with Moffat’s other series, Doctor Who. Fans chatted with those in the rows around them as they competitively answered questions and shared trivia. When an easy question about Sherlock’s address popped onto the screen, someone loudly commented that viewers unable to answer it probably should not be at that screening.

The episode was bracketed by a short video trip inside 221B’s famous sitting room, hosted by Moffat, and a longer video featuring cast members interviewed by Gatiss. Both video extras illustrate Mofftiss’ genuine joy at making the series and imbedding fanboy moments into the stories they tell. In the introductory video, Moffat gleefully points out the silk slipper with Holmes’ tobacco and the Queen’s initials (VR) shot into the wall, among other tidbits from canon. Moffat also notes that the antlers on the head mounted to that wall usually sport head phones in the modernized series; in the Victorian version, the antlers wear a tin ear horn appropriate to the era. Even the set dressing in “The Abominable Bride” mixes canon with Sherlock fanon (a treat for dedicated Sherlock fans) and offers further proof that this adaptation, while based in canon, has its own agenda. It may not always please casual viewers looking for straightforward storytelling instead of layers upon layers of meaning.

Being able to see that lovingly incorporated level of detail attracted Penny Cairns to the big-screen event: “The chance to see Sherlock in theaters allows us to see all those details that the fans are looking for. How is the flat different? What’s the same? I noticed things that I hadn’t seen just by watching on TV, details like the writing in Mycroft’s notebook, which then leads us to other questions like ‘Are those scribblings clues to future episodes’?” Fans like Cairns “loved every self-indulgent fanboy moment that Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat gave us in this episode”.

Should Series’ Creators Strive to Meet Fan Expectations?

Sherlock has been recently criticized for its “fan service” rather than mainstream storytelling, but that fannish aspect of the series attracts viewers invested far more in the characters than cases. The Fathom Events screenings in the US are one indication that many fans are willing to pay to see Sherlock on a much bigger screen, and could provide a profitable market for future “event” screenings.

Sherlock is, apparently, an increasingly acquired taste. The ratings still support its appeal, especially at home in the UK. The special garnered 8.4 million viewers in the UK, or 34% of the viewing audience, making it the most-watched holiday television offering this season. (US ratings hadn’t been released as of January 8.) In China and Korea, the cinema-released special immediately grossed millions, becoming, respectively, the number one and number two film of the week. Yet the international viewing audience, like the range of opinions about “The Abominable Bride”, is far from homogenous, and a special as experimental and layered as “The Abominable Bride” engenders an equally diverse range of viewing experiences.

Although in popular media, Sherlock fans often are portrayed as screaming teenagers lusting after the series’ actors, the media does not often consider the diversity of Sherlock fandom. Even in the Gatiss film shown after the episode, the majority of the #Setlock fans filmed standing outside the North Gower Street location are young, female, and highly enthusiastic. They are, however, only one part of Sherlock fandom. Although a highly unscientific sampling of audiences attending screenings in three theaters in one geographic area cannot be generalized to a global population of Sherlock fans, it nonetheless illustrates that the cinema audience for “The Abominable Bride” comprises all ages and more than one gender. The people who agreed to be interviewed for this article, for example, include men and women older than 30 years; they’re university professors, an attorney, a library specialist, and an actor. They may not visit a filming location, but they are just as interested in Sherlock as the fans who do.

Increasingly, it seems, Moffat and Gatiss are writing a television series meant to be globally entertaining, yet increasingly focused on a core audience of fans who value Sherlock‘s meta references, and can easily recall lines and scenes from previous episodes. Dissecting, debating, sharing, and ultimately understanding Sherlock Holmes in a new way is a communal activity. Perhaps that is the best holiday gift “The Abominable Bride” could give: a story that promotes and provokes communal dialogue not only about this episode and its place within Sherlock’s canon, but about storytelling itself.

RATING 7 / 10
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.