That was, quite possibly, the oddest episode of Sherlock I’ve ever seen.
Sherlock: “Don’t feel bad Mrs Hudson, I’m barely in the dog one”
Mrs. Hudson: “I’m your landlady, not a plot device!”
So I get that the idea that inspired this was that Moffat and Gatiss wanted desperately to see what the Sherlock they created would do if reset in 1895. An intellectual exercise as it were. Therefore, I was prepared for parodies of Victorian tropes, with send ups of fog laden hedge mazes and ghosts in wedding gowns and veils. I was prepared for meta-commentary on the lack of female characters like Mrs. Hudson having lines. (The best one being “I fear she has branched into literary criticism by means of satire. It’s a distressing trend in a modern landlady.”) I was prepared for Mary to be a frustrated lady of the house, and pleased with the choice to have her be an early adopter of the suffragette movement, and even working undercover for Mycroft. After all, the character they created would be exactly that if transported back in time. I was even amused by the choice of how to work Molly Hooper in. At first I thought it was a joke having the actress doing the part in male drag–after all, a woman couldn’t hold that job in 1895. But then to reveal that no, the character of “Hooper” really is a woman in 1895 passing as a man in order to have that career, and have Sherlock’s blindness to it mirror his blindness to Molly’s feelings for him was an extra layer of onion I wasn’t expecting.
I was even prepared for the twist having been partly spoiled ahead of time. But even if I had not been spoiled, Fat Mycroft’s line of “The virus in the data” would have been a huge red flag that perhaps not all was as it seemed and perhaps we were within Sherlock’s mind palace all along. What I was not prepared for was when the entire episode began to corkscrew.
Mycroft: “I rather thought I looked enormous.”
By the way, Fat Mycroft? If there was ever a moment on-screen where I could literally see Moffat and Gatiss howling in laughter as they came up with something, that was it. As funny as it was, I think it also perfectly encapsulates everything about this special that people will hate. There was a self-indulgence to that scene, a “one long knowing wink” to the audience at home, and those on twitter who they encouraged to tweet along, that rather pulled one out of the story all together. Though perhaps, considering the terrain of the rest of the show to come, having that to pull one out of the narrative and into the meta was a necessary move.
Because as each layer of the onion peeled back, and the resulting dream within a drug induced dream within a drug induced coma within itself just kept peeling back layers, each twist of the corkscrew brought us along this chain of meta commentary. Suddenly we were no longer in 1895. We were aboard the plane at the end of Series 3, and Sherlock is revealed as being a drug addict of the highest order. This is commentary one on the character as they have created him in the modern setting. Sherlock in the 1890s took a seven percent solution. 2015 Sherlock ingests a small pharmacy. Mycroft is his older brother who has been saving his drug addicted ass over and over, and it’s part of why he is always keeping such a sharp eye on Sherlock. But before we could really dig deep and perhaps get Sherlock a therapist, it was over and he was waking up in 1895 again.
Watson: “I shall have a word with my wife to have a word with you.”
Maid: “And when will you be seeing her, sir?”
Once back in the past, things descend quickly into a send up of “the big murder reveal”, as Sherlock interrupts a church of KKK hood wearers so that he can have an audience and explain the murder to all and sundry around him. (Everyone is involved and guilty of course, a bit like Murder on the Orient Express. As for the drama, Moriarty sums it up best: “Speaking as a criminal mastermind, we don’t really have gongs.”) But what I was not prepared for was the sudden meta commentary on the growing trend of audiences demanding women as the center of the hero’s journey tale in popular culture. (Moffat himself is part of this trend, gender flipping the Master and giving Clara her own TARDIS and companion to fly away with in Doctor Who.) It was klutzy and it was forced and weird, and it, without meaning to, accidentally showed how twisted and conflicted Moffat is the topic. But before we could really dig deep and perhaps get Moffat a therapist, it was over and Sherlock was waking up in 2015 again.
This level returns to Sherlock’s drug use again, but then tracks into a meditation on his very nature. It starts to dig deep into who Sherlock is and what made him this way. (A discussion he and Watson conveniently had just been having in 1895.) The answer, it turns out, is that Sherlock is a spoiled man-child. Spoiled and allowed to have his way at all points, because he’s just so clever. Watson, to his credit, decides he done with all that, and tells Sherlock to call him when he sobers up and is ready to work. Mycroft and Lestrade stay and continue his mad insistence of digging up this body from 1895. But though this time we do actually manage to dig deep–at least deep enough to remove a coffin, once again we are denied the opportunity to get Sherlock a therapist, it was over and he was waking up in 1895 again.
Sherlock: “It helps me if I see myself through his eyes sometimes. I’m so much cleverer.”
And suddenly we’re back at Reichenbach Falls. (We’re always back at the Falls, just like it is always 1895.) After all, this is not really about women, or 1895 or drugs. It’s about the fact that Moriarty, though dead, has returned, and this is in a twisted way all about the prelude to Series 4 after all. Though Sherlock and Moriarty are in period clothes, the talk is all 2015, of brains and hard-drives and viruses. So it is not much of a shock then that we wake up again on the plane, in what seems to be a sort of wacky Groundhog Day of real and not real. As Watson says in 1895, “I’m a storyteller, I know when I’m in one.” Yes but does he know when he’s not in one in 2015? Is the 1895 Sherlock a world in 2015’s mind palace? Or vice versa? Or perhaps both? In 2015, the Watsons and a newly determined and focused Sherlock head off to fight Moriarty , and presumably Series 4, which they’ll be filming later this year. In 1895, Sherlock is describing the plausible future he’s been dreaming to Watson, who marvels at the idea of machines that fly.
Who is to say both worlds are as unreal as the other? Especially since it’s all a TV special anyway, and none of it is real. An intellectual exercise. Just as we were told it would be.