Sherlock: And When He Woke Up Bobby Ewing Was in the Shower (New Year's Special Recap)

sherlock.3x01.the_empty_hearse.hdtv_x264-fov.mp4 - you haven’t watched all three seasons of Sherlock, do not watch this very special Christmas/New Year episode. It will make no sense to anyone not familiar with the series. It’s less the standalone we might have expected, and more a teaser/opening shot for the coming season, which, as has been discussed previously on these virtual pages, won’t come to this side of the pond till 2017.  But for those who don’t care about the massive spoilers ahead, here’s your recap/review.

The question remains: For those of us who put off drunk- laundry canceled all our exciting post-New Year’s Eve plans in order to stay home and watch Friday night, was it a worthwhile way to spend 90-minutes, or a complete waste of time that has ruined the show for us forever? The answer to one of these things may be yes.


Sherlock  was created by major Conan Doyle fanboys (Steven Moffat and Mark Gattis) but it was made for people who may not ever have read the source material even though the world of those stories and its many signifiers has seeped into us. The brilliant outsider who doesn’t quite get human emotions or play well with others, along with his (or her) dimmer best friend has become, with a few variations, a staple of television.

Who's the Watson in this relationship?

Who’s the Watson in this relationship?

Sherlock has succeeded in giving us modern simulations of the beloved duo, loving riffs, changed by necessity because Conan Doyle isn’t writing them, and we aren’t living in the 19th century. Sherlock and John, are very like Holmes and Watson. They share the same names, know the same people, and even live at the same address, but they aren’t quite Holmes and Watson. This special episode doesn’t place two Victorian era characters back where they belong, but rather it places two modern characters who happen to be based on Victorian era characters into the same time period as the originals.

Sherlock book illustration

The “real” fictional detective and fictional pal.

Nice trick if you can pull it off, and oh so post-modern. The Christmas VSE (which mentions the season once in passing within the first minutes, and then forgets about it) manages to remind us how close it is to the spirit of Conan Doyle, and how it differs, while doing something that Conan Doyle could not do – looking back critically on the time period and commenting on it.

Gattis and Moffat have always been reverential (as well as referential) to the Holmes canon. All of the series’ cases were based on Conan Doyle stories if not always loyal to them, so the period setting must have been great fun for the creators. Maybe too much fun, and therein lies the problem. This wasn’t just a gift for fans who can’t wait till Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman clear their busy schedules and return, it was a gift Gattis and Moffat gave themselves, an elaborate private joke loaded with references that we may have understood, but not necessarily cared about.

And so on to the episode itself, not to bury it or praise it, but to deconstruct it because anything with that much meta deserves a thorough deconstruction.

We start with some very carefully curated “previously on” clips, bringing us through the highlights of the boys’ adventures chronologically, from their first meeting, up to and including Sherlock’s faked death, Moriarty’s allegedly real one, Watson’s wedding, Sherlock’s murder of Mary’s blackmailer, his subsequent banishment, and Moriarty’s possible return from the dead. It’s three seasons in three minutes. Then we see the caption, “Alternatively…” and we’re off to the past.

It’s become a new television truism that the previously on clips are  important clues to what’s coming up in an episode. If this is a distinct episode set in an “alternative” past, then why do we need to be brought up to date? The clips should have been a clue that the episode was not meant to stand alone, that it’s written for us Baker Street regulars, and meant to pick up where we left off.


John narrates, as Watson does in all but two of Conan Doyle’s stories. There are even a few lines taken almost word for word from A Study in Scarlet, the first Holmes novel, and the basis for the first Sherlock episode, A Study in Pink. John is still a veteran, back worse for wear, from the war in Afghanistan, because there will always be a war in Afghanistan. He’s still looking for cheap digs in London and a new purpose (even if he doesn’t know it yet). He meets Sherlock under the same circumstances – introduced as potential flatmates by Stamford, a mutual friend. The biggest difference between both TV-timelines and the Conan Doyle original is that instead of meeting Holmes in a “laboratory” as Watson does in Scarlet, John meets Sherlock in a morgue, and  in both television time periods, Sherlock isn’t messing around with a beaker of blood. He’s even less interested or aware of decorum than in the stories and is introduced to us beating a corpse to see how fast the bruises form.

There are many other clues throughout that this “alternative” world is commenting on Conan Doyle, but belongs to Gattis and Moffat. Mary Morstan, a client in one of the original stories who becomes engaged to Watson but is never mentioned by name again, is still John’s wife, still a nurse, and still has another top secret (even from her husband) life. Characters like Molly Hooper who have no parallel in the cannon exist, but now Molly is bitter and she’s in drag, living as a man in order to work. Sherlock doesn’t notice this deception because he doesn’t notice Molly in any timeline. Mrs. Hudson complains about how she’s portrayed in John’s stories, and even John’s housemaid complains that she’s not mentioned in them at all.

We should be paying attention to the angry women, but it’s easy to miss these as “clues,” and see them instead as part of the referential nature of the episode. Mary’s a sufferagette because of course she would be. John calls it a “man’s world” because it is. It’s like the way he refers to its being the 19th century. Who, aside from all the characters on Downton Abbey, ever goes around constantly referring to the time period in which they live?

When we first see Mary, she’s disguised as a potential client, a silent mystery woman dressed in a black gown that except for the color looks very much like a bridal gown, including a veil. She’s not the bride of the title, but she’s clearly meant to be connected to her. (And her entry as a client is a cute nod to Conan Doyle.) She’s come to Baker Street to make a point. John is never home and spends more time with Sherlock than with her. Sherlock recognizes Mary’s disguise. John doesn’t, just like contemporary Sherlock understood who Mary really was and John didn’t.


Always modern.

Given that the characters all act like 21st century people stuck in the 19th century, we might suspect this is the dreamworld of one of the characters – either Sherlock or John. If it takes awhile,it’s because we expect mo’ betta from Moffat and Gattis, lords of time and space, something besides, “It was all a dream, and you were there too.” We take them at their word, and the word is “alternatively.” We want this fiction to be real.

Then Lestrade arrives with mutton chop side burns, a stronger cockney accent ,and maybe a few points shaved off his IQ, probably owing to led pipes or other conditions of the times. Lestrade is visibly frightened. He tells the story of the Abominable Bride, “white as death” with “crimson lips” – a woman who on her anniversary, dressed in her wedding gown, shot herself in the head, and then seemed to rise from the dead to kill her husband. We see the scene through Sherlock’s visualization.

She doesn't like Mondays.

She doesn’t like Mondays.

Her vampiric appearance might be a reference to The Sussex Vampire, a later Holmes’ story, which like many others offers a logical conclusion for a seemingly unnatural event. (The irony is that Conan Doyle was a spirtualist who  believed in ghosts and fairies.)

Sherlock and John go off to the morgue to view the body of Emilia Riccoletti, the bride. Mary wants to go too, but no girls allowed. After the boys are gone, a message arrives for her. She tells Mrs. H. to tell her husband she’ll be home late. England needs her. Even in this timeline, there’s something about Mary. This is pure Sherlock. There’s no woman like Mary in canon. Original-brand Irene Adler isn’t even close.


Sherlock puts aside any “supernatural” explanation of events. As for the the corpse, in addition to half its brain being blown to bits, John or maybe drag-Molly mentions possible “consumption.” This will be important later, and we are terrible detectives if we don’t note it. It’s also at this point, we clearly see the universes colliding. Sherlock seems to be thinking aloud, and not talking to the other characters when he asks, “How could HE survive.” John reminds him, it’s she.

Months later there have been five murders, all attributed to “the ghost,”. Sherlock tells John it’s just people disguising their “ordinary” murders. He still hasn’t solved the how. They’re summoned to the Diogenes Club to see Mycroft. Mycroft is obese, as he is described in the Conan Doyle stories, but not previously on Sherlock. Sherlock and Mycroft have a very Sherlock conversation about how soon the excess weight will kill him, and John has a very 21st century medical perspective on the need for Mycroft to curb his food enthusiasms.

Mycroft talks about a case, mentioning an “invisible enemy” threatening their way of life. In a nice bit of commentary on how we live now, John ventures various guesses as to whom that enemy might be. He includes “the Scotch” on his list. Mycroft asks him if he’s heard of “paranoia.” John says it sounds “Serbian.”

Mycroft won’t tell his brother more, but claims he’s already worked it all out, and just needs Sherlock to “do the leg work.” Also the enemy must win because “they are right and we are wrong.”

It should be “elementary” that Mycroft’s “enemy” is somehow related to the bride, and that Mary too is probably in the thick of it, but like John we see but do not observe, or maybe you did and already know where it’s going. I’ll confess I didn’t.

Back at Baker Street, we meet Mrs. Carmichael, a woman who bears some resemblance to Irene Adler. There is soon a reference to Miss Adler herself. As in the stories, Sherlock keeps a small photo of her. In another Adler-connection, Mrs. Carmichael’s husband receives an envelope with five orange pips, which Sherlock explains is an American warning of death to come. The Five Orange Pips is also the name of a Holmes story in which Adler is mentioned, and as with Adler, Sherlock admires Mrs. Carmichael’s intelligence.

Sherlock is tasked with protecting her husband, presumably from “the ghost bride” who the missus claims to have seen on the estate. The bride warned her that “this night” her husband would die.

Sherlock and John (who refer to each other as Holmes and Watson in this timeline, as in the originals) are awake while the house sleeps. The bride seems to appear, then disappear, and somewhere there’s a sound of breaking glass, and a scream. They follow a trail of blood. It’s a mess, with John actually frightened by “the ghost” and running off – which doesn’t seem likely in either Conan Doyle or Moffat-Gatiss, but would have been typical in Rathbone-Bruce.

How did this guy get into medical school?

How did this guy get into medical school?

Mr. Carmichael is found dead, stabbed with a dagger. Lestrade shows up, which really doesn’t make sense as we seem to be far from London. Lestrade mentions a message tied to the dagger, which Sherlock missed, and we all know Sherlock doesn’t miss anything. The message is “Miss me,” Moriarity’s words to the world when he suddenly appeared on television screens in the last five minutes of the season three finale. Sherlock is rattled.

In the next bit of disjointedness, Sherlock is again talking to his brother. They’re in front of the famous painting of the Reichenbach Falls. The falls are the location where both Holmes and Moriarty fell to their deaths while struggling in The Final Problem, though Conan Doyle was forced by rabid fans to bring one of them back. The painting was referenced in the season two finale where Moriarty kills himself, just like the bride did.


Mycroft asks Sherlock, “Do you miss him?” He also asks about “the list,” a reference that seems to be important, but isn’t explained.

Then we see Sherlock inside his mind-palace, with newspaper clippings floating in front of him instead of the internet text we see in the contemporary timeline. He wakes from his state, and tells John to fetch the needle, but John is replaced by Moriarty. Guns are drawn by both of them, and then discarded. Is this “real” or part of the mind-palace? Do we care? What happens in the alternative timeline stays in the alternative timeline, doesn’t it? Sherlock asks a question, which would apply to both the bride and Moriarty, “How can you be alive?”

Moriarty says the type of thing one would hear in a dream, “It’s not the fall that kills you. It’s the landing.” We then “land” in the present, on the plane that just turned around, a few minutes from where we left off in the season three finale. Mycroft, John, and Mary are all there with Sherlock, like the farmhands with Dorothy when she woke up back in Kansas.

Unlike Dorothy, Sherlock is not thrilled to be “home.” He wants to go back. He’s working on the case, deep in a drug-induced mind-palace trying to figure out how Moriarty can be alive. We’re told only five minutes have past since the plane turned around, and that Sherlock was already high. Mycroft demands “the list” of what he’s taken. He may have overdosed.

John asks, “Morphine or cocaine?” And then we’re back in the 19th century, with John asking the same question before lecturing his friend, who had promised him never to use while working on a case. Sherlock points out that he never said that. It was John who put the lines into his mouth in a one of his stories.

A fictional character is commenting on how another fictional character portrays him in fictional stories. Welcome to the Borges Channel.

The Baker street irregular enters with a telegram. Mary is in danger. A clueless John asks what danger she could possibly be in.

Off they go in a carriage, but not before John makes Sherlock wear the deerstalker because Sherlock Holmes isn’t Sherlock Holmes without it, and the theme music plays.

They go to a “desanctified church” where Mary announces she’s found “the heart of the conspiracy.”A group dressed in pointed sheets, not white sheets but nevertheless clan-like, is chanting. Why the KKK reference? It’s another nod to the source material, The Five Orange Pips. Only here it isn’t southern white men hiding under the sheets. It’s British women, including Molly Hooper, and John’s housemaid – women who’ve been abused, brutalized. and ignored. Sherlock’s fake-girlfriend from last season is there too. They have become the “invisible enemy” that Mycroft spoke about, and their cause is just. Sherlock works it out. Mrs. Riccoletti was dying of tuberculosis. She went on a suicide mission. First, she faked her death by appearing to shoot herself in the head, but she really shot one of her guns at the ground while a co-conspirator splashed blood on the back of her head. A substitute corpse was taken to the morgue. Later, the real Mrs. R killed her husband, and then shot herself. Her body replaced the substitute. Thus the legend of the vengeful ghost was born, and the co-conspirators continued their mission to assassinate the brutes.


The bride appears, but it’s Moriarty under the veil. We’re back in the present. Sherlock has now been transferred from the plane to the hospital. He announces they have to find where Riccoletti – a real person – is buried. You’d think given that he is a genius and the only man who can beat Moriarty, they’d all be on board with this, but John walks out.

Lestrade and Mycroft help him dig up the grave. He finds one body, but not the substitute corpse he theorizes has to be there. He jumps into the grave. The hidden second skeleton starts rising, and grabs him. Suddenly he’s in the 19th century again, at the falls with Moriarty. Moriarty tells him he’s the virus infecting the hard-drive of Sherlock’s mind. Moriarty wants them both to jump together, but 19th century John shows up with a gun – because showing up when Sherlock needs him is what he does.

It’s John who shoves Moriarty over the cliff. He asks Sherlock about the “other me” in the “other place,” and how he plans on waking up. It’s here that Sherlock says, for maybe the first time in the series, “Elementary.” Then he jumps over the cliff, waking before landing.

Sherlock is still on the plane. The hospital was part of the drug-trip/dream. He announces he has work to do. Mycroft asks John to look after his brother. Sherlock tells John that Moriarty is dead, but more importantly he knows exactly what Moriarty’s going to do next. They go off together with the theme music playing.

Is this the end? Nope, because that would be silly.

Just like the Buffy-asylum episode ends not with Buffy “waking up” to the nightmare of her “real” life hunting demons, but waking up to the nightmare of her alternative universe life as a psychotic in a mental institution, who believes she’s fighting demons, this episode ends with Sherlock and John in the 19th century. They’re discussing “the adventure of the invisible army,” a case which John might or might not write up for The Strand, where Conan-Doyle’s Holmes stories were published.

Because you can't write serious television criticism without bringing up Buffy.

Because you can’t write serious television criticism without bringing up Buffy.

They talk about Sherlock’s mind-palace/drug trip to the future,and things that might someday come to pass. Sherlock goes to the window, but when he looks out, it’s 21st century Baker street. If there was a tardis somewhere, I missed it.

As ridiculous as the episode sounds in retrospect, it plays better than it reads. Much of the dialogue is witty, and  it goes by so fast we don’t notice it doesn’t make sense. I’m willing to gratefully accept the gift bestowed upon us, even if it was more pip than juice. But did it work on its own convoluted terms, or was it a jumbled pretentious mess? Can we work out the quantum-physics of the thing? Drug trip or drug-induced vision of another time in “the other place”? What did you think of The Abominable Bride? Feel free to discuss amongst yourselves in the comments below.

(For those who haven’t seen it yet, click for how, when, and where to watch.)

Marion Stein

Marion writes television recaps and reviews for the Agony Booth, and books you can find over at Amazon.

TV Show: Sherlock

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