Holmes and Watson go Victorian in a slightly ridiculous but wildly entertaining ghost story
Credit: Robert Viglasky/PBS
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It’s been about two years since Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman’s dynamic crime-solving duo last graced our television screens. That’s two years of pining for Baker Street and agonizing over last season’s cliffhanger. To tide us over until season four, creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss granted us this 90-minute diversion, promising a goofy one-off episode set in an alternate universe, where the Sherlock and John we know and love were instead transplanted to Victorian England. There, they’d run around in the London fog solving a spooky murder case about a vengeful bride returned from the dead.

At least, that’s what we were promised. Instead, we got something so much better — and so much weirder.

There’s a lot to unpack in this episode, from vindictive suffragettes to that Inception-style plot twist, so we’re going to tackle this in two parts, starting first with the main bride storyline. Then, we’ll dive into that big reveal — and what it might mean for season four.

Things start harmlessly enough, and the special eases us into things with an almost exact recreation of the first few scenes from the pilot — with a 19th-century twist. Watson’s still an army doctor who got shot while serving in Afghanistan, and he’s now returned home to search for a place to live in the “great cesspool” that is London. While searching for a place to live, he runs into his old friend Stamford, who takes him to St. Bart’s (which is looking decidedly dingy and unhygienic, as most hospitals did in the 1890s.) There, Stamford introduces him to everyone’s favorite high-functioning sociopath, who is, just as we expected, still beating corpses with a riding crop and making instant deductions about Watson’s military history. Good to know some things never change.

After a Victorian version of the opening credits (the string-heavy score actually works quite well, even in the 19th century), we fast forward a bit. Holmes and Watson have been solving murders together for a while now, and instead of blogging, Watson’s been chronicling their adventures in The Strand. His stories do take some dramatic liberties, which results in Mrs. Hudson being cut out of them almost entirely. This is just the first of the episode’s many, many commentaries on how women are so often sidelined in the Conan Doyle canon, as Mrs. Hudson declares, “I’m your landlady. Not a plot device.”

Similarly, Mrs. Mary Watson is stuck at home while her husband gets to run around solving murders with his weird roommate, and she’s not all that thrilled about being left behind. She’s discussing the suffragette movement when good ol’ Inspector Lestrade shows up, sporting some pretty epic sideburns. He’s notably shaken about something, and after they pour him a much-needed drink, he recounts the facts of a case that may just stump the great Sherlock Holmes.

The day before, a woman named Emilia Ricoletti donned her wedding dress and tried to shoot her husband in the street on their anniversary, before pulling the gun on herself. The following day, while her body was lying cold in the morgue, she shows up once again and begins creepily singing her wedding song, before shooting her husband for good this time and declaring, “It’s a shotgun wedding!”

A zombie bride shooting her husband in the street, with dozens of witnesses? How can a consulting detective resist? Holmes and Watson rush off to the morgue, where they find Emilia’s body in chains, so carefully restrained by — ugh — Anderson. But he’s not in charge here: Hooper is. Yes, that’s Molly Hooper, as in Louise Brealey donning a mustache and a gruff accent and pretending to be a man. Again, the gender commentary is anything but subtle, but Brealey struts around looking like she’s having the time of her life. She’s consistently one of the best, most human parts of the actual series, and she’s just as delightful here.

After Holmes dismisses any suggestion that Emilia might have a twin — “It is never twins, Watson” — they put the case on the back burner for several months. Lestrade’s growing increasingly panicked, as the Bride has been bumping men off left and right, but Holmes chalks it up to copycat murders, not an actual vengeful ghost. But he picks it back up again at the suggestion of his older brother Mycroft, whose 19th-century doppelgänger is still clever but now considerably heavier, and after the two make bets about how long it’ll take Mycroft to eat his way to an early death, Mycroft tells Sherlock that a woman named Lady Carmichael will soon approach him with a case, and it would be in his best interest to take it.

“Our way of life is under threat from an invisible enemy, one that hovers at our elbow on a daily basis,” Mycroft explains. “These enemies are everywhere, undetected and unstoppable.” After Watson wonders how best to defeat these mysterious socialists or Scotsmen or whatever sinister organization they may be, Mycroft continues: “We don’t defeat them. We most certainly lose to them. Because they are right and we are wrong.” It’s our first inkling that there’s more to this case than meets the eye.

NEXT: The Five Orange Pips

As promised, Lady Carmichael shows up, and she has an Emilia Ricoletti story of her own. Her husband, Eustace Carmichael, received a mysterious shipment of several orange pips in the mail — one of many, many nods to classic Conan Doyle stories in this episode — and realizes that he is marked for death, much to her bewilderment. Soon thereafter, Lady Carmichael finds her husband wandering their extensive hedge maze, where they both run into good old Emilia, looking just as dead and creepy as ever. (Side note: If you’re worried about being murdered, maybe cut down the foggy hedge maze in your yard?) It makes for one of the eeriest scenes in the entire series, and it’s clear what Moffat and Gatiss meant when they said in previous interviews that ghost stories work better in a Victorian setting than they would in the modern series. All that fog and gothic gloom could seem hokey in the 21st century, but it’s just right for the 19th.

Emilia doesn’t shoot Carmichael then and there, but she promises to do so soon. That’s why Lady Carmichael has come to Holmes and Watson, and a delighted Holmes proposes that they use her husband as bait to catch themselves a ghost.

While they’re waiting around for Mrs. Ricoletti to show herself, Holmes and Watson have a bit of a heart-to-heart, and it’s telling that one of the strongest scenes of the entire episode isn’t the one with ghosts or dramatic plot twists, but the one with just Sherlock and John, discussing their friendship and Sherlock’s inability to connect with other people. As a series, Sherlock has a lot of strengths, from its crazy crimes to its rich cast of supporting characters, but this is Cumberbatch and Freeman’s show, and although the 19th-century Holmes and Watson are stiffer and slightly more formal than our Sherlock and John, they’re still recognizable, and it’s their relationship that drives the entire show. Watson starts by teasing Holmes about his lack of experience with women, but it quickly devolves into something far more personal: Holmes’ complete and total desire to be alone. “What made you like this?” Watson asks him. “Nothing made me,” Holmes replies. “I made me.”

That dramatic moment is interrupted by a sudden spectral appearance, and as they watch the ghost of Emilia Ricoletti disappear before their eyes, they hear shrieking from within the house. Holmes dashes off to find Eustace Carmichael’s body, which is when Watson comes face to face with the Abominable Bride herself. He panics and runs, allowing the killer to escape, and they’re left with another dead body and no murderer.

Fortunately, it’s Mary to the rescue, as even 19th-century Mary Watson is a spy. She’s been tailing them for Mycroft, and she leads them to a top-secret meeting of badass suffragettes. That’s when it all falls into place.

See, Emilia Ricoletti didn’t actually shoot herself the first time around. She fired one gun into the ground, while a secret accomplice splashed some blood around and made it look like she blew her brains out. That freed her up to don some spooky makeup and seemingly return from the dead the following day, shooting her husband. The real Mrs. Ricoletti was dying of consumption, so she asked her compatriots to then actually shoot her in the head and place her body in the morgue as if it had been there all along. The remaining women then pretended to be Ricoletti’s ghost, a vengeful spirit striking back against men who wronged them. “A league of furies awakened, the women I, we, have lied to, betrayed,” Holmes says. “The women we have ignored and disparaged. Once the idea exists, it cannot be killed.”

Not only does this showcase how Holmes (and to a lesser extent, Watson) tends to underestimate or ignore the women in his life, but it’s a pretty blatant commentary on how women were portrayed in the original Conan Doyle canon. It’s definitely a little heavy-handed, seeing as the women literally terrorize and murder their abusers, but it’s always nice to see some female characters take center stage in a story that’s so intensely focused on its male leads.

But here’s the thing: Everything we’ve just watched didn’t actually happen.

NEXT: Paging Christopher Nolan

Back in the 21st century, we’re right where we left off at the end of season three. Sherlock has just been brought back from exile after Moriarty has apparently returned, and his plane hasn’t even touched down yet. Instead, the past hour has taken place entirely inside his mind palace, where he’s dreamed up this entire Victorian scenario to try to solve the old Ricoletti case from more than 100 years ago, in which a woman blew her brains out and then seemingly returned from the dead to wreak more havoc. Sound familiar?

That’s right, Moriarty’s back — at least in Sherlock’s mind. As a result, we get to watch Andrew Scott strut around Baker Street, casually licking dead skin cells off the mantle and informing Sherlock that his bed sure is comfortable.

In the quest to figure out how Moriarty died and has somehow resurrected himself, Sherlock fell into a drug-addled daydream and attempted to solve a century-old case in the hopes that it would somehow help him deduce how Moriarty survived.

It’s a wild plot twist, even by Sherlock standards, and although most of the episode can be written off as fantasy and drug-addled delusion, it does help frame where the upcoming season might go. As Sherlock (the real Sherlock) informs Mary and John at the end of the episode, yes, Moriarty is dead, but that doesn’t mean he’s not back. There are ways to act from beyond the grave, especially when you’ve got accomplices. “More importantly,” Sherlock adds, “I know exactly what he’s going to do next.”

And that’s it! Now we go back to waiting patiently for season four. All in all, it’s an incredibly ambitious episode, as Sherlock usually is. The bride storyline was strong enough, and Moffat and Gatiss could’ve just turned a simple but highly entertaining ghost story as filler between seasons three and four. Instead, they (sort of) answered one of the biggest unresolved questions from last season’s finale and left us with about a dozen more. And for good measure, they wrapped the entire thing up in an insane tale with period costumes, maggot-eaten corpses, and Moriarty seductively licking a loaded gun. “Is this silly enough for you yet?” Moriarty asks Sherlock. “Gothic enough? Mad enough? Even for you?” Absolutely.

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Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman star in the celebrated U.K. series

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