Sherlock's 'mansplaining' wasn't the worst thing about The Abominable Bride
Under Steven Moffat, the great detective has become trapped in an endless hall of mirrors reflecting on his own cleverness
Critics of the latest episode of Sherlock Holmes have attacked the show for "mansplaining" feminism. For fear of actually mansplaining, that is a word used to describe the patronising way that men sometimes explain things, particularly to women (did you get that, dear?). It’s the neologism which birthed this tedious trend of adding "man" to the front of words – see "manspreading" – as a way of criticising those of us with a Y chromosome. If a man is bad at being in charge of a group of people or defending a fortification is he manmanaging or manmanning?
Still, as a show directed by a man, co-starring two men and written by two other men, Sherlock ought to have avoided making jokes about the sometimes token presence of women, or styling feminists as similar to the Klu Klux Klan. On the other hand, it’s good of the BBC to give a nod to the existence of women from time to time: of the eight latest dramas to be announced by the BBC, all of them are written by men. That’s a mystery worthy of a private detective.
Yet this was not even the most egregious thing about the episode entitled "The Abominable Bride" (hereafter TAB), Arthur Conan Doyle once wrote that “mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself," and if this installment had one problem, it’s that it thought that it was much smarter than it was. It was the Douglas Carswell of holiday television: a dim person’s idea of what a clever story would look like. I ought to warn that the rest of this will include spoilers, but that would imply that I believed that there was much enjoyment to spoil.
"This was an over-indulgent guitar solo, showing off talented strumming and fingering at the expense of the song"
Of course Cumberbatch, Freeman, Stubbs, Gatiss, Brealey, Scott and co are all brilliantly good in their respective roles. The sets, costumes and lighting are all shown off by adept direction. The emperor has good posture, but you can still see his noble bachelor shivering in the wind.
For one thing, the BBC has become a little obsessed with people who don’t die but do fake it. This was interesting the first time, but pretend deaths are no match for real ones, and the increasingly well-trodden territory of people who aren’t actually dead didn’t advance the plot of the overarching Sherlock storyline. “Sherlock gets off a plane” would have been a more accurate title. In an episode which drifted away from any pretence of focusing on the solution of crimes, or advancing the overall plot of the series, this drama was an over-indulgent guitar solo, showing off talented strumming and fingering at the expense of the song.
The three pipe problem here is that Sherlock’s writers clearly thought their work was exceptional. Perhaps Christopher Nolan is to blame for making the slick, highly successful but ultimately only half-clever Inception. TAB makes Inception look like it was written by a committee of Nobel Laureates. Sherlock eked out the "it was all a dream" twist –the end of every seven-year-old's creative writing homewrk – like a vehicle running on just the vapours of an idea. Where Inception revelled in the complexities of the dream state, Sherlock held it back as the great surprise. Gasp – the fake death was fake on two levels. Three if you count the fact that it was all a turgid TV drama. It was all so incessantly meta, so self-referential, that you couldn’t be distracted from the emptiness.
Like Mendes’ Bond in Spectre, Steven Moffat’s Sherlock has strayed too far from the source. It’s as if Moffat pointed at an ocean and bet someone that he could water-ski over a shark. Lazy references to Holmes stories like The Five Orange Pips are stretched over a canvas designed to satisfy the particular aims of the creator. When Holmes is ganged up on by versions of women he has mistreated in the past, it has nothing to do with Sherlock, nothing to do with the plot – just the preoccupation of an author trying to defend himself from his feminist critics.
It took great skill to reimagine Sherlock Holmes in the modern day and to successfully tell its stories for a new generation of viewers. I admire the episodes of Sherlock which preceded TAB, and I am still excited for the next series. With any luck, and a dose or two of humility, the show’s creators will go back to telling detective stories. Until then, we’ll just have to keep telling ourselves that this episode of Sherlock just happened in our mind palaces.