[Warning: SPOILERS ahead for Sherlock: The Abominable Bride.]
Watching a program steered - in whole or in part - by Steven Moffat is a particularly unique experience. It's like watching an obsessive painter, after months or even years of work, finally putting the perfect finishing touches on a work of art. The messy, disparate parts come together and for a moment it's beautiful and joyful to look at. But then the artist is in such a frenzy that he can't stop working on it, and he smudges paint over part of the landscape in his excitement to add a jetpack to a cherub, and the composition falls apart, and the whole thing's a mess again.
The one saving grace of Sherlock: The Abominable Bride is that the downright awful bits of the episode are sectioned off pretty neatly, so we can look forward to an hour-long fan edit that cuts out all of the terrible nonsense and only keeps in the good bits. Fortunately the good bits comprise the majority of the episode's running time, so for the next part of this review we'll treat "The Abominable Bride" as though reviewing the hour-long fan edit, and focus on the story of the ghostly bride Emelia Ricoletti (Natasha O'Keeffe), and her penchant for murdering beyond the grave.
A brief prologue recaps the familiar details of Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Watson's (Martin Freeman) first meeting, substituting the clean, clinical setting of the modern morgue with the dingy and unhygienic backdrop of a nineteenth century St. Bartholomew's Hospital. The opening is a welcome bit of fan service - a live-action recreation of all the Victorian alternate universe Sherlock fan fiction that is undoubtedly out there - but after the opening credits roll things really get moving, as the episode introduces one of the best and most classic mystery story setups out there: a person seen walking around after seemingly being confirmed dead.
Emelia Ricoletti isn't just walking around, however; she starts her post-mortem life by shooting her recently widowed husband, and then becoming Victorian London's very own ghostly serial killer, with an emphasis on male victims and wedding-themed crime scenes. Sherlock thankfully dismisses the identical twin theory right out of the gate, promises a mutton-chopped Lestrade (Rupert Graves) that he'll inform him of the true murderer's identity once he's solved the case and then... completely forgets about it for a few months.
Yes, that does seem a bit out of character, particularly given how revved up the detective is by the nature of the murder. Fortunately the episode skips right over those few months to the point where the Abominable Bride emerges yet again, this time threatening a well-to-do aristocrat whose country manor is unfortunately wreathed in atmospheric fog at night. From this atmospheric fog emerges the terrible Mrs. Ricoletti, to inform him of his impending death. Her prediction proves to be fatally accurate.
Like all good mysteries, the clues for solving the case of the Abominable Bride are casually dropped into the episode along the way in the guise of comic relief and character moments, as the women in Sherlock and John's lives make pointed remarks about how they never seem to be mentioned in John's stories - outside of their function in the narrative, of course. These moments blend nicely into the witty banter between characters, which is as sharp and funny as it's ever been. It's also a clever and subtle commentary on the subject of certain people being left out of historical accounts, due to not being considered noteworthy by the people writing said accounts.
Of course, "The Abominable Bride" is (mostly) set during a very important time in history for British women, as evidenced by Amanda Abbington's Mary Morstan (still a spy, even a century into the past) being a member of the suffragist movement. While protesters sport "Votes for Women" sashes on the street, however, there's another women's movement working behind the scenes to create a boogeyman for men with guilty consciences about things that they've done to women. It's just as well, really, that this League of Furies didn't make it into the pages of history books; modelling your outfits after the Ku Klux Klan is a surefire way to make sure your movement doesn't age well.
Altogether, the solution to "The Abominable Bride" manages to dovetail quite neatly with the actual history of the women's suffrage movement. There were, after all, members of the more militant suffragette movement who were willing to sacrifice their lives for their cause (though none who killed for it), and the American women's suffrage movement in particular had strong threads of white supremacy, which makes the Klan hoods pretty apropos. The somewhat simplistic explanation of body-swapping and multiple murderers is nicely complimented by details like the mirror trick used to create a ghostly apparition, and some of the moments in which characters encounter the ghostly bride are genuinely scary. If it had focused entirely on the Victorian setting and its story, "The Abominable Bride" could easily have been one of the best Sherlock episodes so far. Unfortunately, it did not.
The modern plot is essentially a prolonged version of the it-was-all-a-dream twist - prolonged in the same way that bamboo torture is prolonged. Apparently the season 3 cliffhanger ending of Moriarty (Andrew Scott) being back from the dead couldn't wait until season 4 to be addressed, and so it butts its way into "The Abominable Bride" as Emelia Ricoletti's story merely becomes a means by which to solve Moriarty's return from the grave (ironic, considering the themes of the Victorian storyline). To make matters worse, the solution to the Moriarty mystery isn't shared with the audience. Apparently he's really dead, but he's also back, but he's definitely dead, but Sherlock doesn't want to reveal what that means just yet. So after all that, we've still learned nothing.
On the off-chance that Sherlock's showrunners are reading this, please note that you don't always need flashbacks and flashforwards, and Inception-inspired dream layers, and unreliable narrators, and epic twists, and arch-nemeses standing in front of a dream waterfall explicitly yelling their defining character traits at one another. Sometimes it's better to just have a ghost, a murder mystery, and a nice cup of tea.
Sherlock season 4 is expected to arrive in 2017.