The Abominable Habit: BBC and the newest Sherlock

Anyone who has followed the BBC series Sherlock was treated with what is practically a Christmas Miracle: A “Christmas Special” episode of the show, aired in U.K. and the States on January 1st. It has been almost two years since creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss have released any new content, but any doubts about the show’s continued fervor have been placed aside by the 90-minute special. (Warning: Spoilers Ahead)

Aside from its increased length, and (if it’s even possible for Sherlock) increased complexity of plot, the newest episode further develops a theme that has maintained an undercurrent throughout the show’s three seasons. While only one of many foci in The Abominable Bride, writers Moffat and Gatiss make profound statements on what is often considered an auxiliary aspect of the Holmes persona: drug addiction. Let me explain.

At the start of the special, it seems that the show is simply a stand-alone period piece; a tribute to the Victorian setting of the original Sherlock Holmes stories written by Arthur Conan Doyle. As the story progresses, little details and jarringly out-of-place juxtapositions clue the audience into the eventually revealed twist. The episode is not a stand-alone period piece: instead, it takes place in the drug-altered mind of a Sherlock who is exactly where viewers saw him last: on a plane into exile in the finale of Season 3. It is revealed that Sherlock has taken copious drugs to enhance his Mind Palace memory technique to run a simulation of sorts on a 100-year-old cold case. This case, of course, is the actual plot of the Abominable Bride. With the explanation of a cocktail of hallucinogenic drugs, (which are either a mystery in the contemporary setting, or revealed to be cocaine in the Victorian one) the plot flips back and forth between Sherlock's historical fantasy and the present day. As soon as this pattern becomes predictable, it is broken by horrific fantastical occurrence (a lá a re-animated singing corpse) in the contemporary setting.

Another thread that enters the episode at approximately the same point as the drug explanation is Sherlock’s long-dead nemesis, James Moriarty. Through a note, Moriarty crashes into Holmes’ carefully arranged focus and toys with him, taunting him to explain his seeming re-animation that was revealed at the end of season 3. All of this culminates in a wrestling match on the brink of the legendary Reichenbach Falls, the original setting for both Holmes’ and Moriarty’s death in the Conan Doyle canon. In their standoff, Moriarty exclaims that he’ll never be dead in Sherlock’s mind: “You once called your brain a hard drive. Well, say hello to the virus.”  As they punch and kick themselves in a clearly symbolic fight, Moriearty screams a series of very interesting exclamations:

“You think you’re so big and strong, Sherlock. Well, not with me. I am your WEAKNESS! I keep you DOWN! Every time you stumble, every time you fail.When you’re weak. I. AM. THERE. No, don’t try to fight it. Lie back and lose! Shall we go over together?”

Fictional Watson then steps in with a gun, intervening between the two. In a touching exchange, Sherlock is reminded that he does not have to face his nemesis alone.

The treacherousness of drug addiction is Moffat and Gatiss’ actual subject in this scene. Moriarty is an embodiment of Sherlock’s crack in the lens: his perennial relapse into drug use as an alleviation of the “boredom” of real life. Sherlock is portrayed in much of the series as a machine, perfectly logical and only masquerading as a man. In his drug addiction, however, Sherlock is no stronger or better equipped to help himself. In the end, it is Watson (John, as he affectionately refers to him in the scene) who saves him from his own ghost. Mycroft, though often depicted as a pompous, callous, insincere older version of Sherlock, tells of their history navigating Sherlock’s addiction, saying that “whatever back-alley, whatever doss house I find him in, there will always be a list.” The list details what and how much Sherlock has taken, a pragmatic arrangement that allows Mycroft to care for his brother in the worst sort of scenario. 

Sherlock, as a series, often intersects weighty subjects, but rarely makes any normative claims. The show has been, thus far, supremely entertaining, but only externally significant in the ways that sitcoms are: as an exploration of the value of friendship. Now, the series has taken on an often neglected reality of contemporary culture, in a thoughtful and non-sarcastic (though somewhat tangential) treatment. With heroin-related overdose deaths on a steep increase, the scenario that Moffat and Gatiss lay out is less uncommon than it used to be, and compassion and love for the victims of addiction is needed now more than ever before. In The Abominable Bride, BBC’s Sherlock puts a human face on addiction in the show’s own quirky and entertaining style. The value of such a move, to me, is elementary. 
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