Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Game of Thrones 6.01: The Red Woman



Hello and welcome back to yet another season of Game of Thrones!! As with every season previous to season six, I will be recapping each episode with my comrade-in-arms, the lovely and talented Christopher Lockett, who will be posting it over on his blog simultaneously (but with different pictures). Until this season, Christopher has been the guy who knows the books inside and out and has commented on how each episode worked as an adaptation, whereas I just talked about the episodes in and of themselves. Now that we're officially off-book, both of us will be analyzing and discussing the new season in how it fits in the pantheon of what came before, and where we see it going.

So without further ado, here's Christopher to start us off!

Christopher: Well, we begin precisely where we left off last season, with the lifeless body of Jon Snow in the courtyard of Castle Black. We’re treated to an artful overhead shot skimming the edge of the Wall and craning down into the yard, coming in close on Jon’s lifeless face. Wolves howl in the distance, and the silent emptiness of the yard is broken by the rattling of a locked door. And then we see Ghost: locked in a room, in answer to your question, Nikki, in our last post of season five. Where was Jon’s direwolf as he was stabbed to death? Safely imprisoned, apparently.

As openings go, this was pretty deftly done: not least because every single fan of this show ended last season in a state of either trauma, denial, or rage (or all of the above) at the thought that Jon Snow was to be added to Game of Thrones’ butcher’s bill. If they’d been cute and started this episode anywhere else, I have to imagine that rage would have been volcanic. But no … we close in on Jon, deserted by his assassins who, we will shortly glean, have scarpered to the mess hall in order to justify their mutiny to their fellows.

Leaving poor Jon to be discovered by … Davos. There, the Onion Knight is joined by Jon’s friends, and together they carry the body indoors. That it is Davos who first finds him and takes command in short order is significant. Here is a man who has quite literally lost everything: his sons killed at the Battle of Blackwater, himself sidelined by his king to stay at Castle Black, and subsequently left without a king or an army after Stannis’ calamitous defeat at the hands of the Boltons. Yet here he is, siding with a small handful of Jon Snow loyalists. I have had many occasions to praise the casting on this show, and I can think of few actors who have better inhabited GRRM’s characters than Liam Cunningham as Davos Seaworth. He radiates gravitas, and so beautifully and subtly communicates the pathos of a man whose loyalty and service were undeserved by the object of his devotion, Stannis Baratheon.

All of which is at least a little beside the question that everyone waiting breathlessly since last year has been asking: is Jon Snow really dead? Well, yes. Quite dead. But will he remain dead? Will he become a wight? Had he thrown his consciousness into Ghost? Will Melissandre resurrect him? This last question will rebound on us when we discuss this episode’s final moments, but for now we can safely say: Jon Snow is dead. At least for the entirety of this episode.

What’s interesting is the possible battle lines that have been drawn: Dolorous Edd Tollett has been dispatched, presumably, to recruit the wildlings to the cause of Jon Snow’s friends. Davos makes it clear that he has no truck with Jon’s assassins. Ghost is seriously pissed. Meanwhile, Alliser Thorne and his co-conspirators paraphrase Brutus’ post-assassination speech from Julius Caesar in the mess hall, apparently successfully. The stage has been set for some serious shit to go down at the Wall, with or without a live Jon Snow.

What did you think of this season’s opening salvo, Nikki?

Nikki: I loved it (all except that part where Jon Snow didn’t magically come back to life, of course). But I’m also glad they’ve kept it a secret. Season 5 ended with the death of Jon Snow; perhaps season 6 will end with him coming back to life. It would be really interesting if they draw it out, either to keep our hopes up or to divert our attention elsewhere. The thought of Tollett returning with a band of wildlings is exciting — as Davos says, “You’re not the only ones who owe your lives to Jon Snow” — and I wonder if this might be where Bran could re-enter the picture this season.

Meanwhile, over in the Super Happy Fun Times Castle, Ramsay strokes the face of his dead lover before declaring that she’s “good meat” that should be fed to the hounds (we all, um, grieve in our own way, I suppose?) before Roose takes him out into the hallway to chastise him for the way he handled his ragtag battle. He’s lost Sansa and Theon, and he says the North will never back them if they don’t have Sansa Stark, and they’ve lost the heir to the Iron Islands. And then he hints that perhaps the newest Lady Bolton is carrying a son, which once again reminds Ramsay that he’ll be once again relegated to bastard status: heir of nothing.



Meanwhile, Sansa and Reek have been running from Ramsay Bolton’s castle and forge an icy stream (where Sansa, for some reason, doesn’t remove the 100-pound cloak from her back and hold it over her head so they can use it later as a blanket) before finding solace under a felled tree. I LOVED the scene where we saw another glimmer of Theon, where Sansa is both so physically and emotionally numb she can’t move, and he embraces her, rubbing her back to keep her warm, but also to let her know that her “brother” is back. And when Ramsay’s hunters catch up to them, Theon throws himself in their path as a sacrifice, trying to save the girl who was raised as his sister and right all the wrongs he’s done to the Starks. It doesn’t work, however, and juuuuuust when you think oh NO, they have to head back to that bastard’s castle... along comes Brienne and Pod.

You know a show is great when you’re cheering for joy on the couch and it’s less than 15 minutes into the premiere episode. The fight scene was fantastic, where Brienne holds her own, but not without some trouble. She’s large, she’s strong, and she’s an excellent fighter, but these men have horses, and — not to put too fine a point on it — they’re men. And she still manages to better them, with the help of Podrick and Theon, who guts one of them. She ignores their cries for mercy because she has one goal and one goal only: to save Lady Stark, whose life she has pledged to keep safe. And when she kneels before Sansa and once again gives her that pledge — and I was half expecting her to say, “NOW will you come with me, you jerk?!” — and Sansa accepts it (with some help from Podrick when she can’t remember the formal language), it’s a joyous moment. 




And to be honest, I couldn’t help but think to myself, I would love a Brienne:

“See that woman over there, Brienne? She told me off at the PTA meeting, and is one of those moms who volunteers for everything and makes me feel bad that I don't. And her daughter’s a bully who made my daughter cry last week. Deal with her.”
“Yes, m’lady!”
Sssshhhhhink!!

Ah.

OK, back to reality.

From here we move to King’s Landing and the Lannisters. What did you think of the reunion of Jamie and Cersei, Chris?

Christopher: On a purely emotional level, it was my favourite scene of the episode. I too was fist-pumping as Brienne rode to the rescue, was aghast at the events in Dorne, loved the buddy comedies unfolding in and adjacent to Meereen, and was gobsmacked by the episode’s final moments … but in this reunion I think we got some of the finest acting we’ve seen from Lena Headey and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau yet—which is saying a lot, as neither of them have exactly been slouches in the previous five seasons.

If there’s something this show does well, it’s making us sympathize with otherwise hateful characters, and making us cringe when the supposedly likable characters do hateful things (the obvious exceptions being the requisite sociopaths like Joffrey and Ramsay, whom we just loathe unreservedly and with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns). We know what’s coming—we know as soon as Cersei receives word that her twin has returned that her joy at the prospect of seeing him and her daughter will turn to ash. And while she’s a character for whom we would be well justified for indulging in some schadenfreude, the scene is instead heartbreaking, for reasons Cersei herself identifies. “She was good,” she weeps. “From her first breath, she was so sweet. I don’t know where she came from. She was nothing like me. No meanness, no jealousy. Just good … I thought if I could make something so good, so pure … maybe I’m not a monster.” Her grief in this moment is wildly different from her grief for Joffrey, which was almost feral in its rage and fear. We might interpret that as Cersei valuing her male child over the female, but I think not—it was, I’m inclined to believe, her unspoken recognition of her son’s monstrosity, seeing herself reflected in it, and her visceral reaction to being attacked.

Her grief for Myrcella is quieter, more fatalistic, the shock at the death of innocence. It is a moment of rare self-reflection on Cersei’s part, in which she sees her own machinations and ruthlessness rebound upon her. Except that we know her well enough to know she would not be surprised to have the revenge of her numerous enemies visited upon her: Myrcella’s death at the hands of the Sand Snakes is yet one more innocent lost in the larger war, and we soon see her erstwhile fiancĂ©e similarly dispatched back in Dorne—dead for the sin of having the wrong parents. It was a moment that called to mind the murder of all Robert Baratheon’s bastards in season one.



As I’ve mentioned many times in the past five years, Lena Headey as Cersei was always one of the few bits of casting that never entirely sat right with me—not because she’s not a good actor, but because her portrayal is dramatically at odds with how Cersei is described in the novels, and for that reason she’s had more of an uphill battle in this role than almost everyone else in the show. But I must say, she has come to own this role, and in moments like this brings more nuance to the character than GRRM gives her in the books.

And she’s well matched in this scene by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, whose impassioned “Fuck prophecy! Fuck fate, fuck everyone who isn’t us!” is one of the more eloquent employments of the f-bomb I’ve seen since Deadwood ended. A point I raised several times last season is the way in which this show depicts radicalization: the way in which circumstances drive certain characters and groups of characters to extremes. The rise of the sparrows is the most obvious example, but we see it also in the scenes in Mereen, where the red priests look to be getting traction with the disenfranchised ex-slaves. Jaime’s “fuck everyone who isn’t us!” mirrors such sentiments on a smaller and more intimate scale, a reactionary clenching in the face of fear and loss.

Speaking of the sparrows, we segue from Cersei and Jaime to where Margaery remains imprisoned, subjected to the shaming of a septa who seems to take a little too much pleasure in her duties. What think you of the fortunes of House Tyrell, Nikki?

Nikki: Oh, Margaery. Just as you said with Cersei, there’s a part of me that wants to see her suffer for everything she’s done to the people around her. But then you see her on the ground being badgered by a nun, and... actually, yeah, I’m still OK with her suffering at this point. When the High Sparrow enters the room after Sister Ratchet has been ordering her to confess, Margaery once again tells him that she has nothing to confess. “You believe you are pure, perfect, wholly without sin?” he says to her. “None of us are,” she replies, and despite the cringe-worthy grammatical error in that line (move on, Nikki, MOVE ON) it’s one that sums up every person on this show. Everyone is seeking revenge on someone else for harms that person has done to them, all the while harming other people. Margaery was justified in the actions she took against the House of Lannister, but she’s been so awful and bitchy that I just couldn’t stand her anymore. Meanwhile, Cersei and Jaime in the previous scene are lamenting what’s been done to them by everyone, and yet Cersei is the one who brought the High Sparrow to King’s Landing in the first place, and she’s also the one who had Oberyn killed, which led to the murder of her daughter.

And the Sand Snakes aren’t stopping there. Now that they’ve gotten to Cersei through her daughter, they turn their sights to the House Martell. Prince Oberyn’s brother Doran, the ruler of Dorne, is a quiet, pensive leader who is a lot calmer and more calculating than his younger brother, whose head was smooshed like a cantaloupe when he got too cocky in the midst of battling the Mountain. When Ellaria Sand raced to Dorne to tell Doran what had happened to her lover, Doran did not rush to exact revenge on the House of Lannister — he knew doing so would simply start a war that he wanted to avoid. And so he said no, let’s wait, come up with a plan, and find a way to fix all of this. The problem is, this isn’t the first time the Lannisters — and, specifically, the Mountain — had torn their family apart. Remember that before the events of the series, Rhaegar Targaryen — Daenerys’s beloved older brother — had been married to Elia Dorne, and when Robert Baratheon’s army moved on Rhaegar, with Baratheon himself killing the Targaryen, Tywin Lannister then moved his army into Rhaegar’s castle, and the Mountain not only killed Elia’s older child, followed by her infant son, before her very eyes, but then raped her violently before killing her, too.

The effect this would have had on Oberyn was immense, as he was very close to his sister, and Ellaria vowed revenge on that day, but Prince Doran refused to move against the Lannisters. Now that they’ve killed both his brother and his sister and he still refuses to move, Ellaria can no longer wait for something to happen. “Your son is weak, just like you, and weak men will never rule Dorne again.” And as Doran lies on the ground, gasping for breath after Ellaria has stabbed him through the lung, his last thought is that his son is next.



And he is. In one of the gorier moments on Game of Thrones — and one most viewers probably saw coming, since A) no one turns their back on Obara and gets away with it, and B) Obara would like nothing more than to take a satisfying kill away from Nymeria — Obara pushes her spear diagonally through Trystane’s back and up through his face. Thus endeth the House of Martell.

And from there we move to Meereen, where Tyrion and Varys return (and there was much rejoicing... yaay...) and Varys stops Tyrion from a potentially embarrassing baby-eating incident. What did you think of the return of our favourite twosome, and the rumblings of rebellion in Meereen?

Christopher: I would be happy with a Game of Thrones spin-off that was just Tyrion and Varys on a road trip. To say that these two actors have amazing chemistry might suggest that they don’t have great chemistry with everyone else in the cast, which they do; but there’s a particularly good match between these characters that the series has exploited to much greater effect than the novels. They are both marginalized figures who more than compensate for their outsider status with their shrewd intellects; and both work for a greater good in spite of the fact that they receive no gratitude for it. I’m reminded of the moment in season two’s final episode, after the Battle of the Blackwater, when Varys sits beside the gravely wounded Tyrion’s bed and informs him that he cannot expect any commendations for his valiant defense of the city. “There are many who know that, without you, the city would have faced certain defeat,” Varys says sadly. “The king won’t give you any honours, the histories won’t mention you … but we will not forget.” That “we” is vague, but suggestive, hinting at a silent majority—the people themselves, the forgotten, who are so often crushed by the great wheel Daenerys spoke about last season.



This little scene is one of the subtler bits of writing we’ve seen: one of the things this show is good at is depicting the monumental difficulty of ruling in a just and equitable manner. Nothing is easy, and this in a genre that has so frequently figured the difference between bloody war and utopian peace as merely a matter of sitting the right arse on the throne: whether it’s Aragorn’s coronation at the end of Lord of the Rings, the Pevensie children ascending to Cair Paravel in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, or young Arthur pulling the sword from the stone, ruling is a matter of destiny rather than statesmanship and diplomacy. Game of Thrones dispenses with this trope almost entirely.

Almost—there is still the vague sense of destiny floating in the air, especially in terms of Daenerys’ ostensibly inevitable return to Westeros, but the sojourn in Meereen has proved such a catastrophe so far that the mere rightness (or what seems like rightness) of Daenerys’ motives falls far short of what is needed to actually run a kingdom.

Tyrion’s first line in this scene—“We’re never going to fix what’s wrong with this city from the top of an eight hundred foot pyramid”—sums this point up rather pithily. Daenerys arrived in Meereen with noble intentions, but ruled in a literally top-down fashion that ignored nuance. Tyrion brings Varys down to ground level, but his drab merchant’s garb can’t efface his privileged background: “You walk like a rich person,” Varys says, skeptical. “You walk as though the paving stones were your personal property.” Tyrion may have excommunicated himself from his family and fortune and been subjected last season to a host of indignities, but he is still a Lannister. The bit of comic business in which Tyrion inadvertently offers to eat the destitute woman’s baby is emblematic of the serial miscommunications that marred Daenerys’ reign, and as he and Varys continue through the city, there is a palpable sense of imminent danger. The red priest urges the people to take things in their own hands rather than wait for the queen’s return; graffiti highlights Daenerys’ own conflicted status, and the disillusionment of the people she sought to save; and as Tyrion and Varys enter what appears to be a deserted part of the city, the apparent absence of people is belied by their unseen watcher lurking in the shadows. The sense of a city holding its breath is broken by tolling bells and the screams and cries of people in flight, and we see what appears to be the Sons of the Harpy’s next attack: the burning of the fleet in the harbor. “We won’t be sailing to Westeros anytime soon,” Tyrion grimly observes. Given that Daenerys’ absence and the city’s chaos mean that her return to the Seven Kingdoms was a ways off in the future, the burning of the ships is more significant for the fact that it obviates the possibility for escape.

Which brings us to a somewhat more awkward buddy narrative as Jorah and Daario find the site of Daenerys’ capture, and Jorah finds the ring she left behind. Of course, we also get a requisite glance at Jorah’s forearm to remind us of his creeping greyscale, whose progress says tempus fugit—his days are numbered, and the time he has to find Dany is limited.

Speaking of the erstwhile Mother of Dragons, she is back in the familiar context of a khalasar, except this time as a captive and slave. What did you think of Daenerys’ scenes in this episode, Nikki?

Nikki: Agreed on that scene being one to rush over. I like Daario, but I like him more when he’s in Clone Club.

The scenes with Daenerys were fantastic. First, as she’s being pulled along in the dust and desert while the two riders speak Dothraki in front of her, assuming she can’t understand a word (all the while with her face showing the “as soon as I get the upper hand again, you two asshats will be the first to be flame-broiled by my dragon” look), and then when we get to the tent where Khal Moro unwittingly enters a Spanish Inquisition sketch.

Moro: The absolute BEST thing in life is seeing a naked woman for the first time. Seeing a naked woman and killing another Khal okay the TWO best things in life are seeing a naked woman for the first time... and killing another Khal.
Moron #1: And conquering a city and taking people as slaves.
Moron #2: And removing the idols back to Vaes Dothrak...
Moro: OK THE FOUR, FOUR best things in life are seeing a naked woman for the first time, killing another Khal, conquering a city and taking the people as slaves, AND taking her idols back to Vaes Dothrak. And breaking a wild horse and forcing it to submit to your will OK AMONG THE BEST THINGS IN LIFE... is seeing a naked woman for the first time.

Actor Joe Naufahu is brilliant in this scene, simply by tilting his head and looking off into the distance while his yahoos try to outwit him and prevent him from making a very brief and terrifying point to his prisoner, and it’s hilarious. And completely unexpected in the midst of a Dothraki scene. Meanwhile Daenerys has this “are... you... kidding... me...” look on her face the entire time that makes the scene even better.



But on a more serious note, throughout this scene we can’t help but move back in our memories to a very similar scene in season one, when she was first trotted out to Khal Drogo, who similarly looked at her like another possession, was taunted by his fellow riders and women sitting nearby, and was terrified. Her brother Viserys had put her up to it back then, but this is a very different Daenerys who is facing them this time. This one is a queen, a mother of dragons, a woman who not only conquered Viserys, but made Khal Drogo worship her, who has loved and lost and risen above everything, who commands armies and who has a very serious shot at taking back the throne of Westeros. This isn’t the young girl from season one (only 13 years old in the books when it happens). This is a powerful woman. And it’s no surprise when he suddenly steps back, cuts her bonds, asks her forgiveness, and acquiesces to the power of Daenerys...

...except that’s not exactly what happens. Instead of being let go, she’s told that as a widow, she will be forced to live out her days in the Temple of Dosh Khaleen, a place where widowed khaleesis go to live out the rest of their days. (And... apparently as he was dying a horrible, painful death, Khal Drogo didn’t think to mention this to his wife? Yeesh. Men.)

Things are about to get interesting.

Meanwhile, as the show continues in its quite anti–Happily Ever After vein, Arya is now blind and begging for coins on the streets when she’s met with her old roomie from the House of Black and White, who beats the utter living snot out of her with a staff in what appears to be the beginning of a truly violent series of lessons that will teach Arya to see in a very different way (think blindfolded Luke in lightsaber training as he tried to block the shots coming from the Marksman-H... only imagine it if Luke missed every shot and came away half-dead). Just as Daenerys’s scene reminded us of how far she’s come since season one, this scene reminds us of a young Arya as she had her “dancing” lessons with Syrio Forel... all these years later, the training is far more vicious, and Arya is no longer the little girl she was back then.

What did you think of the “training” scene with Arya, Chris?

Christopher: I think one of the best lines of this episode was when Daario says he hopes to live a long life, because he wants to see what the world looks like when Daenerys is done conquering it. That’s a sentiment that resonates on a host of levels with this series, both the macro and the micro. What will Westeros look like after it gets the Daenerys treatment? But on the micro level, what will survival of these tempestuous, indeed catastrophic times mean for all of these characters?

It’s a question I find myself asking at each stage in Arya’s evolution—from tomboy daughter of a noble house, to a fugitive cutpurse, to a girl suddenly faced with the fact of her family’s destruction, to an assassin-in-training required to surrender her sense of self in the name of becoming Faceless. What is being required of her in the House of Black and White is nothing less than the dissolution of her selfhood, to truly become “no one” in order that she can assume myriad identities. That loss of self is chilling enough a prospect to consider in the abstract, but even more so when it is a character so compelling and complex as Arya. I don’t want her to become no one! I always want her to be Arya Stark in all of her stubborn idiosyncrasies.

And it is difficult to watch her broken down and humiliated in this way. On one hand, it is reminiscent of every kung fu movie ever made in which an apprentice suffers at the hands of a master, and perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that entry into the most elite society of assassins is slightly more brutal than becoming a Navy SEAL. On the other hand, a man wonders what will be left of Arya when all is said and done (assuming she survives).



One way or another, the writers aren’t really giving us any room to sympathize with “the waif” (which is apparently what we’re calling that tween girl version of R. Lee Ermey).

But speaking of loathsome characters, we haven’t yet talked at any length about Ser Alliser Thorne doing his very best Brutus-addressing-the-mob impersonation back at the Wall. A quick note of correction: you suggested that perhaps Edd Tollett’s mission to go bring the wildlings back might bring Bran back into the picture, but the point is that the wildlings are now south of the Wall—that was the mutineers’ main quarrel with Jon, that he let the Night Watch’s traditional enemy through to settle the lands that they had always raped and pillaged in the past.

“He forced a choice on us, and we made it,” thunders Thorne, at once acknowledging that he broke his oath in killing Jon, and justifying that act as Jon’s own fault. Here as elsewhere in this world, there is a tension between tradition and revolution, between the way things have been and what they have to be. Jon Snow recognized that the enmity between the Watch and the wildlings was small beer compared to the imminent war between the living and the dead, but Thorne and his ilk are too stuck in old hatreds to remember that the Wall was not built to keep wildlings out, but to defend against a far more profound threat.



Perhaps unsurprisingly, it takes an outsider to recognize as much. Davos sees what Jon Snow saw, and what Alliser Thorne cannot. But the battle lines have been drawn, with Davos and his fellow loyalists given an ultimatum that they all recognize as false: “In my learned opinion, if we open that door,” Davos begins, and one of Jon’s friends finishes, “And they’ll slaughter us all.” Their only hope is with the wildlings—or is it? “There’s always the red woman,” Davos counters, and is met with skepticism. But, “You haven’t see her do what I’ve seen her do.”

Cut to a despondent Melissandre in her chamber: all the bets she’s staked seemed to have failed. Stannis is dead; Jon, whom she saw in the flames “fighting at Winterfell,” is dead. She stands before her stained mirror and—surprise!—opens her dress. My friend with whom I watched this episode snarked with mock surprise that it had taken them a whole fifty minutes to get to their first boob flash of the season.

But then … well, I’ll leave it to you, Nikki, to play us out with this episode’s closing shocker.

Nikki: Ha!! Sounds like your friends and I were on exactly the same page. As Melisandre stood looking at her mirror, completely bereft, I said out loud, “Undo the dress, Melisandre... there’s no way HBO would have greenlit this episode without at least one boob.” And she complied. To which I said to my husband, “Man, no matter how many seasons this show is on, that woman’s breasts are spectacular and perky.”

And then she removed her necklace.

And I immediately said, “Ohmygod I take that back.” Because, turns out, Melisandre is old. Like, beyond elderly... we’re talking fairy tale witch old. That gorgeous ubiquitous ruby necklace has actually had a purpose in keeping Melisandre looking young, but in fact, she looks like she could be quite ancient, give or take a century or two.



And of course the mind begins to run back to her seduction of Stannis and Jon Snow, of the fact that her way of speaking is always slow and measured, wise and mature. She speaks like someone who not only believes in the Lord of Light, but knew the guy personally at one time. And now that we see her remove the necklace to go to bed, I wonder if she has to do this every night? What magic beyond the necklace creates the illusion that Melisandre is indeed a young, beautiful woman? Does it take an enormous amount of strength? Where did she get the necklace? Who created it for her? How many years has she been doing this, and why?

Regardless, this episode left me with only one really major thought: please tell me there’s some sort of WesterEtsy shop where I can buy one for myself...


Thanks for reading, everyone, and please join us again next week!

Sunday, January 17, 2016

We Could Be Heroes: Losing David Bowie


This past Monday, I woke up and glanced at my phone on my nightstand. I’m not one of those people who typically reads my phone when waking up in the morning, but for some reason I pushed the button just to see if there had been any messages in the night. Inexplicably, I’d forgotten to set the alarm the night before, so where I usually woke up to the CBC — and would therefore have awoken to the sombre news I was about to receive — I instead discovered it through a text. A friend of mine who lives in the UK, and who would have been grieving through this news for the past five hours, had sent me a text just saying, you’ll be hearing some devastating news this morning, and I know it’ll upset you the same way it upset me. I’m so sorry.

I didn’t even have to turn on my phone. I knew David Bowie had died.

But I did anyway. I rushed to Facebook and saw friends posting their shock and agony, and I said to my husband, who was just waking up and turning on his phone (and who is the biggest Bowie fan I know), “Oh my god David Bowie died.” He snorted, and said, “No, you’re reading a hoax,” and continued nonchalantly looking at something on his phone. I suddenly started crying, “No, it’s true. He died.” He went silent as he, too, clicked on Facebook and looked. And saw. I got up and went into the shower, where I started crying in shock. How was it possible? His album had only come out a couple of days earlier. I was just posting happy birthday messages to him on my Facebook wall.

How was it possible I was now living in a world that didn’t have David Bowie in it? I’d never lived in that world. I didn’t want to do so now.

I’ve seen some people posting about grief-shamers on the internet, people saying it’s ridiculous to mourn for someone you never actually met. I’m thankful to say that not one person in my Facebook or Twitter newsfeeds said anything of the sort. I’m assuming I merely surrounded myself with the right people, because we were all similarly mired in grief.

Why do we mourn for someone we’ve never met? I pondered this question 18 months ago when Robin Williams died. And the only reason I can come up with is, we may not have known them, but we felt like we did. They managed to speak to us, and, in some ways, allowed us to see ourselves in new ways. That was certainly the case with David Bowie.

I can’t claim to be able to sing every lyric to every song, or to even be able to name without fail what album each song was on. I leave that to my husband, who has been a fan since he was 13, and who got me hooked on his music when we began dating five years later. I still remember him asking me if I liked David Bowie, and I said, “Like... Modern Love and Let’s Dance?” He smiled, and knew he had a lot of work ahead of him.

But David Bowie meant a lot to me, and the last time I saw him will stay with me always.

I saw him for the first time when he came to Toronto with Tin Machine in December 1991. My husband had already seen him once on the Glass Spider tour in 1987, and twice on the Sound + Vision tour in 1990. But this was my first time. It was at the Concert Hall, the old Masonic Temple that was my home away from home in the ’90s, where I’d just seen the Pixies two days before and was about to come back two days later to see someone else (I can’t remember who). My husband, then-boyfriend, had given me my first ring a year earlier, and right before the show, I realized it wasn’t on my hand. So throughout the show I was fretting about it, and determined to look under every car seat and scour the car later. I looked for that ring for months. It was only later I realized it must have fallen off in the car, and when I’d opened the car door it probably fell out into the snow just outside the Concert Hall. (I still have dreams of finding that little ring, with the black pearl, the white pearl, and the two tiny diamonds.) I remember the rush of Bowie walking on stage and being in the same room as him for the first time. That suit, the rock and rollness of it all. I was in heaven.

The next time I saw him was September 1995, when he came back to Toronto for the Outside tour. That album is so underrated, and I still think it’s one of his very best. Problem was, the album wasn’t released until the week after the show, and it’s a highly conceptual work, so while Bowie’s stumbling around onstage in a hospital gown and clawing at the air, the audience mostly reacted with a “what the HELL is he doing” kind of response. I wish I could have seen him again after that to have truly appreciated what was going on, but I listened to the album endlessly and loved every second of it.

The coolest thing about that show was that the opening act was Nine Inch Nails. They were amazing, and near the end of their set the drummer got up and walked off and was replaced by another. Then the guitar player switched on the next song. Then the bass player. And finally, Bowie walked on and we realized this was his backing band, and there would be no break between opener and the main show. Reznor stayed on stage for a couple of songs — they sang Nine Inch Nails material before moving to Bowie — and it was fantastic, and then the performance art began.

Two years later, in September 1997, he came back to Toronto and played the Warehouse, of all places (this is a smallish club, the sort of place you’d see My Bloody Valentine, not David freakin’ Bowie), and the show was incredible. Gail Ann Dorsey had joined the band at that point on bass, and she did this version of Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” that I can still picture. David stood off to the side, beaming at his new discovery as she wowed the audience. You can listen to the actual recording from the Warehouse here:


And then it was a long wait, until August 2002, when we could see Bowie again, this time touring as part of the Meltdown Festival with Busta Rhymes and Moby. Shockingly (to us), Bowie and Moby would trade places as the headliner each evening. The night we saw him, at the Molson Amphitheatre in Toronto, Moby was the headliner so Bowie got to go first. We got to see Bowie just as the sun was setting, shining spectacularly on him like a celestial spotlight, as he walked onto the stage with a royal blue tie just hanging around his neck, looking dapper and gorgeous. He grabbed the mike and sang, “It’s a godawful small affair,” and my husband, who is normally quite reserved, actually swooned. He hadn’t heard “Life on Mars” live in years, and he never thought he’d hear it live again.

And then Bowie toured for Reality. At this point we were wondering if it might be near the end of his touring career, and now we had a bit more money, so we decided we’d see him as often as we could (though we’re still kicking ourselves that we didn’t see him even more...) But it was this tour where my adoration for Bowie became far more personal. It’s because of the events of this tour that I’ve been so grief-stricken all week.

December 13, 2003: Montreal Bell Centre
I’d been trying to get pregnant for months, and month after month was met with the sad reality that it just wasn’t happening. But there was something about the past month and how I’d been feeling. I was convinced that THIS was it. Maybe I was finally pregnant. The show was fantastic: during this tour (also with the lovely Gail Ann Dorsey), Bowie not only performed a bunch of songs from Reality, but went back into the catalogue and sang hits from all of his previous decades as a recording artist. In each set he’d dig deep and pull out a number that he wouldn’t do in any other show, so there was always that excitement, wondering what it would be this time.

Then he sang “Heroes.” Partway through the song I suddenly felt this sharp pain in my abdomen. It was brutal, but lasted only about a minute and then faded. That night we floated back to the hotel room, thrilled at how amazing the show had been and excited about the three shows we still had yet to see. In the middle of the night, I awoke to horrible cramps. I literally fell out of the bed and crawled to the bathroom. I’d never felt anything like it, although I was pretty sure it meant one thing: I wasn’t pregnant. I sat on the floor of the hotel bathroom and cried. I took some Tylenol and waited for it to have an effect, and eventually wandered back into the room and went to sleep, the tears on my pillow sapping the joy from earlier that evening. As we drove back to Toronto the next day, we stopped at a friend’s house, and they revealed that, surprise! They were pregnant and expecting in about five months. I tried to look excited, but inside I was dying. I was never going to be pregnant. I was going to have to smile through the announcements of the pregnancies of all of my friends, and it was never going to happen for me.

Turns out, a very small percentage of the female population can actually feel the sensation of the fertilized egg implanting itself into the uterine wall. For most, it happens and the reality of pregnancy is a surprise a few weeks later. But, unfortunately for me, I felt it. That horrible stabbing pain in my abdomen that I’d felt during “Heroes”? It was the very moment that my body became pregnant. And I’d felt it while Bowie sang in the background.



April 1, 2004: Toronto Air Canada Centre
The show was glorious. The Polyphonic Spree were opening, all in their white choir gowns as if welcoming us to a church. And in a way, for many of the people sitting there, that’s exactly where we were. I had been doing that terrible thing that all first-time pregnant women do: reading every book I can get my hands on so I can work myself into a panicked frenzy about why this or that didn’t happen in Week Whatever. Apparently I was supposed to have felt her by now, but I hadn’t. I had somehow felt the egg implant itself but I couldn’t feel her??

And then... “Heroes.” The opening chords started, and that long guitar wail, and the whole place was up and dancing. We were all singing along, and then I felt it. Just the tiniest flutter, in the bottom left of my abdomen, like a butterfly beating its wings in there. There she was. She’d made her very existence known the last time I’d seen Bowie sing this song, and now here she was, letting me know she was growing, and saying hi for the first time. I will never forget that feeling, and exactly how he was standing and how the spotlight was glowing on him in that moment.

May 14, 2004: London, Ontario, John Labatt Centre
David Bowie was actually playing my hometown. This was beyond exciting. We made the drive back to London from Toronto to see him and the show was as amazing as it had been every other time. I’d like to say that I had some transcendent experience during “Heroes” for this show, but in fact, by this point the kid was doing jumping jacks in there constantly, and she went for an aerobics routine that lasted through about five or six songs (now, to be fair, part of that could have been because Mom was also dancing up a storm while watching the show). But during “Heroes,” she let loose one helluva wallop that actually doubled me over. Laughing, mind you (at this point it was an inside joke between me and my husband that “Heroes” had a weird effect on our unborn child, so he thought this was particularly hilarious), but man. Could that girl kick.

May 25, 2004: Buffalo Shea’s Performing Arts Centre
This was not a happy day for me. Late morning it suddenly occurred to me that I hadn’t felt my baby move at all that day. She was usually quite an active child (see above) but on this day, nothing. Now, I should mention that if there were photos in thesauruses, you’d see one of me next to the antonym of “hypochondria.” My mother is a hypochondriac, constantly thinking she’s dying of one disease or another. Consequently, I actually could be dying and would think, “Ah, it’ll pass.” So I was putting off calling anyone, hoping that any minute now, she’d announce that she was okay. But it wasn’t happening. Mid-afternoon, I couldn’t wait any longer, and I called my doctor. She told me not to worry, that this was a common concern among first-time moms, and drink some orange juice or eat something spicy and that might kick-start her into doing something, but honestly, sometimes babies just sleep for a couple of days. I hung up the phone, drank about a litre of orange juice, and then we had to hit the road to drive to Buffalo. The whole way there, I worried about not feeling her. “It’ll be fine,” my husband kept saying, and I wondered if maybe we shouldn’t go to the show: should we go to an ER instead? He asked if I wanted to, and I thought about it and said no. The doctor said it’s a normal thing that a couple of days of quiet might go by without anything. We arrived at the show and despite my concerns, I will admit I was crazy excited about this one. We had the best Bowie tickets we’d ever had: second row centre. The stage was rather low, and as soon as he came out, everyone climbed up onto their seats and stood on them, as if to attempt to be face-to-face with the man himself. He came striding out on stage in that beautifully tattered black coat of his, grinning from ear to ear. I could see the differently sized pupils, we were that close. He sang a few songs and while I was enjoying the show immensely, I kept thinking, “Come on, baby... wake up. Bowie’s here.”

Nothing.

And then... “Heroes.” The whole place went up into a screaming frenzy, and Bowie sang the first verse in his quiet way, everyone else singing along. And then he went into the second verse. “I... I could be king!” he shouted. “And you...” and he looked me in the eye, and then pointed RIGHT AT ME. “...you could be queen!” And just then... whoomph!! David Bowie had just looked right at me, and my baby walloped me so hard I was gasping. I was grinning ear to ear, my arms up above my head, dancing with abandon as the tears flowed freely down my cheeks. I’m sure other people thought I was having one of those religious experiences one has when faced with one’s idol pointing right at them (as I said to a friend a couple of days ago, I’m sure the woman sitting right behind me said he was pointing at her, but she would be wrong), but I wasn’t. My baby was okay, and the world was wonderful again, and I was dancing along to my favourite performer and I couldn’t have been happier.

It was the last time I ever saw him.

Three months later, my baby girl was born, beautiful and perfect. We had said all along that we were going to bring a CD player and that my husband would turn on “Heroes” at the very moment she emerged, but in the frenzy of labour pains and just getting to the hospital, we completely forgot. It didn’t matter. The first time I held her, I knew already that she was going to be my hero. Eleven years later, she has the voice of an angel and has actually sang before thousands at the very venue where we saw Bowie in London. She loves his music and sings it all the time around the house, and the day he died she knew that her parents were devastated, and she spoke in quiet tones all day long.

I don’t believe that David Bowie is some sort of Christ figure who made my baby move or imbued her with some special singing powers or anything like that. But to me, key moments in my pregnancy are inextricably tied to the last time I saw him tour. Just last weekend, on January 10, before David told his family he was feeling fatigued and went to bed, never to wake up again, my husband and I were tidying up the kitchen as Blackstar was playing in the background, and we were discussing how much we’d spend to see Bowie one last time, and we agreed that we’d fly to any place in the world, and, within reason, would pay whatever it took to see him. If it was easily done, we’d take the kids so they could finally see this man who had shaped so much of our life together.

But now, the cost of those tickets would be too steep, and the show will be too far away for us to attend.

I loved seeing my Facebook feed inundated with Bowie memories and grief on Monday. It was a terrible day, where I kept finding myself crying when I’d least expect it, where everyone was trying to figure out what had happened, where I got nothing done. The next day, sitting at my desk listening to Blackstar, he sang, “Where the fuck did Monday go?” and I thought wow... not only was his final video a hint that he was dying, but he even predicted how I’d feel the day after I first had to grapple with the fact that he had died.

On Tuesday night, my husband emerged from his music room in the basement and said he needed my help. I went downstairs and he’d recorded himself doing a stripped-down version of Bowie’s “Blue Jean.” But he said something was missing, and he needed my help. We’ve been together for 26 years, and both of us are musical, but we never collaborate (we’re both headstrong and probably would fight the entire time). He's asked on occasion, and I say no, and I've suggested it on occasion, and he says no. So I will admit to being surprised, but where I would have usually said no, that maybe he should get our daughter to do it instead, I just acquiesced. I knew this had been a tough couple of days for him, so I figured I’d just do this and he’d either cut it out of the song or, who knows, it might work. And we were both surprised by the final effect. He looked at me after he played the finished version back (whichyou can listen to here) and said, “Wow. Maybe we should work together more often.” I’m not sure that ever would have happened if it hadn’t been for the circumstance.

A single individual came into this world and changed so much of it while he was here. And when he left, millions of people feel like there’s a giant hole in the world that will never be filled. But the world is such a different place because Bowie was in it, and after that grief is gone, it’ll be thrilling to see what people do with what they learned from him. The entire musical soundscape has changed as one band after another has been influenced by Bowie for decades, and I think twice as many people realize that now than they did a week ago.

For the first time, I’m living in a world that doesn’t have David Bowie in it. But it will always have his music in it, and for that, I’m grateful. 

Monday, January 04, 2016

Sherlock: The Abominable Bride



“It doesn’t make sense, Sherlock. Because it’s not real.

In the second collection of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, “The Musgrave Ritual” features an opening that has intrigued fans of the series — and in particular, Sherlock showrunners Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat — for years. As Watson is rummaging through some of Holmes’s old files, he begins asking him about early cases that Holmes worked on before he even knew Watson. As Holmes replies, it’s clear that not all of the cases were solved.

“They are not all successes, Watson,” said he. “But there are some pretty little problems among them. Here’s the record of the Tarleton murders, and the case of Vamberry, the wine merchant, and the adventure of the old Russian woman, and the singular affair of the aluminum crutch, as well as a full account of Ricoletti of the club-foot, and his abominable wife.”

Moffat and Gatiss have made use of the case of the aluminum crutch twice in the series thus far, as people first meeting Sherlock have praised him on his earlier successes, “especially that one about the aluminum crutch,” and now they move to the last case he mentions. Because Holmes never mentions it further in the story, it gives the two writers a clean slate with which to write their own story on it, while squeezing it into the already existing storyline and serving to explore Sherlock’s mind palace much further. 

And as a result, we get “The Abominable Bride,” the first new episode of Sherlock since January 2014. And it was brilliant.

As I illustrated at length in my book Investigating Sherlock: The Unofficial Guide (ECW Press, 2015), Sherlock’s mind palace had become quite convoluted in season three. There’s a lot going on there, and with the continued attempts to bring out Sherlock’s humanity, it’s jumbled his previously ordered mind palace to the extent that where in season one he would simply zip in there, grab the piece of information he needed, and get back out — so on the outside it appears that he was just trying to remember something — by season three he was becoming trapped within its rooms, finding things that brought him solace, putting people he loved into the individual rooms so he could have therapy sessions with them in there to help him sort things out. The reason? Before, the mind palace stored all of the intellectual information he needed to solve cases. Now, it contains the emotions that help him understand the cases much better, but which also complicate things enormously.

I loved the opening of this episode, where we got a “Previously on Sherlock” montage that, at first, looked like the writers’ clever “nyah-nyah” opening that served only to remind us that we’ve only gotten three episodes every two years. But after seeing the episode, I realized that every clip in that opening would come up again in the episode, so it was brilliantly done. And then, we’re told, “Alternatively...” and the timeline rushes back to the 1880s, where John is fighting in the second Afghan War, which is exactly how Doyle’s book, A Study in Scarlet, opens.

As I mentioned in my book, their first meeting is reenacted in the first Sherlock episode, “A Study in Pink,” but Sherlock is more standoffish than in the book, where instead he’s hopping around with delight at some finding and is actually quite pleasant and friendly. And so, to show that difference, the writers give us a slightly different meeting, one more in keeping with the book version (he’s not exactly friendly in the conventional sense, but at least smiles). Just as A Study in Scarlet opens with Watson’s memories of the devastating Afghan War, John’s voiceover quotes directly from the opening of the novel to convey the same nightmares: “The second Afghan War brought honours and promotion to many. But for me, it meant nothing but misfortune and disaster.” Where in “A Study in Pink,” we simply see the nightmares, with no voiceover from John, this is more in keeping with Watson’s more objective way of writing about his experiences (even though, as Gatiss and Moffat have explored in the series, one need only read between the lines to realize just how subjective Watson’s writing really is). The next few lines are also taken from the novel, and he meets Stamford again, and they go to the Criterion bar (in “A Study in Pink,” they changed it to the Criterion coffee shop), and then leave to meet Sherlock.

Now we fast-forward. John’s new story on Sherlock, “The Blue Carbuncle,” has just come out, and it’s already a big seller. In case you missed the reference, “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” was a story set at Christmas, just as this one is, thus fulfilling this episode’s designation as a Christmas special. (Incidentally, for Doctor Who fans, it’s also a story about a rare and invaluable gem that’s hidden inside a Christmas goose. I wonder if rereading that story gave Moffat his idea for the Doctor’s Christmas special...)

From there the episode follows what seems to be a traditional narrative, with the whodunit followed by Sherlock’s bafflement and ultimately him solving the case. But before we get to the loopiness of the time-shifting that begins to happen two-thirds of the way through the story, let’s discuss the wonderful overarching theme of this episode.



Ever since the series began, people have wondered aloud why Moffat and Gatiss chose to set the series in the 21st century rather than surrounding the characters with Doyle’s gaslight and hansom cab world of Victorian London, as most of the adaptations have done. In this episode, at least one of the reasons becomes clear: because in the present day, the women are allowed to be far more powerful characters with more agency than they were ever allowed in Doyle’s books. What sets Adler apart from other villains? The fact that she’s a woman. The Woman. Holmes was outwitted by a woman, and that’s something that stymies him for the rest of his days. If Adler had been Ian Adler, it wouldn’t have been a big deal at all.

In the stories, the female characters are wives who have been wronged, or who are worried about the safety of their husbands and come to the detective and his partner for help. Or it’s Mrs. Hudson, who was so insignificant to Doyle himself that he accidentally called her Mrs. Turner on an occasion (in the TV series, Mrs. Hudson refers to Marie Turner as the landlady next door). Mary comes to Holmes and Watson as a distraught daughter who intrigues both men with tales of treasure on the high seas, and then marries Watson, where she becomes a silent character from that point on who exists only in the background of stories before being quickly and quietly killed off so Doyle didn’t have to concern himself with her anymore. Every detective and mortician is male, as is every doctor and police officer, which wasn’t chauvinism but simply a fact of its time. Women are the source of many of the problems of the books, and perhaps the most intriguing of them — Ricoletti’s abominable wife — is explained in the manner I already quoted above, never to be mentioned again.

Let’s look at that word for a moment: abominable. It’s a pretty fantastic word to begin with, and, perhaps because many of us grew up with the Rudolph Christmas story, conjures up something monstrous with giant teeth. It’s an adjective that seems far worse than “terrible” or “horrific.” Abominable suggests something we want to avoid altogether, something that’s not just terrible, but abhorrent. The dictionary defines it as something disgusting and revolting, and even has a moral repugnance attached to it.

Ah, morality. That wonderful Victorian concept that’s coming back with a vengeance. Everyone who’s ever spent half a minute on Facebook now knows that everything seems morally repugnant, mostly because we’ve just run out of other adjectives to describe it so we’ve added a moral component to it. And in the Victorian period, the worst kind of wife would have been one who was not only revolting and disgusting, but morally repugnant.

Abominable.

So, why was Ricoletti’s wife so abominable? Who knows? She just was. End of story. Now let’s move to this other case that I once solved, Watson. All you need to know about that woman is that she was abominable.



But in this episode, Gatiss and Moffat hit the pause button on that scene in Doyle’s short story and say wait a minute: Why was she so abominable? And they come up with an explanation for how that could have been, but in doing so they turn the case into an exploration of how women must have felt at the time, being so marginalized. Mary’s a fascinating character in The Sign of Four when she comes to Holmes and Watson with all of these stories about the fabled Agra treasure. Now she’s a non-person, having to dress up just to sneak her way into their offices. Compare that to the 21st century Mary Watson, who is secretly a super-spy and is welcomed in their office, often helping them with their cases. (Interestingly, even in Victorian London, Mycroft seems ahead of his time and uses Mary to assist him on a case.) When Mary stands up angrily after everyone leaves her behind and announces to Lestrade that she’s “part of a campaign” to allow women to vote, he stupidly asks, “Are you for or against?” For the men at the time, the suffragette movement was a political discussion they could discuss objectively. For the women, it was an absolute necessity. Before the vote, they were silenced and unable to work, vote, or have an opinion. After the vote, they had a say. And a say can change everything.

When Mrs. Hudson expresses her displeasure that in John’s stories she never utters a word, he tells her that her “function” in the stories is to open doors and let them into their rooms. Which, in Doyle’s stories, is all she ever does. He adds that the rooms are so drab and dingy because the illustrator is “out of control”! (A reference to the fact that it was an illustrator who put the deerstalker and cape on Holmes, not Doyle himself.)

Our dear, dear Molly Hooper is Yentl’ing her way through the morgue, putting on a fake moustache and fooling no one but Sherlock so that she’s able to accomplish a job that she’s eminently qualified for, but not allowed to perform simply because of her sex. “It’s amazing what one has to do to get ahead in a man’s world,” says the more observant John, much to her chagrin.

It’s not that women don’t have a purpose, mind you. When Mary asks John if she’s expected to just sit there, John says, “Not at all, my dear. We’ll be hungry later.” John’s maid seems mildly amused when he berates her for being unable to boil an egg or clean his shoes properly, and he obliviously says, “If it wasn’t my wife’s business to deal with the staff” — a life-fulfilling job for Mary if ever there was one — “I would talk to you myself.” Interestingly, when the maid simply observes that he and his wife don’t spend any time together anymore, John completely loses it, telling her that she’s bordering on impertinence and infuriating him. Yet when his male friend makes far more insulting observations, John simply stands there and takes it. One could argue that the maid is his paid inferior, and therefore is out of line saying what she says, but it also has everything to do with the fact she’s a young woman. A male butler wouldn’t have caused the same ire in John. “I shall have a word with my wife to have a word with you,” he says, before she asks why he never mentions her in the stories and is promptly dismissed.



With the main theme of the episode firmly established, Sherlock and John go to see Mycroft. As I mentioned in my book, in the Doyle canon Mycroft is massive. His size and corpulence is mentioned in Watson’s narrative every time they see him (which isn’t often), and therefore, when the pencil-thin show co-creator Mark Gatiss decided to play the character, they inserted on-running jokes of him constantly working out and watching what he ate. For this episode, they decide to run with Doyle’s version of him — or, perhaps, Sherlock's mind palace version of him, see below — and turn him into the Mr. Creosote character from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (I kept waiting for him to ask for a bucket). When the older brother mentions a group they need to be concerned about, John begins to list off every group he can think of — which is basically any group of people united in a common interest — that concerns him. (Again, it would seem the Victorian period, in this instance, is a mirror of our own.) The third group he mentions is the suffragists. Mycroft, once again showing how far ahead of them he is ideologically, says that if the group is who he thinks they are, they are right, and we are wrong.

And that brings us to the case that Sherlock is asked to look into, the one of Lady Carmichael and her husband, Eustace. The case is loosely based on “The Adventure of the Abbey Grange,” which, if there’s any single case in the Sherlock Holmes canon, is one where the women actually triumph over the men. In it, Eustace Brackenstall is dead from the get-go, and Holmes and Watson go to the manor to investigate the death. Holmes speaks to the wife and to her maid, and becomes suspicious. He then finds a sailor, who tells Holmes that, years ago, before she was married, Lady Brackenstall and he fell in love, but she ended up having to marry Eustace, who was a brute. He beat her all the time and forced her to live in fear. Years later, the sailor ran into the maid, who told him everything. The three of them arranged for him to come into the house and kill Eustace Brackenstall, and because no one would know the sailor’s connection to the family, no one would be able to link the murder. Except for Holmes. Holmes and Watson listen to the confession, and Holmes is sympathetic to the cause. He promises the sailor that he has already given a very small hint to Scotland Yard, but doubts that they’ll be able to follow it. If they haven’t figured out the case in a year, they’ll drop it and he and Lady Brackenstall will be able to live happily ever after. He looks at Watson and declares him the jury, and says, having listened to the evidence, he needs to declare a verdict. Watson simply looks at the sailor and says, “Not guilty.”

In the stifling Victorian era, where women had very few rights, they were still considered property of their husbands, and those husbands could do what they wished with their wives. So it’s a bold way to end the story, suggesting that Lady Brackenstall had the right to kill her husband to remove herself from his clutches. Showing how they are far ahead of their time, Holmes and Watson declare that the woman should be allowed agency to take her life into her hands and try to protect herself, no matter what it takes.

While Eustace Carmichael isn’t as brutish as his literary predecessor, he’s certainly no prize. He mocks his wife in the morning by asking her if her morning will contain “a vigorous round of embroidery? an exhausting appointment at the milliner?” She mentions later that he keeps many secrets from her, and there are times when a physical brutality is hinted at. He’s silenced only when an envelope arrives containing nothing but orange seeds.

Now, here’s where the story incorporates a second Doyle work. “The Five Orange Pips” is a story where a man receives the same envelope Carmichael does in this episode. (The title of the story was hinted at in “The Great Game,” when Moriarty texts Holmes the sound of the five Greenwich pips, indicating something was about to happen.) Like Carmichael in this episode, the man in Doyle’s story knows the meaning of the orange seeds right away — it was a dire warning sent by the Ku Klux Klan, and when one receives the pips, it means you’re going to die. I found it rather amusing when I saw people on Twitter mocking the outfits of the secret society at the end of the episode, wondering aloud if Moffat and Gatiss even noticed that they looked like KKK outfits. Um... yes, they did notice. (Was it the right thing to do? Probably not, because A) many people wouldn’t have gotten the reference because they didn’t outright link the KKK to the pips in the story, and B) that’s a connection that just doesn’t work, even if you try to explain it away by saying they’re subverting the KKK by appropriating their garb and making it purple. But anyway...)



The story continues, as does the mystery, until suddenly... Moriarty is back, and we’re returned to the 21st century. As Moriarty and Sherlock face off in 221B, the entire apartment begins to shake... which, turns out, is actually the airplane turbulence of the plane that 2014 Sherlock is on. “It’s not the fall that kills you,” Moriarty tells Sherlock. “It’s the landing.” The flight attendant is the same woman who had previously been Lady Carmichael, and we realize that everything we’d seen up to this point was actually Sherlock’s mind palace. His brain took him to Victorian London — a “simpler” time, as we’re often told (as long as you were a white male, we’re rarely told) — to try to clear away the cobwebs and focus him on the case at hand. The shock of Mycroft’s phone call at the end of “His Last Vow” pushed him so far into his mind palace that he retrieved a case that was over 100 years old. And, naturally, he had to turn himself and his friends into Victorians to help solve it. The abominable bride came to life to kill again — just like Moriarty appears to have. Both shot themselves in the back of the head. The bride sings a creepy song — “Do not forget me” — as she creeps up on her victims; Moriarty simply asks, “Didja miss me?” If Sherlock can solve the 1895 crime, he believes he can figure out the present-day one.

Unfortunately, we discover in this episode how he enters the deeper rooms of his mind palace: through copious use of illegal drugs. Mycroft knows he’ll never quit, so he simply asks Sherlock to make a list for him every time he does drugs, so he’ll know exactly what the medics will need to pump out of him should the need arise.

And just as quickly as he was on the jet, he’s back in 221B in 1895, where he leaves a flabbergasted 2014 John to face an angry 1895 John. (The amount of illicit drugs in his system clearly made him pass out.) Mary leads Sherlock and John to a cathedral, where a secret society is involved in a ritual. This society turns out to be an underground network of women who are joined in the common cause of righting the wrongs that have been done to them and their sisters. Among them are Molly Hooper, John’s maid, and Janine — the woman who, in 2014, is the one Sherlock tricked into thinking he was marrying her just so he could break into Magnusson’s office (for us, that episode happened two years ago, but for Sherlock, it was only a day or two earlier). And then Moriarty pops back up again, and boop, we’re back in the present-day again. Sherlock frantically digs up the long-dead body of Amelia Ricoletti, only to fall back into the mind palace — where he’s perched on the edge of the Reichenbach Falls, where the literary Holmes fell to his “death” the first time in “The Final Problem.”



The scene that follows is fantastic — Andrew Scott is at his maniacal best as Jim Moriarty, shouting in Sherlock’s face that he’ll never be rid of him. Moriarty is no longer a person to Sherlock: he’s that part of Sherlock’s personality that reminds him he can fail. He’s the part that makes Sherlock constantly question who he is, whether or not he’s right, who knows something better than he does. He’s that part of Sherlock that keeps the great detective on a precipice, worried he’ll fall over at any moment, with nothing but his doubt to accompany him. As Moriarty grabs Sherlock by the lapels and tells him they must fall together — “it’s always just you and me!” — there’s the sound of a gun cocking, and Sherlock is once again reminded that it’s not always Sherlock and Moriarty, but Sherlock and John. “That’s not fair, there’s two of you,” Moriarty whines. “There’s always two of us,” John replies. “Don’t you read The Strand?”

Yes, there are always two of them. In the novels and stories, and in the TV series. In the film and stage adaptations and radio plays, in the pastiche novels and parodies. There are always two of them, and there always will be. Victorian John asks what his counterpart is like, and Sherlock replies, with a smirk, that he’s cleverer than he looks. And with that, John kicks Moriarty over the edge, freeing Sherlock’s mind of that part of him that doubts himself.

But now it’s time for Sherlock to wake up, and to do so, he’ll swan-dive off the edge of the Reichenbach Falls, because he always wakes up. “But how?” John asks. “Elementary, my dear Watson,” Sherlock replies with a smile, saying the one line the literary Holmes never did.

Sherlock does wake up, on the plane, determined to get to work to figure out what’s going on in England. As he storms ungratefully past his brother — the petulant little brother he’s always been — that constant look of concern washes over Mycroft’s face. He tells John to take care of him, as he always does, and then turns to pick up the pieces of the list of narcotics that his brother had written out for him. Sherlock constantly argues with Mycroft and undermines him whenever he can, but at the end of the day, Mycroft is once again picking up the pieces of Sherlock’s life for him.

Moriarty is dead. Amelia Ricoletti had completed her deception by having her head actually blown off, but her message continued when other women took up the cause, donning the veil and pretending to be her so they could find justice against the men who had wronged them. Similarly, as Sherlock declares at the end of the episode, Moriarty is dead, but that doesn’t mean his work has to stop. Moriarty, as has been said in both the stories and on the TV series, is at the centre of a vast network of people, and he’s clearly put measures in place to ensure that his work will continue after his death. The end of this episode suggests that when we ever do get a fourth season (current projections put it in 2017, but we can’t be sure), it’ll focus on Moriarty’s network again.

The theme of both the Moriarty story and the feminism angle are both metaphors for the series itself. The stories of Sherlock Holmes are very much rooted in their time, from the Victorian era to 1914, where Holmes and Watson meet for the last time in “His Last Bow” and Holmes mentions that a terrible wind is blowing from the east, signaling the First World War. And yet, just as Moriarty and Amelia Ricoletti appear to have risen from the dead, so has Sherlock, time after time. Often in his Victorian cape and deerstalker, but in the case of Sherlock, by rooting the story in the 21st century they show just how ahead of its time these stories were, and how ahead of his time Holmes was. At the end of the episode, as we flip back to the Victorian era one last time, Sherlock stands at the window of 221B Baker Street, and says, “I’ve always known I’m a man out of his time.” The BBC adaptation once again proves its brilliance in this final moment, as the camera pulls back and we see the Victorian Sherlock standing in the window, looking out over a 21st century street scene of cars and people rushing by holding smartphones. The stories of Sherlock Holmes should be set in the modern era, because the stories themselves are out of their time.

In the Victorian era, women had very few rights at all. Now, in the 21st century, they’re still searching for equality in pay and rights, and are still finding an imbalance of the sexes. By setting part of this episode back in its original Victorian setting, Sherlock not only demonstrates just how far we’ve come — note how Mary is essential to the gang in the present day, but John doesn’t even notice her coming and going in 1895 — but how far we still have to go — both Molly Hooper and Janine step forward from the secret society of women, reminding us of how unfairly both women were treated by Sherlock.

“The Abominable Bride” is a superb episode of television, and reminds us once again of how much we miss this show when it’s not on. It took a time-traveling, mind-bending episode and turned everything on its head, and yet, as Moffat and Gatiss always do, they take the various strands spread throughout the episode and tie them together by the end. Sherlock thought he’d rid himself of Moriarty, but the villain’s taunts have stuck in Sherlock’s head, and no matter how many times he tries to rid himself of them, Moriarty keeps popping back, alive but insane within Sherlock’s mind palace. Similarly, in the Victorian era, just when a male-centric society thought it could keep women down, those women found a way to rise from the dead and blow a hole through the chauvinism that sought to silence them. And with this episode, perhaps Moffat and Gatiss have finally found a way to silence anyone who suggests that the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle do not have a place in the 21st century.


Highlights:
Lestrade. Rupert Graves always plays Detective Lestrade as this smart, gruff, yet befuddled guy, and he’s even funnier in the Victorian era.

The parlour of 221B appearing in the street, which is a beautiful glimpse into the mind palace that recalls Sherlock’s bed suddenly appearing in a field with Irene Adler in “A Scandal in Belgravia.”

Sherlock: “Really, Lestrade. A woman blows her own brains out in public and you need help identifying the guilty party. I feel Scotland Yard has reached a new low.”

Sherlock seeing the chains and saying, “Please tell me which idiot did this,” and Anderson turns around. Ha!

Sherlock: “It is NEVER twins, Watson!”

John, lighting a candle: “Little use us standing here in the dark. After all, this is the 19th century.”

Sherlock saying the case is “so blindingly obvious even Lestrade could work it out.”

Sherlock: Have you put on weight?
Mycroft: You saw me only yesterday. Does that seem possible?
Sherlock: No.
Mycroft: Yet here I am, increased.
[I think Mark Gatiss as Mycroft is some of the most perfect casting on television.]

Moriarty’s appearance. While the other characters have reverted to their Victorian counterparts, Moriarty stays just as loony as he is in the 21st century version. Amazing.

John: You’re Sherlock Holmes, wear the bloody hat.

Sherlock: Amelia Ricoletti, I need to know where she was buried.
Mycroft: What, 120 years ago? That would take weeks to find, if those records even exist. Even with my resources—
Mary (typing on her phone): Got it.


Things to Note:
Doyle is famous for changing small details from story to story, mostly due to the fact he wrote them all so quickly. In A Study in Scarlet Watson says he was shot in the shoulder, yet in A Sign of Four he says he was shot in the leg. In this episode we see him clearly shot in the shoulder, yet when he returns to London he’s walking with a cane, which is a clever nod to Doyle’s inconsistency. 

As John’s voiceover mentions some cases that are “too sensitive to recount,” we see a close-up of a knife stuck into a pile of letters. I’m assuming that’s from “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton,” the blackmailer who used letters as weapons (he became Charles Augustus Magnusson in “His Last Vow”), but in the Doyle story the letters were all burned, so it’s not clear if that’s what it’s supposed to be. However, given that this is Sherlock’s mind palace, and the story of Magnusson just happened, it would probably be on the forefront of his mind.

The drawing on the wall of 221B — which, from a distance, looks like a skull — is actually the illustration that accompanied Doyle’s story “A Scandal in Bohemia,” which was about the one and only Irene Adler.

When John and Sherlock enter 221B and a woman is standing in the room entirely dressed in black and veiled, it’s a reference to “The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger,” the antepenultimate story in Doyle’s Holmesian canon, where a woman meets with Holmes and Watson and her face is so mutilated she must keep it veiled at all times. This story features my favourite opening of all the stories, where Watson issues a threat to one of his readers in the first paragraph that’s hysterically funny.

Sherlock says he knew it was Lestrade at the door because his step was different than Gregson’s and Jones’s — these are two other detectives that were often used in Doyle’s stories.

Ricoletti walks with a limp, which indicates the “club-foot” mentioned in the story.

Sherlock speaks to an empty chair, addressing John. In the books Watson said he could leave the room and let Holmes speak to a bedpost for all the feedback Holmes ever demanded of him, which was none.

The “Come at once, if convenient” telegram, which has been used once before as a text message on the show, comes from “The Adventure of the Creeping Man.” As always, it’s not really urgent.

While the sign language scene at the Diogenes Club is hilarious, it’s not in keeping at all with what the Diogenes Club represents in the books. The reason no one speaks at the club is because the members are all extreme introverts who do not want to engage with other people. They hang out in the Diogenes Club behind their books and newspapers, comfortable in the knowledge that no one will attempt to talk to or communicate with them in any way. If sign language were allowed in the club so they could communicate with one another, it would entirely undermine the whole meaning of the club. (But I loved this scene anyway.)

The discussion that John and Sherlock have on the train about ghosts are from both “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire” and The Hound of the Baskervilles, where, in both instances, Holmes immediately dismisses the possibility of supernatural beings.

Sherlock says “The game is afoot!” which is what Holmes always says in the book. In the show to this point, he’s always said, “The game is on!”

The painting in Mycroft’s room is “The Reichenbach Falls,” which was given to Sherlock as a gift in a previous episode, and foreshadows that the final room in Sherlock’s mind palace will be the falls themselves.

In the mind palace of Victorian London, the obese Mycroft asks for Sherlock’s drug list, and Sherlock doesn’t hand it over, saying instead that he’s not finished yet. Tying the two brothers together in this list — and showing that the fat Mycroft isn’t actually an homage to the original literary version, but instead what Mycroft looks like in Sherlock’s head — hints to the viewer that perhaps Sherlock isn’t the only OCD brother. Could Mycroft be a bulimic? Or, more plausibly, is Sherlock simply projecting his own addictions onto a brother who is constantly needling him about them by turning Mycroft into an equally addictive personality in his mind palace out of spite?


When Mycroft picks up the ripped-up pieces of Sherlock’s list, he sticks them in his notebook. You can see “Redbeard” written at the top of the page, which is the name of Sherlock’s childhood dog, the one kind and loving thing that resides in Sherlock’s mind palace. Under it is written 611174 and “Vernet”? The second one is easy: in “The Greek Interpreter,” Sherlock claims that his mother’s stepbrother was the French artist Vernet. If this is written under that number, perhaps Mycroft is attempting to work out some piece of his genealogy with Sherlock. But what could the number 611174 mean? Maybe the second and fourth ones aren’t ones at all, but slashes, and it actually reads 6/1/74, which would be the 6th of January, 1974. Sherlock was born on January 6, 1981, as we learned in a previous episode. So what could this be referring to? Could Mycroft have the same birthday? We know there’s a seven-year age difference between the two brothers, so the difference in years is right, but would they have been born on the same day of the year? Or is it possible he’s looking at the Victorian Sherlock, and going back to 1874? It’s widely accepted that in the canon, Holmes’s birthday is January 6, 1854, so this date would be his 20th birthday, but Sherlock’s first case doesn’t happen until 1880. It’s unclear what exactly the number’s referring to, but couched between “Redbeard” and “Vernet,” it appears to be of a personal nature.