Moriarty’s Identity and the Sherlock Christmas Special

Last night, PBS’s Masterpiece Theater aired the Sherlock Christmas special, “The Abominable Bride.”

That was well-made nonsense.

sherlock-xmas2If you ever thought the biggest problem with the Canon was that it wasn’t phildickian enough, Moffat and Gatiss wanted to reassure you that, yes, Sherlock Holmes can indeed mess with your mind.

“The Abominable Bride” wasn’t what I was expecting. I thought the episode would be like the Robert Downey, Jr. Sherlock Holmes films, albeit on a BBC budget. What made “The Abominable Bride” different from the previous three series of the series was that this episode was set in Victorian, rather than modern times. Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman would be wearing Victorian garb, riding in Hansom cabs, walking the cobbled streets, and all of that.

It was, instead, something else entirely.

It was, essentially, an extended dream sequence. Following the reveal that Moriarty was back at the end of Series 3 — and after Sherlock was exiled from Britain for straight-up murdering a blackmailer by shooting him in the face — Sherlock entered his “mind palace” to solve an 1895 murder and, by doing so, solve the mystery of how Moriarty was still alive.

There. I’ve just ruined the episode’s plot twist for you, which comes about an hour into the episode.

One remarkable thing about the episode was how much it referenced other Holmesian media. Some shots, like Holmes and Watson in the railway carriage, were clearly derived from Sidney Paget’s artwork in the pages of The Strand. Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell novels got a shout-out, Holmes makes a reference to The Seven Per-Cent Solution, and the climax of the episode pilfered from Young Sherlock Holmes. I was surprised at some things that felt derived from Elementary, such as Sherlock’s drug addiction in the present day, and there was a musical motif that hinted at the Jeremy Brett theme, as well.

Enjoyable nonsense, indeed.


But this nonsese gave me something to think about.

I am entertaining the idea that Andrew Scott’s Moriarty isn’t (or wasn’t) a criminal mastermind. Rather, the “Moriarty” that Sherlock has been battling across the first three series exists in his mind, a creation of his drug-induced mania and the character that Andrew Scott has played was, at worst, a minor criminal that Sherlock transmogrified far out of proportion to his actuality, and it’s Sherlock himself that’s responsible for Moriarty’s crimes.

There were two things that lead me to this theory. The first was that reference to The Seven Per-Cent Solution (Holmes mentions “the Vienna alienist” — in other words, Sigmund Freud), in which Holmes, out of his mind on cocaine, imagines his school maths teacher is a criminal mastermind. The second was the conversation in the Strangers Room at the Diogenes Club between Sherlock and Mr. Creosote… I mean, Mycroft… about Moriarty as “the virus in the data.”

Moriarty-as-Holmes would explain a number of problems with Andrew Scott’s Moriarty, such as his Heath Ledger Joker-like anarchy, which would be a function of Sherlock’s drug use, rather than his Canonical “Napoleon of Crime” self. It would also explain the bizarre public suicide at the end of Series 2 — he’s a man Sherlock has hounded and harassed who has been backed into a corner and this is his only way out and his only way to destroy his tormentor.

This would also explain how Sherlock, at the end, knows what Moriarty’s next move will be. Sherlock knows, because it’s his idea, it’s something he planned.

Some might say this hypothesis — Moriarty is an out-of-his-mind Sherlock — is too Fight Club and not at all Sherlock Holmes. But Michael Dibdin used this idea — a drug addled Holmes is Moriarty — in his novel, The Last Sherlock Holmes Story, and it’s an idea that has cropped up over the decades in the Writings about the Writings.

My one objection to this hypothesis is that it’s too neat. Steven Moffat’s plot twists are never this well planned.

In absence of other evidence, however, this will remain my working theory — Moriarty is Sherlock Holmes.

Published by Allyn

A writer, editor, journalist, sometimes coder, occasional historian, and all-around scholar, Allyn Gibson is the writer for Diamond Comic Distributors' monthly PREVIEWS catalog, used by comic book shops and throughout the comics industry, and the editor for its monthly order forms. In his over ten years in the industry, Allyn has interviewed comics creators and pop culture celebrities, covered conventions, analyzed industry revenue trends, and written copy for comics, toys, and other pop culture merchandise. Allyn is also known for his short fiction (including the Star Trek story "Make-Believe,"the Doctor Who short story "The Spindle of Necessity," and the ReDeus story "The Ginger Kid"). Allyn has been blogging regularly with WordPress since 2004.

One thought on “Moriarty’s Identity and the Sherlock Christmas Special

  1. What follows is a comment I left on Facebook in response to a comment left my link this post.

    It’s a problematic episode.

    Its main problem is that it’s a lot of nonsense in which nothing happens. By that I mean, there was a Tweet I saw yesterday that said something to the effect of, “Sherlock Summary: Sherlock lands in plane, gets in car.” (Editor’s Note: It’s this Tweet; I almost had it right.) I laughed uproariously at it, because it got right to the heart of the matter — the actual, meaningful events of “Bride” are about five minutes of the episode. The rest of it doesn’t matter. It’s a bunch of bullshit that doesn’t do anything but looks and feels important. The whole, “Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” bit. Or, “Baffle them with bullshit.”

    The episode also doesn’t play fair with its conceit. There shouldn’t be any non-Sherlock POV scenes in 1895, and yet, we have several — Watson and Stamford, Mary and Mrs. Hudson, Watson and his maid, Mycroft and the Diogenes runner, Mary and Mycroft. If the story of the Abominable Bride was a simulation running in Sherlock’s mind palace, there’s no reason for him to imagine any scene where he’s not present, especially scenes like those I’ve named that do not contribute in any way to solving the puzzle. I can understand how Sherlock waking on the plane was a WTF moment, because Moffat and Gatiss kicked the episode’s reality, to that point, right in the nuts.

    Don’t misunderstand. I enjoyed “The Abominable Bride.” I even tried to explain to someone on Gallifrey Base the ending; the mystery of the Abominable Bride was solved, but Holmes considers the case as a whole a failure because, like Mycroft, he sees that bringing the “Monstrous Regiment” to justice will not accomplish a damned thing. But it was also a pointless exercise, and I understand (and sympathize with) the criticism that the special wasn’t what the audience thought they were getting. There was poor expectations management on this; with Moffat giving interviews up until broadcast saying that it wasn’t a dream or an hallucination, that they were embracing this as a standalone Victorian period piece, it’s no wonder that a large number of casual viewers were baffled by this, a good number of whom outright hated it.

    Like I said after broadcast, it’s well-made nonsense. The production values are fine. I have major issues with Andrew Scott’s performance as Moriarty; I think he’s well-cast, but poorly written, because in interviews Moffat has made clear how he fundamentally misunderstands the character. (Moriarty is Blofeld, not the Joker. He’s a criminal mastermind, not an agent of chaos.) The rest of the acting was generally fine. The story is nothing Doyle ever would have written. It’s slickly made.

    But I don’t know if I like it, either. I admire it. I admire the verve of making something as bonkers as that and trying to pass it off as mainstream entertainment. I admire the cast’s willingness to throw themselves completely into the exercise. But I don’t know if I’d ever watch it again — or want to watch it again. And I certainly don’t know if I like it or even thought it was good.

    It’s just there.

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