TV Review: Sherlock: The Lying Detective


S4, E2: ‘The Lying Detective’

A Seven Per Cent Solution of Whaaaaaaaatttttttt?!?

Grade: W. For ‘What the ever-loving fuck did I just watch?!?’


In many ways I suspect that this episode is the true spiritual successor of the Nineteenth Century Inception Drug Trip One. It looks and feels like every stereotype of a cokehead at a party. Its eyes are feverishly bright, it has the concentration span of a hummingbird, and it talks at a mile a minute. Guilt, Loss, The Malleability of Memory of Self…all there, not waving but drowning in some sort of Concept Soup Accelerator. Genuinely interesting ideas and some very fine acting try desperately to catch your eye while empty posturing throws up on your shoes, and Alexandre Dumas comes back from the dead to file a lawsuit. It’s…it’s a lot, is what I’m saying.

‘Once you’ve opened your heart, you can’t close it up again.’

John is processing Mary’s death in his own way. His own, very worrying way: he keeps seeing Mary and he’s refusing to accept that she’s dead – even when her own apparition is (somewhat confusingly) telling him so. At least he’s sent little Rosie Watson away so he can hallucinate in peace, so there’s that, I guess? When his new therapist, cannier than the last one, tells him he’s holding himself to an unrealistic standard, the John Watson I knew and loved comes back. Quietly but with simmering rage, John lays out all the problems with that line of thinking. Yes, he has lost his wife horribly, but his daughter needs him and he’s letting her down. I have sighed over Martin Freeman’s performance before, but let’s hear it again for the guy: In John’s stillness, his carefully contained, pleasant smile, is written a grief almost too much for one body to bear.

In the meantime, Sherlock is steeped in a suitably picturesque torpor. He has a Grief Beard, and that fine mind is making deductions on autopilot, impatiently dragging the rest of him along. I clench my teeth initially as the Magic Inferences pour out and he shrugs ‘Dunno. I just…do’ when asked how he could possibly know. But the show wrongfoots me. It is not okay that Sherlock cannot articulate his reasoning and the show knows that. He’s not on speaking terms with his most prized possession. Thankfully, his client is suicidal and has a nice baroque case for him, so that should pull him out of his funk, yeah?

‘I have a need to confess. You, I’m afraid, might have a need to forget.’

The case itself has real potential. In all my rage at Mofftiss’s boundless self-satisfaction and misogyny, it’s easy to forget their real skill at horror – especially horror with a fairy tale element. Think of the Weeping Angels. Think of the arc of the Eleventh Doctor’s first season, and the story of Amy Pond. Think of those children scarfing mercury-laden sweets in that flesh-crawling homage to Hansel and Gretel.

Millionaire philanthropist Culverton Smith (Toby Jones) has a secret: he wants to kill someone. He wants to lighten his soul with a confession, but knows well that two can keep a secret if one of them is dead. So he calls in a round table of his nearest and dearest including his daughter Faith, and tells them his secret while hooking them up to a drip that will erase their memory of the encounter. Faith only knows that her life hinges on one word – a word locked away in her own memory. It’s like something out of the Brothers Grimm: a princess imprisoned in a tower, who can only be freed by the speaking of a secret word.

Sherlock goes into a fugue state as he theorises. He’s found wandering in the middle of the street and taken back to his flat, where his smackhead protégé worries about him. And I am just beginning to luxuriate in the unsettling, Lynchian horror of a knight who must find and fight his own reflection in order to locate the secret word……. when the show SMASHCUTS to a car-chase with helicopters and ‘Ode to Joy’ blaring, and Mrs Hudson behind the wheel, and a phone call from ‘The Government’ to the pissed-off copper. Ah well. It was nice while it lasted. About….twenty-five minutes by my watch.

‘When Sherlock Holmes wants to get in touch, that’s not something you can fail to notice.’

Bach gives way to Mozart, as Sherlock puts up a whole Clothesline of Crazy in his flat. He accuses Culverton Smith of being a serial killer, and he’s firing at the wall. Which Mrs. Hudson would, I assume, take in stride – if he were not also loudly and obnoxiously declaiming from Henry V for no good goddamn reason whatsoever. So, drawing the line at blank verse, Mrs. Hudson stuffs Sherlock into the boot of her car and lays a big fat guilt-trip on John.

And we get confirmation that whatever else ails Sherlock, his flair for drama remains intact. He’s accurately predicted which therapist John would choose, with a bit of inductive logic that Spectral Mary explains to John. He needs John’s help to usher the new Big Bad off the face of the planet. And if anyone else is getting a little bit fed up of this new Eldritch Abomination lavishing its attention on poor beleaguered London, raise your hand.

Anyway, John is wary (and who can blame him?), and so he calls in apparently the one person who can see through Sherlock Holmes. And just as you’re muttering incredulously ‘No. Not even you would be that shameless’, John’s lips frame the fatal words: Molly. Hooper.

OH FOR FUCK’S SAKE. Since when is that wet brown paper bag of a character noteworthy for anything except the same gluttony for punishment of the rest of the cast? Since when has her professional skill or judgement been used for anything, except when she’s standing in for Sherlock himself in his own Mind Palace? Since when is she any sort of functioning adult, let alone apparently the Oracle of All Things Sherlock? Who has second-guessed John anyway and summoned Molly. Better buck up, John! The game is on! Tee-hee!

‘No one’s untouchable.’

Okay, so Sherlock takes John to meet Culverton Smith, who has capitalised on Sherlock’s ‘serial killer’ accusations to hawk….cereal. Oooo my sides! Never heard that one before! Sherlock’s given baddies a long, slow, nearly pornographic build-up before. The last time it happened, it had a villain – and an actor – up to the task. This time, the sheer perfunctoriness of the baddie lets the air out of him with a protesting squeal. Pity poor Toby Jones, a fine actor reduced to beaming Northernly around some of the most Moustache-Twirling Creepy Little Gnome-ness you ever did see. John’s repulsed and almost convinced, and Sherlock calls in Faith Smith to…I’m not sure what, exactly.

But it doesn’t matter, because the young woman who shows up is not the girl who asked for Sherlock’s help. And Sherlock flashes back to the encounter, and we remember that she’s always been shot so that nobody else can see her. The music screams and Sherlock lunges with a scalpel…

And look, it would be one thing if Sherlock were being gaslit – even temporarily. Shades of the Reichenbach Fall. So why isn’t it working for me? Is it because the show won’t let us shiver at Sherlock’s possible incipient breakdown, because it’s too busy throwing up Sherlock’s God complex and John’s unresolved anger at what he feels to be Sherlock’s failure to save his wife? An anger that in any normal universe would seem just a tad unreasonable – the woman sacrificed herself to save him. How much protection can you pull off if your protegee won’t, you know, stay put? – but Sherlock did come back from the dead, and the show has perversely and resolutely refused to tell us how. Why shouldn’t John blame Jesus for not raising Lazarus?

Well, anyway, I understand that human emotions are complex and no argument is about just one thing. But there’s complexity and there’s outright narrative incoherence. There is a story here about The Fine Line Between Genius And Madness, and there is a story here about how Sherlock has betrayed John before, and whether and what the two of them need from each other. And I am happy to go with either story (so long as you get your music director off the sauce, yeah?). But the two stories do not go together. Especially not like this.

‘The only way to save John….is to make him save you.’

Especially since, once again, the show snatches back its hand just the second it goes into genuinely dark, or painful, territory. It was all for John, you see. Sherlock drove himself into hell on a road paved with narcotics – all to get John to snap out of his own self-pitying haze! He stared down the barrel of his own madness and his own despair…all to get John to save him! Look, here he is, held down by Toby Jones in a hospital bed, thrashing about like a fish on a slab….until John breaks in in three…two…one.

‘He’s never knowingly under-cliched, is he?’

Nope. Nope, he isn’t. Because before our exciting foray into Death By Selfless Friendship And Also Narcotics, we discover:

  • That Sherlock’s emotional, and Mrs. Hudson kicks the ‘reptile’ Mycroft out. Out of some misguided sense of…protectiveness? Listen, as useless as his attempts are, Mycroft is at least doing something concrete to get his brother off the drugs, and has done several times in the past if The Abominable Bride is any indication. What exactly have you done, you twittering Discount Betty White ninnyhammer?
  • That Sherlock still gets orgasm texts from Bloody Irene Adler, and apparently John ‘ships them? What? Because she’s alive and a romance would complete Sherlock? Complete Sherlock? Adorable Godfather Sherlock with his Adorable Bloodhound and his Bambi eyes staring at you as you administer a kicking? John? Baby? Sherlock already has a Great Love.
    1. A Great Love who is making a posthumous confession of his (extremely mild) infidelity to Saint Mary of Baker Street. Who, by the way, is back-lit so it looks like she has a literal halo. While the ‘Oo woo woo WOO woo’ music goes bananas.
    2. And as John finally collapses weeping onto Sherlock’s manly chest, and Sherlock wraps his arms around his friend, I wish that I could enjoy the moment more. In fact, a little of that Magic Lethe Water for me, too, please, Culverton. Maybe I could enjoy the man-hug if I could forget the chest-beating that comes before it.
  • Or before John’s therapist turns out to be
    1. The young woman who approached Sherlock
    2. The young lady with whom John text-cheated (told you she’d be Important Later!)
    3. And – last but not least – Sherlock and Mycroft’s Secret Sibling! Named ‘Eurus’, or ‘the East Wind’. I do not have the vocabulary to describe how intensely ridiculous this is. And I expect that that is just as well, because I may exhaust it in the next episode.

Deerstalking: Holmes canon nods

  • Sherlock finally says ‘the game’s afoot’, which was the original quotation Holmes used and which the show corrupts to ‘the game is on’.

Odds and Sods

  • Shout-out to the cinematographer for this episode. There’s a beautiful Old Master sheen to John’s scenes in his therapist’s office, as well as the slow-motion shot of the teacup falling to the ground.
  • It’s actually a nifty character touch that even when John has accurately intuited Sherlock’s apparently-miraculous chain of reasoning, he has to put the deduction in Spectral Mary’s mouth. John always sees himself as the witness to someone else’s brilliance, even when the brilliance is his own.
  • I began a count of the number of times I said ‘OH FOR FUCK’S SAKE’ out loud, but I gave up at the moment the show made its ‘cereal killer’ joke.
  • Sherlock actually looks rather toothsome in his Death-Warmed-Up Junkie avatar.
  • To the music director: OH MY GOD WE FUCKING GET IT. Can you take it down like 1000000 notches?
  • At what point did you start thinking ‘I swear to God the next time they mention that bloody hat…’?
  • Mycroft and Lady Smallwood have a little banter going. That’s….cute?
  • If the show really wanted to bring out a Sherlock descending into madness borne of guilt, how about the ‘Out damned spot’ speech? He’d already quoted once from Macbeth in The Six Thatchers. If they wanted some sort of ‘call to action’ speech, how about ‘Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I’ from Hamlet? Cumbers must know it by heart…

2 thoughts on “TV Review: Sherlock: The Lying Detective

  1. What I found extremely annoying was that the central mystery could have been really good, and possibly would have been in S1 or S2.
    One small disagreement, though: it IS Sherlock’s fault that Mary is dead. If he had shut up when Mary told him to, the little old lady would not have pulled out the gun.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Fair enough. But does John know that? I thought he came in only in time to scoop Dying Mary in his arms? (I really should remember better than that, I literally only watched the episode a few days ago).
      But I completely agree that the mystery had real potential, if they didn’t shuffle it together with all the Grief Beard stuff. And yes, I’d have enjoyed the bonding at the end way better in S1 or S2 as well.


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