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Sherlock S4E2 The Lying Detective – Spoiler Review * 10 January 2017


It's been a common thread throughout the episodes scripted by Steven Moffat to deliberately weaken Sherlock Holmes in some way, to draw him down to a flawed level either mentally or physically. This interesting thematic choice has been in the series from the very beginning in the unaired pilot episode, with Moffat originally having Sherlock fake-drunk blunder into the clutches of Jeff the Cabbie, being stuck with a hypodermic of sedative and kidnapped in the process. For the introduction to your heroic lead, it was an interesting display of weakness, and possibly not terribly good at engendering audience sympathy. Wisely removed in the final extended version of the script so Sherlock went willingly with the serial killer, the exact same debilitation of Holmes cropped up at the start of Series Two in A Scandal in Belgravia when Irene Adler drugs him to make her first escape. It's more justified there than in the pilot to be true, as we've already got to know Sherlock over three previous episodes and can more readily accept him being laid low. Moffat does it again in His Last Vow but perhaps in more extreme circumstances, having Sherlock go from heroin bender to being shot by a revealed ninja-superspy Mary Watson to becoming a cold blooded murderer.  

What is behind the constant attempts to make the ultimate brainiac so flawed? If you viewed this incarnation of Sherlock Holmes through superhero eyes, it maybe becomes much clearer - Superman is an invulnerable beacon of hope, but can be laid low and brought near death by Kyptonite. Superheroes are Gods, but are more interesting when they are made human. And this is ultimately the game plan that Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss have been playing with their version of Sherlock Holmes, to take the Great Detective from his lofty pedestal and render him a flawed human blessed with a supercomputer brain.    

It's heartening then, that S4E2 The Lying Detective effectively makes Sherlock embrace and literally acknowledge this weakness that has been built into his character by his (re)creators, with the dual aims of catching a very bad person and also saving John Watson. In many ways, the episode feels like a sequel and ambiguous answer to that eternally unanswered question from the conclusion of A Study in Pink - which pill bottle did Sherlock choose? We can never know of course, but his final ensnarement of the truly awful Culverton Smith is both fulfilment and rebuttal of those two little bottles. Sherlock chooses the path of absolute danger, with both the full confidence and total uncertainty that John Watson will come to save him.   


Benedict Cumberbatch is unleashed as Sherlock in this one. Go for broke, hell for leather, the culmination of all that internalised danger is set loose in a deliberate act of self immolation to solve those two problems. He is out of control, and thanks to the revelation that Faith Smith is not the same woman he spent the night walking the streets of London with, perhaps finally over the edge. This is surely the darkest point he can ever go, and the bruising beating he receives from John is both a physical agony for him and a desperately sad moment for the viewer.   

As a bottled portrait of grief, Martin Freeman gives us a masterclass. You can exist day to day. You can walk around and appear normal. But all it takes is a trigger, and everything is set loose, whether the grief is new and raw, or years buried. And Martin utterly, totally sells this in the final minutes of the episode. Yes, we're into soap territory by the point of his confession to imagined-Mary and subsequent breakdown in the arms of his best friend, but it is a total reinforcement of the tight bond that holds Sherlock Holmes and John Watson together as friends, even when the awkward hug that Sherlock offers goes beyond any closeness between the pair that you could imagine in the canon.   

Toby Jones is lip-smackingly hideous as Culverton Smith. He is neither a brilliant psychopath like the beloved Jim Moriarty, nor a physically repellent creature like Charles Augustus Magnussen. Instead, Smith is a very British villain, unsettling because Moffat has clearly crafted him from details of terrible individuals from recent reality - the plain-sight horror of Jimmy Saville combined with the quietly murderous methods of Harold Shipman, alongside the psychological power trip that gripped both those despicable individuals running throughout. He gets off on the power he wields, and murder is now his only outlet. In the end though, he is underserved by the plot itself in some ways - Smith is purely a narrative engine to reset the relationship with Sherlock and John to pre-Mary status, but it is pleasing to actually have him caught as it actually feels like a departure after all the shooting, death, and escapes of other antagonists that guest in the series.  


The use of 'Ghost Mary' is an interesting one. On paper, the idea of John talking to his dead wife is all a bit Battlestar Galactica (2004) or Mr Robot (2015) but it is sensitively done in the execution. The continued use of Amanda Abbington allows a deep thread of sadness to pervade the entire episode. Among the supporting characters, Mycroft again gets many of the best zingers, Lestrade is barely here in this one, and we have to feel slight sadness at the continued lack of Molly in this series thus far. Meanwhile, Mrs Hudson screeching around in an Aston Martin is somewhere on the line that separates utter brilliance and total naffness. Una Stubbs is gifted many moments to amp up the character's fierceness at last though, and in many ways she is the standout in the entire 90 minutes.  

Of course just like last week, there's a big talking point in this episode. The revelation of the existence of Eurus Holmes has been carefully guarded. Thanks to Sian Brooke's superb multi role performance over the last two episodes, her character is hidden in plain sight in a neat counterpoint to the nature of Culverton Smith - so big, so showy, so public - while also at last deploying a Holmesian love for disguise in the series. Also fun from a certain point of view is the fact that John was actually texting 'E' rather than simply a random acquaintance - for certain fans, the fact that he was emotionally cheating on Mary with Sherlock's sister is possibly the next best thing to cheating on her with Sherlock himself! The idea of Eurus has been around since the conclusion of S3E3 His Last Vow, where the shooting script for that episode carried the original reveal from Mycroft of 'a sister' rather than the final 'other one' at the close. Wisely amending that small aside gives us a gigantic twist that is potentially overwhelming for the first time viewer.   

On a second watch though the true structure of the episode is revealed, with the opening section making much more sense before it segues into perhaps the most Conan Doyle-ish episode of Sherlock since The Hounds of Baskerville. Once the main story gets going there are no massive story tangents, no huge retcons, and no quick conclusion to the original inspiration before diving off into new territory - everything plays out nearly identically to The Adventure of the Dying Detective, and it lasts for nearly the entire duration of the episode.  The script also often carries a beautiful eloquence too, with a showstopping rumination on mortality and suicide by Sherlock on the South Bank that speaks to the brilliance of Moffat's writing all while he may frustrate us. Returning director Nick Hurran gives us another technical tour de force, with Sherlock's room and reality bending trip beating the moment of his shooting in His Last Vow, while displaying a small homage to the most iconic moment from Inception (2010) in the execution.    

With another cliffhanger to end the episode, we're now way out of the standard structure for this series. One episode to go, with the unknown future beyond that...