More than the sum of its parts, 'The Lying Detective' is vintage Sherlock, and surprisingly chilling.
Returning to our screens in the second episode of this Sherlock run, Benedict Cumberbatch’s sleuth regains much of his stride in a story which deftly balances its lighter and darker elements, whilst giving our main characters some compelling moral dilemmas to chew over.
Creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss have been very open about the tonal shift that this new series has undertaken. Dark themes and ideas are one thing, but this episode is, for the most part, a relentless hellfire of misery and despair that at certain points, makes you itch for the remote and the sweet release of Pointless over on another channel. But make sure that you don’t, because whilst it can somewhat smothering in its bleakness, ‘The Lying Detective’ is an hour and a half of riveting, absorbing entertainment. The new status quo is clear, and those ginger nuts from episode one are getting further and further away…
To describe this week’s A-plot in a word? Terrifying. After being put on the trail of a serial-killing celebrity by a mysterious client, Sherlock finds himself pitted against Toby Jones’ Culverton Smith, a villain whose very presence in a scene is enough to make your skin crawl. Equal parts Jimmy Saville and Charles Manson, Smith is a heinous creation, but one that never fails to seize your attention, no matter how awful or squeamish his scenes are. Bolstered by some truly-frightening imagery – the round table of drips and Culverton’s secret passageway are some ghoulish standouts – the character succeeds where some previous villains have fallen down, inciting both fear and disgust in a dynamic and engaging way.
Underpinning this menace is the struggle of our heroes as they come to terms with the death of Mary (Amanda Abbington). Her spectre looms large over the episode – quite literally – and although the two narratives threaten to clash at certain points, they also compliment each other in unexpected ways. When it is revealed that Sherlock had played a long game with John (Martin Freeman) for weeks in order to pull him out of his darkness, it feels earned, and whilst the true nature of Mary’s mission for Sherlock (“save him by making him save you”) does perhaps undermine Culverton Smith’s presence as a threat in the story, it’s a beat that feels true to the characters. Respectful, even.
It doesn’t all work, though. Whilst the character of Mrs Hudson (Una Stubbs) is used to both comedic and emotional effect in this episode, the presentation veers slightly too far towards the former. Driving her drug dealer ex-husband’s car into a dustbin is jarring both to the recovering Watson and the tone that the episode is striving for, and the inclusion of Molly Hooper and Lestrade here feels essentially pointless, neither contributing much to the story aside from a few despairing glances. Mycroft also has little to do here besides big up his brother, although (spoiler alert) the mystery of a secret third Holmes sibling is neatly-teased throughout the episode, culminating in a shocking and exciting reveal that leaves all hungering for next week’s finale.
Traditionally, middle episodes of Sherlock have tended to drop the ball somewhat, and in that respect, ‘The Lying Detective’ is a welcome and refreshing change. Now, all eyes are on the finale, and what is certain to be a riveting, but hopefully not final, problem.
Sherlock concludes this Sunday (15th January) with ‘The Final Problem’.