Sherlock, Season 4, Episode 2
“The Lying Detective”
Posted by Sage
We are officially going around in circles. Then we are backtracking and going on random tangents and we don’t even get the satisfaction of tormenting Mycroft while we do it.
“The Lying Detective” brought so many of Sherlock‘s favorite devices limping back into an already overstuffed narrative. Were there fun moments? Sure. Was the emotion real? Sometimes. Did Martin Freeman break me with this acting? Absolutely. Even though the pacing of this episode made it an easier watch than “The Six Thatchers,” it still collapsed in the center under the weight of everything it’s trying to do.
Let’s start with Toby Jones as the odious Culverton Smith, a wealthy philanthropist who moonlights as a serial killer. I’m surprised any scenery was still standing after Jones chowed down on it all, but hey, that’s why you hire him. Culverton is the jolliest murderer you’ll ever meet and so eager to share his deeds with an audience that his board meetings always come with a complimentary mind-eraser. But who needs an explanation of why anyone would agree to be hooked up to such an IV, even if asked by someone they trusted, let alone a creepy little troll like this? There are cereal/serial killer jokes to be made!
How many more times will Sherlock tell us that no, actually, THIS is the worst and most heinous criminal he’s ever encountered? Whatever their methods and motives, so long as Sherlock writes all its uber-villains to be overly articulate, pompous, joyously maniacal, and just half an IQ-point less sharp than its hero, those variations barely register. Andrew Scott’s Moriarty is unsurpassable. And yeah, the show blew that wad in season 1. But that’s no reason to turn every Conan Doyle bad guy into the same monologue-crazy gentleman psychopath.
So Culverton Smith’s taunting of Sherlock wasn’t as effective as it should have been. It did eat up plenty of time though. None of that time was spent explaining what Culverton’s endgame was or how he’d planned to get Sherlock in one of his hospital beds. (I don’t know how he could have anticipated what happened in the mortuary.) He grandstands with his guests in the children’s ward, behaving a way that made me wonder who would ever let him speak to kids, fortune or no fortune. Nothing about Culverton Smith is lovable. He’s off-putting and scary, even when he’s smiling. He’s so clearly operating on some strange and separate plane yet no one but Sherlock and Watson appear to be repulsed by him or even the slightest bit concerned. I wondered at first if we’re meant to be seeing his behavior through Sherlock’s eyes – that in his drug-stupor he was looking beyond the facade and into the guilt. The show could have also made a more trenchant point about the leeway we give to the rich. But as it was, Culverton’s strange personality just hung there, unexplained and unquestioned.
I’m going to put my murder weirdo hat on right now and say that it is EXTREMELY unusual for a serial killer to want to stand out like Culverton does. Some are extremely anti-social. Most blend seamlessly into their communities. Ted Bundy was famously charming. It’s not Culverton’s hinting at his atrocities that’s unbelievable, it’s that he’d draw attention to himself in other ways, putting his name on hospital wings and appearing on television. His methods are interesting though, and I do appreciate how the show melded the “The Dying Detective” plot with the very true and very fascinating story of H.H. Holmes, the serial killer doing big, big business in Chicago during the World’s Fair. (Have you read The Devil in the White City? You get on it, and Leonardo DiCaprio, get on that movie you promised me.) He’s committing mercy killings minus the mercy and he’s doing it in a tricked-out MURDER hospital. (“I like to make people into things.”) Still, Culverton Smith falls short of being the terrifying presence Sherlock intends him to be because THERE ARE NO VICTIMS. I mean, there are meant to be many, but why are they locked out of the story? It was a nice character detail to show Lestrade so broken after hearing part 1 of Culverton’s lengthy confession. (He’s a good man.) But without context, the whole case felt so…impersonal.
Naturally, it’s all about Sherlock, who we know from the episode title is keeping something from us. It’s back to another familiar well with the detective getting himself hooked to achieve a goal: this time, it’s to court the sympathy or at least the presence of John Watson. John, you’ll remember, decided to break all ties with Sherlock after the death of Mary. His grief has left him temporarily incapable of taking care of Rosie, and he takes offense at his shrink approving that choice out of pity. “Why does everything have to be ‘understandable’?” he asks. “Why can’t some things be unacceptable? And we just say that?” John Watson is so alone, with no company but his dead but still cheerful wife.
It’s common in Sherlock for people to communicate with themselves by communicating with their concept of another person, usually, that’s achieved by Sherlock in his mind palace. But there’s something unkind about putting Mary in this position, following John around, existing to only motivate his participation in the world or to stir up his guilt. She’s dead and she still can’t catch a break. Selfishly, I loved seeing Amanda Abbington again. She’s a master of the reaction and made for a charming personal ghost – as nurturing, mischievous, and on Sherlock’s side as ever. And even though the manipulation was strong and so predictable, Mary’s presence broke up the anger that rightly dominated most of Martin’s performance in this episode. She tries to remind him: “John, you’ve got to remember, it’s important: I am dead.” But John refuses to register this information. His stubborn denial was this episode’s most moving moment, though I expect Team Johnlock will disagree. (I’ll get to it, dain’t you worry.)
High Sherlock is still a sight to behold and I applaud the unabashed Britishness of having Benedict Cumberbatch roaring the most famous speech from Henry V for no detectable reason other than his training. (Question: if Sherlock doesn’t need room in his brain for the solar system, how come Shakespeare gets a spot? Answer: He’s a romantic, duh.) The visual bravado of the scene comes to its slow-mo/sped-up climax when Mrs. Hudson drops Sherlock’s tea so that she can get a grasp on the gun he’s been waving around. (“Of course I didn’t call the police, I’m not a civilian.”) And prepare to hate me, because I’m about to rain on your Hudders parade.
I miss the subtlety of early Sherlock, where Mrs. Hudson would make reference to her checkered pass and then chuckle and pass the biscuits. (That never happened exactly so, but you get the drift.) Now all subtlety is gone. Mrs. Hudson drives an Aston Martin like a coked-out 007 and evidently has the upper body strength necessary to shove a 6′ tall man into the boot before she does it. She doesn’t need to do these things to prove to me that she’s a badass. She always has been; those original episodes show us that she endures what Sherlock puts her through because she cares about him but also because she loves the danger.
When Sherlock takes the Mrs. Hudson secret identity thing this far, I feel as if she’s being made fun of. We’re supposed to be tickled by the incongruousness of her unassuming appearance and her rebellious spirit. Meanwhile, Mrs. Hudson is at her best not when she’s screeching into a driveway but when she’s standing up to the British Government, demanding that the privacy of her boys be respected or when she’s offering her unconditional support to John, despite the fact he doesn’t live with her anymore.
We’ve done this, though: the thing where Sherlock’s friends beg him to stop using and he assures them he’s got it under control. Poor Louise Brealey is brought out to deliver almost identical dialogue to her big scene in “His Last Vow.” (Remember when Molly and Sherlock solved crimes? Remember when she was instrumental in defeating Moriarty? Now she’s only called upon to babysit or to ask Sherlock to not kill himself, please.) In “Reichenbach,” Sherlock lies to save everyone – all those people that he loves. But Mary’s death has forced the show to minimize those other relationships for the sake of John and John alone. And though their friendship is the core of Sherlock, the detective’s saving grace has been the creation of this family. It’s a weaker show with them cast to the side. It’s no longer news that he cares. So let’s get on with it.
I’m not even going to try to unpack how many of the events in the hospital Sherlock predicted, but obviously he considered it well within the realm of possibility that John would beat the shit out of him. John tries to do cold anger, but he always ends up exhibiting more emotion than he intends to. Sherlock counted on him being easily goaded into it and perhaps also thought it would be better for John if he could take some of that explosive physical aggression out on him. Mary’s video message tells him to “go to hell” and mean it. Sherlock enters into this plan knowing that he’s not going to die. But he does go through hell – he puts himself right in it, for weeks. He truly believes that he killed Mary. When he’s high, his brain cannot rest. Imagine how many times he had that thought.
“Your life is not your own,” he says to fake-Faith. “Keep your hands off it.” It’s an interesting speech to come from someone who famously faked his own, leaving most of his friends completely in the dark. But Sherlock evidently has strong feelings about suicide; as ever, he’s extremely rational about it. Sherlock Holmes believes his life belongs to other people, so he uses it as best he can to bring John back. It’s actually kind of beautiful. Or it would have been, if that story hadn’t hinged on Mary’s message.
I talked about the audacious fridging of Mary Watson last week and “The Lying Detective” doesn’t make me regret that analysis one bit. The show actually has Mary posthumously dictating Sherlock and John’s actions like some benevolent goddess – the patron saint of male friendship. She tags along with John and makes smart remarks. She watches her plan unfold exactly as she wanted it to. With the boys back together, she can be at peace. Because I guess she didn’t have anything else going on in her life. Still, I suppose I could have forgiven a little of this treatment of Mary had she been allowed to be a little bit fucking angry when she found out that her husband betrayed her unconditionally given trust.
Mary has a knack for seeing the whole person, not just their mistakes. And I don’t doubt that if she’d lived, she would have forgiven John. But this reaction: a slight blanch followed by a beatific smile followed by a word of encouragement for that cheating bastard – it edges dangerously into cool-girl territory. Wouldn’t girls be like, cooler, if they didn’t care if you had emotional affairs while they were caring for your children? But the door seems to close on the subject when John gives a lovely wrap-up speech about how he couldn’t possibly be expected to be a decent man without the love of a good woman. (“That’s what you’re missing: She taught me to be the man she already thought I was. Get yourself a piece of that.”) And, well, I guess Mary Watson fulfilled her purpose in life by inspiring a grown man to not act like a dick all of the time, even though she died young and with a newborn child. (ALL OF THIS IS SARCASM.)
Strip that sexist bullshit away and the John and Sherlock reunion is actually quite nice. No one seems to mind that they were manipulated. Sherlock even makes conversation. (“I thought we were just hanging out.” *dies*) Years after her apparent death and John FINALLY finds out that Irene Adler is still alive and still setting off Sherlock’s porn-y text notification. They talk about babies and girls and birthday cake and I want to SEE MORE OF THIS. John tells Sherlock that he should be so lucky to love someone and then lose them. (“She’s out there, she LIKES you, and she’s alive.”) He’s been that lonely person (“I was so alone, and I owe you so much.”), and even the pain of Mary’s death doesn’t make him regret their life together. Finally, John absolves Sherlock. Mary wasn’t under anyone’s control; she made a decision, and no one else is culpable but the lady with the gun. It’s a pain John will have to live with for the rest of his life, but “it is what it is.” And instead of pushing Sherlock away, he needs to share that grief with him. Sherlock loved Mary too. And they’re all fuck-ups. Fuck-ups gotta stick together.
The healing process is cut short by the cliffhanger we’d been waiting for. The “other one” is a Holmes sister, and she is PISSED. (Because she doesn’t get invited to Christmas dinner at the cottage? Discuss.) I fear that there are too many questions going into it to make “The Final Problem” a satisfying finale. Most of them have to do with Eurus Holmes, who went to a LOT of trouble to get close both Sherlock and John. Why didn’t Sherlock recognize her, even with the disguise? Even when he probably hasn’t seen her since they were both children? And how did she know how to get into his head so expediently? (“We had chips, and she liked me.”) Why did she lure John into that text relationship? Why bother with all the costumes and secrecy just to set up a dramatic-ass reveal? Is she an envoy of Moriarty? Will the subtext of Moriarty sleeping with a female Holmes kill us all? WHO EVEN IS SHERRINFORD THEN?
This requires a lot of retroactive explanation. Still, Sherlock is at its best when it is very, very silly. And giving the Holmes boys a secret psycho-killer sibling is by far the silliest thing they’ve ever done.
- “Big Brother is watching.” “Literally.”
- “He’s knows you’re an idiot, but that’s okay because you’re a lovely doctor!”
- “When have you ever managed two opinions? You’d fall over.”
- “Say what you want about addiction, the day is FULL of highlights.”
- “What do you think?” “Tough crowd.”
- John’s utter disgust at Culverton disrespecting the dead, though. Small but poignant.
- “Ohhhhh, the posh boy loves the dominatrix.”
- Imagine how delighted Molly was when Sherlock turned up for birthday cake IN THE HAT.
- My kink is the Holmes brothers being oblivious to obvious sexual interest.
- Speaking of kinks, did you catch that Torchwood reference?
We’re almost there, you guys. Thoughts on “The Lying Detective?” Leave them in the comments.