This review contains spoilers
Season four’s penultimate episode, The Lying Detective, will send shivers down your spine with Toby Jones’ chilling depiction of the most sinister antagonist of the series so far. It will also leave you astounded at the transformative power of a couple of wigs. It’s not back on the same form it was in the first two seasons, but it’s all beginning to totter back in the right direction. Just about.
Let’s start with Jones’ character – in this episode, he is, without question, the most repulsive individual showrunners have managed to create. And it’s fantastic. He plays Culverton Smith, a philanthropist and national treasure, who the eponymous detective manages to deduce – via a series of twists and turns as believable as anything on Sherlock – is in fact a serial killer. He feels like a skulking reincarnation of Jimmy Savile. His weapon of choice is murder rather than sexual assault, but much like the once-beloved TV presenter he commits his crimes at a children’s hospital he sponsors, using his public profile to shelter himself from any serious suspicion. In fact, he repeatedly confesses his crimes to those close to him, making sure to drug them so that they won’t remember a thing he’s said. It’s a bold move from the BBC, who as an organisation have oft been labelled partially responsible in covering up Savile’s horrific acts, to create a character so clearly inspired by him. Smith seems to be influenced also by H. H. Holmes, a famed serial killer active in the late 1800s, referenced in the show, who built a hotel with myriad twists and turns in the architecture which allowed him to come and go as he pleased, murdering guests at will. Smith does a similar thing with his hospital, rooms littered with secret entrances whereby he may sneak in and commit the perfect crime, gone without a trace before alarm bells can even begin to ring. While H. H. inspired characters in popular culture have oft seemed cheesy and over the top (looking at you, American Horror Story) Smith is the perfect blend of this fabled long-dead bogeyman of centuries gone by and a villain all too stomach-churningly present in the popular consciousness. The character could have become cartoonish in a lesser actor’s hands, but Jones plays him to perfection, and he’s by far the best part of the entire episode. Kudos must be given to the costume department for his false teeth – yellowed and pointing in every direction except that which they are meant to, the jumbled gnashers look so sharp you feel as though he’s a predator who could lash out and bite at any moment. It’s a impressively creepy addition to an already spine-chilling figure.
The wardrobe department must also be praised for what they do with the actress who plays Euros, Sherlock’s secret sister. We’ll get on to the ham-fisted delivery of that particular plot twist shortly, but regardless one can’t fail to be impressed by how different they manage to make the actress look, three times over. She’s not only masquerading as John’s counsellor (greying hair, coloured contact lenses, round glasses, comfortable soft-knit wardrobe), she also shows up at Sherlock’s flat pretending to be Faith, Culverton Smith’s daughter (limp blonde hair, large square frames over her eyes, walking cane, a blood-red flowing dress which draws the eye in every shot in which it’s present), and to top it all off she’s the mysterious bus lady from the first episode (wispy brown hair with a full fringe, gaudy outfits, questionable makeup). On the topic and as expected, Bus Lady was indeed more than meets the eye, and we were treated to a scene of John angsting over his extra-marital texting. I don’t think I’ll ever forgive myself for not realising all these characters were the same woman in different costume, and whoever managed to style her so very differently for each role should be applauded.
However, the reveal that Sherlock has a secret unhinged sibling sent my eyes rolling further back into my head than they have in a while. It was speculated among fans for a while that the mysterious Sherrinford referenced throughout the season would be a third Holmes sibling, a tribute to theories that Arthur Conan Doyle wrote Sherlock and Mycroft as though they had an older brother, and so this reveal doesn’t feel particularly shocking, as we’ve known it’s coming in some form or another. It just feels surreal and difficult to believe – and when something’s difficult to believe in Sherlock you know it’s gone too far. Much like last week, it’s far more 007 than 221b, and this doesn’t feel like a good thing.
Something else which felt awkward and out of place with the typical tone of the series was John’s series of posthumous hallucinations of his dead wife. In particular I’m referring to the aforementioned text-guilt scene, wherein he confesses his infidelities to his mental image of Mary, who immediately forgives him instead of reacting with the rage and pain you’d expect from a woman who’s just found out that every time she’s out of the room tending to their newborn her husband is having laughably weak flirty banter over WhatsApp with someone he’s met once. Luckily she’s just a sentient figment of his imagination who’s only there to further his emotional development, so John is able to break down sobbing and share an awkward but tender hug with Sherlock, which somewhere out there has definitely already been reworked by a fan on LiveJournal to descend into an hour of passionate carnal relations between the two men, and start to move on. Even in death Mary isn’t her own character, still just a shell to propel the male character’s narrative forward. It’s no longer surprising, but it continues to be deeply disappointing.
There are also a couple of moments from the episode quite clearly lifted from the first series of Torchwood. One of the opening scenes is of a retconned Faith scrawling down everything she can remember about the confession her father has just made and intends for her to swiftly forget, much like Gwen in Torchwood’s first episode, Everything Changes. Culverton also confesses to Sherlock that he commits the serial murders simply because it makes him happy, much like the patriarch of a family of cannibals does in Countrycide. This may have been an intentional tribute, rather than plagiarism – this easter egg was featured in the episode, so it may well be savvy fans of the Doctor Who spin-off were supposed to notice the similarities – but it just feels like a rip off, as though Moffat decided that if those moments in one show worked then why not reuse them in another.
As per usual, the editing is stellar, the glimpses into Sherlock’s mind palace as charming as ever. After the car crash of last episode this is definitely a return to form, but it’s still nowhere near close to the show at its best, due to the increasingly ridiculous nature of the plot. Giles Coren predicted that the episode would simply be 90 minutes of Mark Gatiss having a wank, and it’s unavoidable that Sherlock is becoming increasingly masturbatory as the writers construct the fantasy they wish to see for their characters, rather than taking a moment to think about what constitutes the dramatic, thought-provoking television they used to produce. It feels like watching two little boys playing pretend in their back garden – they’re having fun with all the crazy shenanigans the people who live inside their minds are getting up to, but explaining them to anyone else can prompt little more than an endeared smile.
That’s nice Steven, Mark. Come inside now, your fish fingers are getting cold.