Sherlock series 4 episode 2 review: The Lying Detective

The Lying Detective is lurid, horribly entertaining episode of Sherlock packed with style and surprises. Spoilers ahead…

This review contains spoilers.

4.2 The Lying Detective

What a circus that was; acrobatics, dangerous creatures, clowning, surprise turns, high-wire danger… the lot. By the time the end credits rolled, you were left feeling enjoyably concussed, the sheer ‘whomp’ of it having sent cartoon stars spinning around your head. 

Once the ice-pack had been applied and you could see straight again, did the story stand up to prodding? Not all of it perhaps, but in the lurid, implausible realm of Sherlock Holmes, originally filled with putty noses and poison darts, who’s counting? I haven’t been that consistently entertained in front of my TV for a good while. And it all made sense in-world, which is where it counts.

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As part of his quest to save John Watson, Sherlock was instructed to first find a baddie and lord, he did that. Toby Jones’ Culverton Smith was exactly as horrid as promised. More so, even. From his crooked teeth to his Laughing Policeman cackle he was a genuinely sinister ghoul, his cartoonishness tempered by the uncomfortable parallels between him and a real-world monster. 

They weren’t even parallels. Smith was Jimmy Savile in all but the precise nature of his crimes. A serial killer rather than a serial molester, Smith embodied the awful truths we’ve had to face in the last few years about the power of fame, money and public good deeds to disguise private depravity.

That point was hammered repeatedly in Smith’s scenes, not least in his speech about the Queen (add that to the Thatcher bust-smashing of last week and Sherlock’s iconoclasm is alive and well). Seeing Smith sat between children as he delivered that monologue, having him jangle that set of keys and boast about his favourite room in the hospital was unsettling in the extreme. Jones made Smith into a true grotesque, the perfect mix of cheery affability and venom. 

How tasteful and sensitive was it to resurrect a real-life criminal, many of whose victims are still alive, as a TV villain designed to chill and thrill? Not at all, but when real life writes better baddies than fiction, you can forgive the temptation to steal. Series three gave us Scandi Rupert Murdoch after all.

We first met Culverton Smith in Bond-villain mode, delivering an Etch-a-Sketch confession to his assembled flunkies. The cathartic nature of confession was a recurring theme of The Lying Detective. John confessed his text affair to figment-Mary. Sherlock confessed his guilt over Mary’s death to John (albeit to provoke a beating that was all part of his meticulous plan), guilt of which he was eventually absolved. 

All that was beautifully played by Martin Freeman, who’s cornered the market in English-man-struggles-to-repress-pain poignancy. He was so moving in the early therapy session, I assumed that was why director Nick Hurran (His Last VowThe Day Of The Doctor) framed his face so closely; to capture every swallow, blink and twitch. It was all a ruse of course, to make sure we weren’t looking too closely at the woman opposite. 

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Pow! You were expecting a secret brother, we gave you a secret sister, said writer Steven Moffat, lord of misrule. After series eight’s Missy shenanigans on Doctor Who, we might have expected as much. 

The Eurus Holmes revelation shot a cloud of question marks swimming into the air. Where has she been all this time? What precipitated her removal from family life (we were at the Holmes house last Christmas, remember)? What went on at that childhood beach Sherlock keeps remembering? How long since she and Sherlock saw each other? Was she behind the Moriarty “Miss Me?” message all along? Was she in cahoots with him? Did John really not recognise his bus squeeze behind those contact lenses? What happened to Sherlock’s powers of deduction when she turned up at 221B in disguise? 

We may as well stop there or we’ll run out of word count. Disguise was obviously key to The Lying Detective, from Eurus’ turns as ‘E’, Faith and the therapist, to Sherlock’s stage-managed public breakdown and faked near-death experience, to serial killer Culverton Smith hiding in plain sight (two things, incidentally, that take us back to this show’s pilot episode). It was a well-kept secret that very much did the job.

As did Nick Hurran’s directing. Strung-out Cumberbatch was on top form, while the episode’s style, which used creative tricks to help tell the story rather than embellish it, was much improved from The Six Thatchers’ overcooked transitions and busy screen. The slo-mo handbag, the kitchen notice board conjured from air and the Natural Born Killers editing (Sherlock was high therefore so were we) regained the elegance and surprise this show’s direction is known for. 

Speaking of surprise, welcome back to Amanda Abbington. Impish figment-Mary was moving, comic and the best her character’s been. What a great trick that was. 

No figment, and surely the hero of the hour was Mrs “not your housekeeper” Hudson, who was gifted her best scenes since A Scandal In Belgravia. Una Stubbs emerging from that Aston Martin was the first of several fun twists, closely followed by the sight of Sherlock handcuffed in its boot. From that point onwards we were kept guessing with a funny, pacy script that benefitted from not being mired in the tragedy foreshadowed throughout last week’s episode, nor from drawing on a genre distractingly other than the playful detective thriller.

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Overall, it was ninety minutes with two villains, thirty-six twists, roughly eleven endings and a creeping sense of finality.

Each character in the show, it feels, is steadily being ushered towards the door. Mrs Hudson had a moment in the sun, Mycroft has a date, Sherlock has The Woman and much more importantly, John Watson. If Molly gets something to do next week, then nobody will be left feeling short-changed if this series does turn out to be Sherlock‘s final problem. 

Least of all us.

Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode, The Six Thatchers, here.