In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1913 story “The Adventure of the Dying Detective,” Sherlock Holmes pretends to be deathly ill in order to trick a man named Culverton Smith into confessing to a murder. The ruse only works if Holmes can prevent Watson from examining him, and so the detective behaves in a manner any Sherlock fan will recognize: He deceives with outright lies, roping his blameless sidekick into a dangerous murder mystery. Essentially, he uses his only companion as another prop to be wielded in the service of his brilliant deductions.
“The Lying Detective” tracks very closely with this version of events: It, too, has a dastardly villain named Culverton Smith, a wealthy playboy (played with slimy malevolence by Toby Jones) who is a dangerous serial killer capable of hiding in plain sight, thanks to the hospital he built with secret passageways so he can murder his victims H. H. Holmes-style. To catch him making a recorded confession, Sherlock has to put himself in harm’s way, while baiting Watson’s conscience enough that his friend will bail him out at the last minute, despite the fact that a still-grieving Watson has sworn off all contact with the man he holds responsible for his wife’s tragic death.
There is, however, one key difference that may be too much for some Sherlockians to bear. In this new version, Sherlock really is sick: He’s back to using again in the wake of Mary’s death, on a bender that seems to have gone unchecked for weeks by the time he’s accusing Culverton of being a serial killer (on Twitter!). When he’s examined by Molly midway through the episode, she concludes he could die in a manner of weeks if he keeps up his current habits. The man certainly seems suicidal enough to beg for drug-induced death at the hands of a killer, as he winds up doing after he’s hospitalized for injuries sustained by lunging at Culverton and being subdued by Watson himself.
We internalize all this knowledge throughout the episode, and realize we’ve never seen Sherlock this low before. When he imagines a late-night visit from Culverton’s daughter, Faith, bringing him the case of her father, he projects onto her all the traits we later learn are meant as references to his own suicidal tendencies: the marks on her arms indicating self-harm, the careless wandering into the rain without a coat, the handgun she’s carrying on her person. Far later in the episode, it’s suggested that Sherlock’s version of “Faith” had been just a projection brought on by loneliness and drugs — and when the truth finally comes out in the closing scene, we learn that “Faith” was actually his evil sister Euros (!) in disguise. The real Faith had never seen Sherlock before, which means we must come to terms with something shocking about the formerly unflappable detective: Sherlock Holmes might actually be mistaken about something.
It is tremendously moving to see our hero in this state, lost and vulnerable and performing a bit of “elective ignorance” on himself, in need of his partner to keep him in check. However, it is a little less moving at the climax of the episode, once Watson has stumbled upon Mary’s “Miss Me?” beyond-the-grave DVD. (How slighted must he feel to know that his wife chose to address her final recorded message to his best friend?) In the message, Mary reveals what’s really going on: Sherlock’s entire plot to put himself in harm’s way is itself an elaborate ruse to “save” Watson from his grief spiral. Because Watson is incapable of asking for help, but happy to give it, Sherlock had to make himself appear so worn-out, so near the end of his rope, that Watson would be willing to overcome his immense distaste for the man’s escapades and swoop in to the rescue, thereby saving them both. Once again, Sherlock proves himself steps ahead of the game, and Watson demonstrates he is, now and forever, the useful idiot.
Yet, there are some puzzling holes in “The Lying Detective.” Are we meant to believe that Sherlock would voluntarily allow himself to slip into a life-threatening addiction as part of a grander scheme to, in Mary’s words, “go to hell so that John can pull you out?” There’s an oddness to this drama, as though the show were ignoring the real-life stakes of addiction in favor of pulling the wool over our eyes one more time. It’s especially strange because Sherlock has historically been smart about how it handles Holmes’s drug problems, at first allowing him to skate by before showing how the loss of his support system can lead him off the deep end so fast that his already-addled mind barely registers this new plane of reality. (The wall-dancing moment in this episode is like Trainspotting meets Top Hat.)
So, boo on Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss for that bit of an unpleasant sneer at episode’s end, but good for them for reigniting the giddy, rocket-powered pacing and brilliant mind-palace editing throughout this 90-minute sensory pleasure. It wasn’t clear they would manage to let fun back into Baker Street after last week’s downer of an ending. Thankfully, they paired a scarily vulnerable Holmes with a reluctant Watson (always the best Watson). They allowed ample screen time for both Mrs. Hudson (on fire with her quips here, and with a fancy sports car!) and Mycroft (using the full power of the British state to survey his brother from a distance, rather than actually talk to him). And they managed, in the Faith sequence, an extended set piece that was somehow both graceful and completely bonkers, in which Sherlock gets to try his hand at compassion while spelling a lewd message for his brother in the London streets. It’s dark, it’s clever, and it’s entertaining enough to overlook the obvious Sixth Sense deception.
Though “The Lying Detective” may be built on a house-of-cards logic, it’s still a pretty house. We’re left with much groundwork to be done for next week’s season finale, and plenty of questions. Will we buy Watson returning to the fold so quickly, with nary a glance to make sure his motherless infant daughter is okay? How quickly can Sherlock kick his drug use? Most importantly, how will the show work the fruits of Moriarty’s plan, the sudden reappearance of Irene Adler, AND the introduction of Euros Holmes into one more mystery?
Whatever happens, looking to Holmes himself for hints has never steered us wrong before. As he reminds us again here, he can predict every possible human behavior weeks ahead of schedule with reasonable certainty, and he does this to hilarious effect when he correctly guesses the address of a therapist Watson hadn’t even considered going to yet. Sherlock is forever playing the game in his head. But here’s a memo to Moffat and Gatiss: It’s okay to just let his flaws be flaws, without trying to patch over them using twisty game logic. An addiction can be an addiction; depression can be depression. Mysteries on this show work themselves out in the end. People don’t always have to operate so easily.
- “A living, breathing coagulation of human evil” is an apt description of both Culverton and my last soufflé attempt.
- John Watson Can’t Catch A Break, Example #5,121: Even though he clearly manages the case blog under his name and writes about Sherlock in the third person, all the fans assume it’s “Sherlock’s blog.”
- There is so much to unpack about the editing of the episode, which is proof that Sherlock pushes film language to its most full-throttle extent. How about the way the camera swoops around Watson to reveal Mary, visible only to him, in the background of his scenes? The cut to the hospital symbolized by the reflection in the rolled-up car window, though the car never moved? The subtle linking of Faith’s walking stick to Watson’s old one from the series pilot, which ultimately proves to hide the recorder that captures Culverton’s confession? A tip of the deerstalker hat to episode director Nick Hurran, editor Yan Miles, and cinematographer Neville Kidd.
- Toby Jones fits right into the Sherlock world. He’s always weaselly enough to be clear that Culverton is just barely keeping his killer half in check. Nevertheless, the “cereal/serial killer” stuff is a big fat groan.
- From what we’ve already seen of Euros, it seems like H. H. isn’t the most dangerous Holmes after all. She’s outwitted Sherlock and tricked Watson twice over, while the episode’s closing scene suggests that she’s no stranger to killing. Is she the mastermind behind all of this Moriarty business? What is she trying to accomplish? And how much damage might she cause in the finale?