Sunday, 8 January 2017

Sherlock - The Lying Detective

Contains spoilers.

Well if any viewers of Sherlock don't suffer whiplash going from last week's episode into tonight's then I'd like to speak to them personally. I try to maintain a level of professionalism and sophistication on this blog, but can you allow me just this one? Please? Okay. YES SHERLOCK. THAT IS HOW YOU DO IT. Okay I'm done. I just... I needed that. Sherlock used to be such a great show and over the last few years it's deteriorated badly. To see it recapture even a hint of its former glory would be satisfying, but to watch as it basically evolves back into the show it once was? That felt good. "The Lying Detective" isn't perfect, and we'll get the gripes out of the way first, but to have an episode this tense and playful and unpredictable and have it not sacrifice any important character work is damn exciting. Steven Moffat doesn't always get it right, but when he does, he makes something special. "The Lying Detective" has a few too many wobbles to sit among his greatest work, but it's by a wide margin the show's strongest episode since "The Reichenbach Fall".

Let's talk through some of what didn't work. Once again, this episode's flaws lie with Mary Watson. Mary died last week, and while her initial appearances in the episode work to join the dots between instalments and successfully demonstrates John's deteriorating mental state, "The Lying Detective" eventually leans on this gimmick far too much. By the time the episode reaches its endgame and Sherlock and John are talking in their old flat, Mary's presence feels unnatural. In what should be a moving and emotional scene, Mary circles around the frame like a hawk eyeing up prey. Amanda Abbington plays the part well, as she always does, but Moffat's script writes itself into a bit of a corner with her. When we reach the episode's final scene, we need to come back to the woman from the bus from last week in order for that reveal to land properly, and having John work through that issue just minutes beforehand does the job. It's a case of sacrificing one important scene to make another important scene work more efficiently. Sherlock and John's proper reunion isn't an ideal scene for this sacrifice to land on, and I couldn't help but feel frustrated in the moment, but it at least allows for a strong cliffhanger for the episode to end on.

And that cliffhanger is a big part of what makes this episode of Sherlock so effective. Unpredictability. It's simply impossible to hazard any guess as to which direction "The Lying Detective" is headed in, and that's why it's so exhilarating. At one moment it's entirely possible to believe that Sherlock has succumbed to too much drug use coupled with his depression and imagined everything, and five minutes later it's like watching a completely new story. But it works, When Sherlock can focus on its titular character well enough, as it does here, it can pull us through a bizarre combination of scenes and tones and stories with ease. Benedict Cumberbatch was on top form tonight. He always plays Sherlock well - even in the show's poorest episodes, the performances remain strong - but the range of material he works through in "The Lying Detective" is insane, and yet he succeeds. This iteration of Sherlock Holmes is an unpredictable person. When he can be fully utilised in an unpredictable episode, Cumberbatch is able to fully let loose and explore everything going through his character's mind. His performance here makes a strong claim to be his best work on the show thus far.

While it isn't without its flaws, Moffat's script is largely what keeps this episode moving so efficiently. In this ninety minutes he packs in a wealth of material: there's humour, there's emotion, there's drama, there's twists, there's nice character development, there's fun callbacks to previous episodes that perfectly connect to where the characters are in the present. The best episodes of TV manage to bring in a tonne of stuff and remain focused, and that's exactly what "The Lying Detective" does. Moffat brought his A-game with him to this and, after last week's embarrassment courtesy of Mark Gatiss, I couldn't be more relieved. "The Lying Detective" may stumble occasionally with its handling of a few things, but it's almost all forgiven due to how effective the episode is on the whole. This episode demonstrates just what Sherlock can do when it understands what kind of show it should always be - a detective show that makes use of exciting and unique characters. For the first time since season two, I was gripped for the full ninety minutes. I laughed, I gasped, and by the end of it, I almost wanted to applaud. We don't know for how long but for the time being at least, Sherlock is back. It's about damn time.


  • Toby Jones was sensational here. His character would be extremely easy to fumble, but he knows exactly when to overplay his performance and exactly when to dial it back. He was dark and cold and menacing, but with a bizarre likeability to him as well. He's no Moriarty, but he'll do for now.
  • "Who's this?" "My therapist!" "Oh, good. Does she do block bookings?" I love Moffat's sense of humour.
  • Sherlock spelling out "Fuck Off" via London streets was a great touch.
  • The episode's cliffhanger - that John's therapist was the woman on the bus and also Sherlock's sister - was great in the moment, but it opens up a lot of risks. Sherlock didn't recognise his own sister when he was out with her? He didn't recognise her when he met her as John's therapist? I know she was in disguise, but he's the best detective in the country right? Next week has a lot to answer for.
  • Seriously, this was just so good. Sherlock felt like exciting television for the first time since 2012, and I couldn't be happier.
  • Next week is the season finale...already. If it's good, then at least season four will have a 2:1 ratio of goodness to badness. Let's just pray.

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