A skin-crawlingly creepy Toby Jones and some genuine surprises make this the best Sherlock in two calendar years.
Your life is not your own. Keep your hands off it.
Okay, okay. I should have had a little more faith in this show that I love so very much, because “The Lying Detective” not only felt like the Sherlock of old, it actually redeemed a couple of my major criticisms from last week’s episode. Steven Moffat’s script struck a nearly perfect balance between “case of the week” crime-solving and forward character momentum, director Nick Hurran added some cool visual flair (I loved the bit with the window), and Yan Miles’s stream-of-conscious editing mimicked our hero’s fractured mind.
And Toby Jones. Oh my, Toby Jones. So good that you almost wish he were getting multiple episodes. As Culverton Smith — entrepreneur, philanthropist, and serial killer — Jones takes his unsettling performance just to the edge of ham. Not the theatricality of Andrew Scott’s Moriarty, but it shouldn’t be, either. When Smith hisses “I like making people into things” to Sherlock, or demands eye contact while trying to strangle the life out of him, this “living coagulation of human evil” makes you want to take a shower. And I probably wasn’t the only one picking up some (almost certainly unintentional) Trumpian vibes.
Anyway, the plot. This week we have elements (and a title) borrowed from “The Adventure of the Dying Detective,” where Sherlock pretends to be deathly ill in order to ensnare a different murderer named Culverton Smith. But the Moffat version makes Smith a celebrity billionaire, and *almost* an intellectual match for our detective — or at least capable of taking advantage of Holmes not being at full strength, strung out on enough drugs to kill him within a couple of weeks. (“I’m not sweet, I’m just high.”) It also gives us Mrs. Hudson recklessly driving a sports car, which… dayenu. But the episode moves fast and features a few good running gags (“I love your blog!”), and a unique visual style that’s everything Sherlock already likes to do, but — well — on drugs.
It also might have the best performances yet from Cumberbatch and Freeman. The latter, in the shadow of Cumberbatch’s mania, has been easy to take for granted, but Mary’s death has galvanized Watson in a way that we’ve never seen before, and Freeman excels at playing him as both a man of action, and a man haunted by his wife’s ghost. I had also hoped it wouldn’t be the last we see of Amanda Abbington, and their playful (invisible) banter was sorely needed in a season that’s rapidly turned toward the dark and heavy. Also great: his increasingly annoyed reactions every time someone says he has a phone call. There’s a tic Freeman has, I’ve seen it before, where he scratches his right ear when he’s deeply uncomfortable. These little gestures and micro-expressions add up over several seasons, forming one of the most three-dimensional, painfully human characters on TV.
Best of all, Mary’s presence in “The Lying Detective” alleviated my complaint that her death was purely a plot device — John leans on his memory of her as he returns to working at Sherlock’s side, and reconciles how he emotionally cheated on her with the woman on the bus (before the episode’s final twist, which I’ll get to momentarily). “Who you thought I was is the man I want to be,” he tells Ghost Mary, as Sherlock looks on in curiosity. And while it wouldn’t be fair to Mary to have her hallucinated ghost “forgive” John, there’s enough for John to start to forgive himself. Sherlock even gives him a hug, which is definitely a first.
For Sherlock’s part, Mary is the reason for the Culverton Smith case in the first place; the reason he concocts the entire, elaborate plot weeks in advance. When she told him to “go to hell,” she meant it just about literally, knowing that John would respond to Sherlock being in mortal danger. “The only way to save John is to make him save you,” she says in the video. I liked this, because it allowed Mary to drive the plot posthumously, and not just make it about Sherlock and Watson’s response to her death. It doesn’t fix how inelegantly that death was handled in “The Six Thatchers,” but, as it’s repeated at episode’s end, “It is what it is.”
I should have caught the bit with Smith’s daughter, though. I’m kicking myself a bit for that. I knew there was something off about it, but I trusted under all those hazy filters that Sherlock wouldn’t be quite so brazen to pull a trick like that as we watched it live. And, how Sherlock himself feels when he just misses on the provenance of Watson’s phone way back in “A Study in Pink,” the revelation of a secret Holmes sister is an outstanding curveball. When I wrote last week about my annoyance re: the Woman on the Bus, in the back of mind I knew that a figure like that wouldn’t be introduced, take up valuable screen time, and then be cast aside. (I just wanted to complain about it anyway.) But Watson’s new therapist being even better at disguises than her brother? That was well played.
Intriguingly, Sherlock never recognized her either, and it’s inconclusive at the end of the episode whether he’s truly figured it out, or once again misinterprets “Miss me?” as a final taunt from Moriarty. There are quite a few dangling threads to address in the aptly-named “The Final Problem”: What’s Eurus’s deal? Is she out for revenge against a brother who doesn’t know her? Why bring Culverton Smith to Sherlock’s attention? Also: what’s “Sherrinford,” and should we take Sherlock’s hint that we should never “give up after three?”
I’m less sure what to make of a potential Irene Adler return. I may be in the minority that really dug the way “A Scandal in Belgravia” wrapped up, and you have to worry why Moffat wants to bring her back now. It shouldn’t be to hint at Sherlock settling down (that’s not true to either character), and it certainly shouldn’t be just to kill her. But I was wrong to mistrust Sherlock before, and I won’t do it now.
Odds and Ends:
- Still NOT NEARLY ENOUGH LESTRADE, but it was a terrific Mrs. Hudson episode. She gets to outsmart Mycroft (and deliciously call him a “reptile”), and hint at a more extravagant lifestyle than our detectives get to see.
- I expected Smith’s “Bliss” concoction to factor in a lot more, since it was critical to that long opening scene. When we saw Smith roll up his sleeves at Sherlock’s bedside, I actually thought he was going to administer it to himself (maybe so he always has the urge to kill, but can’t remember the details?). Instead, it leaves more questions than answers, like how Eurus ended up with Faith’s note, and just who all those people were around the table, and why it mattered.
- Cumberbatch, in a bathrobe, delivering rapid-fire, drugged-up Shakespeare monologues, is something I never knew I wanted. Pity he didn’t launch into Richard III. Too clever?
- “When have I ever been a malingerer?” “You pretended to be dead for two years!” “Apart from that!”