Review – Sherlock – The Lying Detective

Sherlock faces off against a villainous Toby Jones in the middle episode of the fourth series of the BBC’s Sherlock, but is it a return to form for the flailing mystery drama?

You can read my review of last week’s episode “The Six Thatchers” over at Bristol Epigram –

I have to say I liked “The Lying Detective”, just as I liked “The Six Thatchers”, and it might well come as a surprise to say I liked them a similar amount given the primarily negative online reaction to the latter last week.

This week’s final plot twist was unusually well-executed for Steven Moffat, and recalled some of the best recent episodes of Doctor Who in which the writers for once seemed willing to pick an idea and run with and develop it fully. A lot of the issues with “The Six Thatchers” seemed to arise from constant switches of gear and changes of tone and pace, which led to the episode often feeling like a mess, a reaction felt far too often to the Matt Smith era of Doctor Who.

“The Lying Detective” suffered from none of these issues. The episode was definitively broken down into three parts, consisting of Faith’s visit to Sherlock, the visit to the hospital, and the final showdown and resolution. We were given a plot twist at the end of each – the revelation that Culverton was a serial killer, the realisation that Sherlock was not visited by the real Faith, and the cliffhanger in which Watson’s therapist, the bus girl, the fake Faith and the third Holmes sibling all turned out to be one and the same.

I think when fans look back on this episode, they’ll remember that final twist and little else, and I think that’s partly because it was such an excellent twist, and partly because there’s so little else to remember about this episode. Any good solution works by being possible to figure out beforehand and this was no exception. The same actress playing the therapist and Faith was absolutely noticeable for those paying attention, as was the third Holmes connection.

On the other hand, the serial killer twist was not so great. The clue was – you don’t remember the name but it was a single word. In the room I was watching there were a few suggestions immediately posited, among which were included “Sting”, “Queen” and “You”. The show jokingly suggested “Elvis” as though it wasn’t one of a hundred different potential solutions. And then, with a ‘because he’s Sherlock’ leap of logic, it was revealed to be “anyone”.

And, as we all know, if you’re planning to kill “Anyone”, then you are of course a serial killer.


It’s the middle act which has the most problems. Sherlock and Watson are reconciled and sent to hang out with the episode’s villain in his murder hospital. And boy is that villain as hammy and cliched that it wouldn’t be surprising if he started mwa-ha-ha-ing evilly in front of his army of terrified doctors and children. “It’s Jimmy Savile!” Moffat’s script screams to the viewer. “That’s clever – it’s Jimmy Savile,” we smartly deduce.

But the thing is, Toby Jones somehow makes the role work. It’s annoying because the writing is so laboured, but he’s so totally watchable in spite of the ridiculousness of the scenario. I don’t think it was enough to justify spending thirty minutes just having him showing off and mocking Sherlock, but it was by no means as bad as it could have been. I think it’s also worth mentioning that, while Jimmy Savile was accused of abusing patients in hospital, his methods of getting away with it were far more subtle and manipulative than Culverton Smith’s. Savile simply wasn’t as much of a cartoon as Smith.

Sherlock and Watson’s arcs were simpler and more coherent this week as well. While dream Mary hovering around Watson wasn’t great, she was a lot better than she was when she was alive. Sherlock’s drug addiction hovered awkwardly between PSA, plot point and representation of his grief. The last scene between Sherlock and Watson was one of the best in the episode, but in large part because it represented an end point to the tenuous motivations for their separation. The show’s in a far stronger position than it was at this time last week.

Sherlock is best when it’s Holmes and Watson on the case of a mystery. This episode restored a lot of that, but it still lacked that final element – something to solve, some kind of intrigue. No new surprising details emerged about the villain in the latter half of the episode, and when the final confrontation occurred and he tried to murder Sherlock, it just felt like a wait for Watson to show up and stop him. It’s just not as entertaining to watch Sherlock when he’s already won as it is to see him figuring out a solution. I miss seeing him struggle with a case, and finally find a satisfying answer that pieces the clues together.

That’s the Sherlock I still want to see. “The Lying Detective” felt like a sideways step into different territory rather than a step forward, but it wasn’t a step back by any means. It was simply another mixed bag of good and bad.

Score: Three serial killer victims out of Anyone serial killer victims


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