In season one of Sherlock, the second of the three episodes, “The Blind Banker”, was generally considered the weakest of the three. I think the same goes for season two. “The Hounds of Baskerville”, an update of Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous Holmes story, as written by series co-creator and the man behind Mycroft, Mark Gatiss, is the weakest link. To be fair to both “Banker” and “Hounds”, though, saying one is the weakest episode of Sherlock is like saying that Henry VIII is Shakespeare’s worst play—it’s still better than 98% of all the things in the world. And really, what drags down “Hounds” is not any substantial misfire in Gatiss’ script and it is certainly not anything to do with the actors or even Paul McGuigan’s direction, it’s more a matter of tone and one stupefyingly bad decision.
I actually really like this episode. Sherlock season two is super depressing, and “Hounds” is a nice respite between two darker, weightier episodes (“Banker” occupied the same spot in season one). It reminds me of a quote about Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata—when referencing the sweeter, lighter second movement, one critic described it as a “flower betwixt two abysses”. That’s “Hounds”—a flower between two abysses. This is part of why I think it, and “Banker”, draws some of the criticism aimed their way. The stakes in “Hounds” are not nearly as high as they were in “Belgravia” and they’re not even remotely close to what goes on in the finale, “The Reichenbach Fall”. There is a real, playful humor throughout Sherlock but it’s mostly gallows humor (“We can’t giggle, it’s a crime scene!”). But in “Hounds”, when there are no stakes beyond Sherlock inevitably solving the case, the humor plays off much lighter and, in a contextual sense, less urgent. That lack of urgency makes it feel not as important, not as vital to the ongoing story, and any kind of lowering of those stakes feels like a step back. Case in point: The most memorable, impactful moment of the episode is at the very end and does not feature Sherlock or John, but Moriarty. Because Sherlock and John are off in the country having a holiday while Moriarty is actually doing something to advance the larger plot.
Back to me liking this episode. My favorite stuff in Sherlock, I have decided, comes down to two things. 1) Sherlock and John being dudebros, and 2) the last half-hour of “Reichenbach” (OMG next Sunday, get here already!). Sherlock and John are really, really good dudebros. Sherlock is unapologetically a world of men, and Sherlock and John are both Very Manly Men. John’s masculinity is obvious—he’s a soldier and a doctor and a shot-caller and he’s a dead shot with his illegal firearm, because that’s how Dr. Watson rolls. With illegal firearms. Sherlock is, on the surface, the more effete of the two men. He’s a snazzy dresser (the impact of series costume designer Sarah Arthur’s work in conjunction with Savile Row label Spencer Hart for Sherlock’s bespoke look has had on menswear cannot be understated), he’s posh and snobby, and, on the surface, a bit of a ponce. But then Sherlock is also deadly in hand-to-hand combat and well-versed with a variety of weapons, and then there’s that whole thing where he solves crimes for fun. They’re a regular couple of alphas.
So it’s nice to see the dynamic of their friendship. And yes, I do think they’re just friends. I could write a whole other treatise on the Holmes/Watson relationship (should I? Would you care?), but for the purposes of the BBC show, I don’t think this is an undercover lovers situation, but really just a very deep friendship between two straight dudes. And “Hounds” is all about that friendship and the various ways it gets tested, most of which is Sherlock’s doing. The story revolves around Henry Knight, a young man who is haunted by the violent death of his father twenty years before. Sherlock is in a state and in desperate need of a good case, which Henry’s story about a monstrous hound in the moors of Devon turns out to be. The spin here is nice—instead of actual hounds Henry’s experiences tie into the nearby Army weapons testing site at Baskerville. It’s a solid plot that links to a seemingly-innocuous case enquiry from the beginning of the episode.
The purpose, though, is to get Sherlock and John out of London and in the English countryside so that tall Benedict Cumberbatch in his swirly coat with his cheekbones and windswept hair can be framed against a backdrop of rocky hillsides and wild blue skies. It seems inevitable that he will one day interpret Heathcliff for us. Showing continued awareness of Cumberbatch’s position as a Very Desirable Man, this episode has a great line about Sherlock’s move with his coat collar, delivered with just the right touch of exasperation by John: “You being all mysterious with your cheekbones, and turning your coat collar up so you look cool.” (This episode also has one of my favorite dialogue exchanges, between John and Lestrade about whatever conditions Sherlock may or may not have. Gatiss is a deft hand with one-liners.) The point of this episode feels less about solving the case—thus, those decreased stakes—and more about giving us some time to live with John and Sherlock.
There is, however, a darker aspect. In my review of “Belgravia” I said that season two is all about tearing down Sherlock. The first episode shows us Sherlock making bad decisions and mistakes, and this episode introduces Sherlock’s doubt into the scenario. The goings-on at Baskerville force Sherlock to confront the notion that he might not be as reliable as he thinks he is. He can’t trust his own observations and he reacts with cagey fury, and it’s quite shocking to see him so undone. Ultimately, of course, he pulls himself together and solves the case but the bitter taint is there—Sherlock has doubted himself. It’s a subtle stroke but that the doubt comes from the idea that perception and reality are two different things ties in neatly with “The Reichenbach Fall”, which explodes that in the worst way possible. Truly, after seeing “Reichenbach”, go back and watch “Belgravia” and “Hound” and see all the ways the events in “Reichenbach” are foreshadowed. It’s quite brilliant.
And now for that stupefyingly bad decision: The CGI dog at the end of the episode. It is RIDICULOUS. It’s terrible, terrible CGI and is so laughable that it ruins what is otherwise a tense and creepy denouement. This is what really puts “Hounds” on the back foot with me. It’s just such a horrifying choice, when there are a lot of practical effects that would have not only worked better, but also enhanced the horror-movie vibe working throughout the episode. If I never see SFX that shitty in Sherlock again, it will be too soon. Overall, though, “Hounds” is a nice respite before going into the TOTAL HEARTFAIL of “The Reichenbach Fall”, and the scenes of John and Sherlock palling around are always fun.