After a series opener in which Sherlock traded its mystery status for soap, the second episode of series four, “The Lying Detective”, doubles down on the new soap operatic direction of the show and delivers even more antics and heavy-handed emotional beats. It’s not the worst decision to explore other facets of a character, such as Sherlock’s drug addiction, which actually matters in this episode, but for Sherlock, the show, the tonal shift has been so sudden and so hard it’s jarring. And it doesn’t quite sit right on a show about a man whose emotions are famously repressed and take a back seat to his analytical skills. That leads the show to feel excessive and even sloppy, as everything careens around an essentially unstable axis.
One thing that does work, though, is Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as a relapsed Sherlock Holmes. It gives new angles for Cumberbatch to work, refreshing his performance, and for the first time, Sherlock being high doesn’t feel like a joke but a real peril. If series four was simply about Sherlock, using and careening toward overdose while his friends desperately try to help him, it could be doing something really interesting. But, as strong and interesting as this setup is, it still ends up taking a back seat to John Watson’s Domestic Drama.
Mary Watson dies—or, it’s heavily implied she dies—in OG Conan Doyle Holmes, so it’s not that we’re dealing with widower John Watson that gets to me, it’s the way that has to be leveraged into every other interaction. This episode feels REALLY excessive, and that’s largely because there is no space to breathe because all the plot elements are threaded together. Because Mary’s death had to be used to create conflict between Sherlock and John—as if grief isn’t enough of an isolator—that puts that plot point right in the middle of the main mystery plot as John can’t stand to be around Sherlock (yet).
There’s a story structure element called “Meanwhile back at the ranch” that is a way of shaping parallel narratives so that neither one gets overtaxing for viewers. In this structure, the story balances the A and B plots, cutting between them to provide relief so that neither plot gets overbearing. If this structure was used to support “The Lying Detective”, the mystery of Culverton Smith would be the A plot and John and Sherlock’s mutual grief the B plot, and one would really have nothing to do with the other. But as Sherlock’s deductive wizardry gets a bit dizzying and the pacing starts accelerating too much, you can slow it down by cutting to the B plot, of John’s grief and Sherlock trying to cope (assuming Mary wasn’t fridged and they’re just two people pole-axed by grief). As that gets too thematically weighty, cut back to the A plot and pick up the mystery again, flipping back and forth, allowing for both maximum impact of plot points and emotional beats, and giving the audience time to process it all.
But there is no processing here. “The Lying Detective” plows ahead as recklessly as Mrs. Hudson’s driving—all the best parts of this episode involve Mrs. Hudson—and the mystery of Culverton Smith is so haphazardly handled it wastes Toby Jones’ delightfully deranged performance. Smith is the kind of character who should dominate a series, not get stuffed into one too-busy episode, short-changing both actor AND character. Imagine if Sherlock actually had botched his initial run at Smith? What if he had to sober up and come back at Culverton Smith from a weaker, less trustworthy position? That’s dramatic! But no. Sherlock doesn’t make mistakes anymore, and even his resurging drug habit is played as a ploy to get John to mend fences by helping Sherlock again. By the end of the episode, all of the drama set up at the beginning has been flushed away, as things like Sherlock’s habit and John’s grief are ultimately just props meant to support Sherlock Holmes’ towering genius.
As for that last episode twist involving the third Holmes sibling—I guess. Okay. We’ll go there. Maybe Euros Holmes can redeem this whole series, but probably not. She, like so much of what’s happening in series four, feels like an overly precious TWIST!!! on established Holmes lore (Sherrinford Holmes is the apocryphal third Holmes brother, but really “Sherrinford” was probably a rejected name before Conan Doyle landed on “Sherlock”). Here’s hoping they can do right by Euros Holmes after missing a step with Irene Adler and Mary Watson, but really, at this point, is anyone holding their breath?