In season 4’s The Lying Detective, we see what is in many ways a spectacular return to form for the show – a dizzyingly wild and energetic chase after one of the show’s most horrifying villains (played impeccably by Toby Jones) without letting go of its new and emotional elements.
Following the tragic events of episode 1, which ended with Mary assigning Sherlock his biggest case from the grave (in a manner of speaking), not much has changed. John, wrestling with sadness, anger at Sherlock and guilt at his own “text-cheating” while Mary was still alive, has begun hallucinating. Even as he moves through the mechanics of life and even consults with a psychiatrist, Mary is with him every step of the way, offering insights, snarky comments and occasionally exhorting him to move on. But he ignores his own mental construct, which is never a good sign really.
Sherlock, on the other hand, seemingly continues to descend deeper and deeper into a spiral, and exhibits perhaps the worst signs of his continued addiction. Deductions come slower, for as he says at the start, his mind “needs to catch up” with his brain. He receives a case that sets him on the scent of Culverton Smith, an extremely wealthy entrepreneur and “philanthropist” who is the very embodiment of “might makes right”. Using his considerable wealth to have things his way — even going to the extent of using a drug that tampers with memory on his closest friends and family so he could confess his serial-killing habits — he is exactly the villain Sherlock needed. No shades of grey and no conundrums, simply a dragon for him to slay.
Or is he?
Though we see Sherlock receiving the case from Smith’s own daughter, who seemingly remembers fragments of her father’s confession despite being administered the drugs, she later vanishes into thin air. This is one among many twists that the show got right, going so far as to pull two or three twists around the same element to keep viewers on their feet. In this sense, it was a joyous return to form for the show – turning seemingly innocent on-screen elements into avalanches later on, just as it did with the Moriarty reveal in season 1.
Another strong aspect of the episode was the way it mixed humour into the proceedings, thanks to Una Stubbs as Mrs Hudson and Mark Gatiss’ Mycroft, who ventured into the unfamiliar world of socialising and romance (if one can call it that) in a hilarious manner.
Perhaps one of the show’s chronic weak elements is the way it handles addiction. Where a show such as Elementary excelled in conducting an in-depth and insightful study of addiction and its consequences through Holmes, Sherlock seems content to treat it as a flashy, superficial plot tool. Snappy editing and camera work – some of it positively psychedelic – is angled towards adrenaline and a fast-moving plot and little more. The detective never truly faces the consequences of his addiction.
When he looks haggard and weary, there is a faint hope that the show will stop coddling the spoiled character and allow him to face some real consequences. But no, the damage is always part of a clever plan to lure in a villain and ultimately triumph, as seen when he faces Magnussen or Smith or even Moriarty. By doing this, the show not only trivialises addiction as an issue but holds its own character back despite the sudden spurts of humanity we see in him this season.
Another sore point was that Mary’s continued presence was nothing more than a device to further John and Sherlock as characters. A particularly cringeworthy moment was when John confesses his text-cheating and “wanting more” to his own hallucination, who simply smiles and nods understandingly just so he can move on with his life. Not to mention the seemingly bizarre concept of being forgiven by a construct that emerged from your own mind.
Despite these jarring elements, the show capped off on a high note – making one of its most chilling and creative reveals yet, thanks to an extraordinary performance by Sian Brooke. The final sequence is a nail-biter and leaves one anxiously waiting for the next and final instalment of this season.