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Sherlock season 4, episode 2: “The Lying Detective" is the show at its best and worst

The episode is a dark, druggy, twist-filled thrill ride.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock in “The Lying Detective.”
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

By now, so much has been said about Sherlock’s constant embrace of narcissism that it feels redundant to go over it again for yet another one of the series’ few and far-between episodes.

Yet Sunday’s season four episode, “The Lying Detective,” cycles through the same beats we’re already well acquainted with: Sherlock embarking on a dangerous long game in order to catch someone deadly, John lashing out with violence as Sherlock’s plan unfolds, and Sherlock flirting with disaster in the form of untold drug addictions, only to emerge, once again, victorious and vindicated by the depth of his own intellect. For, as we know well by now, Sherlock is always right, and all roads in John’s life, try though he might to strike out in independence, endlessly lead back to Baker Street.

And still all that rhetorical emptiness can’t quite obscure the spark of brilliance and creative ingenuity that made Sherlock so endearing in each of its previous seasons — a spark that was missing from the first of this season’s trio of episodes but is back in full force in episode two, just before what could be the series’ final installment.



Spoilers for “The Lying Detective” abound below.

Sherlock brings us Steven Moffat at his Moffat-y best (and worst)

Like all episodes of Sherlock, “The Lying Detective” is faithfully modeled on one of the original Arthur Conan Doyle short stories. This one is structured around “The Adventure of the Dying Detective” and its villain, Culverton Smith, played with typical brilliance by veteran actor Toby Jones. But the real star of this episode is co-creator and co-showrunner Steven Moffat’s script, which carries Sherlock convincingly — as convincing as this show ever gets, anyway — through a drugged-out long con to catch Smith in the act of serial killing, while rolling out twist after twist on both the emotional and narrative fronts.

In the final moment of the previous episode, the newly dead Mary instructed Sherlock in a posthumous message to “go to hell.” This instruction, we ultimately learn, is the basis of an elaborate ruse in which Sherlock embraces his drug addiction in order to lay a trap for a killer, which itself is part of a larger goal to “save” John — by forcing John to save Sherlock’s life.

The episode leans hard into the emphasis on addiction. Director Nick Hurran pulls out all the cinematic tricks to encompass the look and feel of a perpetual drug trip through the episode’s first third. Benedict Cumberbatch has rarely had quite as much fun playing Sherlock as he does here, pushing his character to his mental and emotional limits, appearing for all the world like a firecracker fizzing down at both ends until he suddenly explodes into the in-control, 12-steps-ahead high-functioning sociopath we came for.

Moffat’s greatest gift to us with Sherlock has been his ability to make us truly believe that the great detective is 12 steps ahead of everyone around him — or, in this case, two weeks ahead of John. Cumberbatch’s greatest gift has been to play him with such utter conviction that we rarely question, as Martin Freeman’s Watson so often does, whether he actually knows what he’s doing. And when Moffat and Cumberbatch let Sherlock off the leash to be his most Sherlock-y, it’s a bit like a compelling train wreck: It’s messy, spectacular, and more than a bit frightening, but you don’t ever want to look away.

Still, though, with Moffat writing this week’s script instead of fellow creator Mark Gatiss, the ongoing issues I’ve had with this series — namely the ludicrous degree to which every character, particularly the women, ultimately seem like empty reflections of Sherlock’s own narcissistic story rather than complex human beings — are only magnified.

The show embraced the interchangeable nature of its own female characters by giving us a three-in-one

One of Moffat’s most Moffat-y tricks is to have “strong” women protest that they’re independent women who aren’t tied to the men in their lives, even as their every action and onscreen purpose is motivated by nothing else. “I’m not your housekeeper!” Mrs. Hudson insists, a few scenes before she reveals herself to be the primary caretaker of Sherlock’s emotional psyche. Meanwhile, the perennially shortchanged Molly Hooper is reduced, yet again, to the role of babysitting both of John’s children — his natural daughter and Sherlock.

Irene Adler, nebulously alive and offstage for seasons three and four, pops up via a vague text that reminds us that despite the fact that she is a lesbian, she is sexually and emotionally available to Sherlock. In this case, her reappearance prompts John to realize important things about his own failed relationship, while reminding us that “lesbian” in this universe only means “until Sherlock Holmes drops in.”

And our wonderful, badass Mary, as noted in last week’s episode review, is relegated to having her entire arc be about Sherlock and John. In this episode, she manifests as a product of John’s imagination, a projection, à la Inception, who is forced to nod understandingly and forgivingly the moment John finally confesses to “her” that he spent the last weeks of their relationship cheating on her emotionally.

Mary’s real anger and sense of betrayal, the real consequences she would have visited on John when she was alive — all those are conveniently swept away, and once again her death is fodder for the emotional bond between John and Sherlock — this time a moment of reconciliation rather than division.

But the most blatant and strange Moffat moment comes with this episode’s big reveal: Just as Sherlock’s very first episode revealed John to have a sister, now this season’s penultimate episode reveals Sherlock to have had a sister who’s been borrowing Sherlock’s master-of-disguise shtick to hide herself in plain sight — first as “E,” the woman with whom John had his brief affair, then as “Faith,” Smith’s troubled daughter, and finally as John’s vaguely Germanic therapist.

Leaving aside the basic plot question of how John failed to recognize the woman he wanted to sleep with, or how Sherlock failed to recognize his own sister, this twist emphasizes one of the most hard-to-miss facets of Steven Moffat’s traits as a showrunner: His female characters are noticeably, bizarrely interchangeable. There are multiple examples of this throughout the Moffat canon. Moffat-era Doctor Who gave us not one, not two, but three female companions (River, Amy, and Clara) whose entire narrative arcs were characterized by their having fallen in love with the Doctor in childhood, as “impressionable young girl[s]” who then “live for the days” when they meet him again.

Molly’s terrible luck in love with Sherlock is such a joke to Moffat that he repeated a plot trope used in Doctor Who: Just as the doctor did to Billie Piper’s Rose, Moffat “dump[ed] the slightly needy girlfriend by palming her off on a copy” of the main character, in Molly’s case a boyfriend who looks, dresses, and acts like Sherlock, and in Rose’s case a literal clone. Both Mary and Irene are arguably interchangeably the woman who showed up long enough to fall in love with and reflect important truths to our heroes about themselves, before conveniently exiting stage right.

All of this wouldn’t be so annoying if Moffat didn’t, once in a blue moon, give us an unforgettable, unique female character like Sally Sparrow, to carry a wonderful episode like Doctor Who’s “Blink.” Sunday’s “The Lying Detective” had enjoyably bright flashes of the fast-paced intellect and delightful unpredictability behind that other, critically acclaimed Moffat episode. And “The Lying Detective’s” primary plot twist hinged on a female character who cleverly weaponized her invisibility, her interchangeability.

But I’m doubtful that this twist will turn out to be a subversion of this longstanding Moffat trope — because Sherlock, as always, continues to be about how everything is about Sherlock.

Sherlock refuses to portray Holmes’s addiction in a meaningful, consequential way

The use of drug addiction as a red herring to distract Sherlock’s friends while he plots to catch a criminal is a tactic Sherlock has relied upon before. In season three, he holed up for several weeks at a trap house while he and John were trying to live distinct and separate lives — and now in this episode, we see him again using his friend’s concern over his health and addict status as a ruse to lure in his target. Each time, Sherlock’s indulgence of his drug habit has been portrayed as something he controls in order to catch criminals and expand his mind — but also as something he uses to manipulate John back into his orbit.

This is a cheap portrayal of drug use, one that paints Sherlock as somehow superhuman and above the pitfalls of “real” addiction. It’s not like the episode title didn’t tell us that Sherlock was lying about really being an out-of-control addict. But given how consistently this series chooses, again and again, to let Sherlock off the hook for both his perpetual selfishness and his self-destructive behavior, it would be a huge relief to see him actually face real consequences. But he never does.

As John points out to Mycroft in this episode, Sherlock recently shot a man in cold blood, yet his friends made sure he paid no consequences for his actions because “we thought it was fun.” And yet, even though Sherlock also goaded a woman into shooting at him, a move that resulted in Mary’s death, it’s John who ultimately lets him off the hook, telling him that he wasn’t responsible for the events that led to Mary’s demise.

Once again, as all other episodes of Sherlock have taught us, Sherlock is always right, always validated, and always in control. No one knows this better than John Watson, since everyone and everything in John’s life is really about Sherlock. In this case, the woman he was having an affair with and the woman he attempted to go to for therapy after Mary’s death were all parts of a tangled web involving Sherlock. And now that Mary, his one link to a life outside of Sherlock, is dead, it’s Mary herself who sends him back to Sherlock.

As if he had a choice.

Sherlock is a drug-riddled dream, and Sherlock is a junkie desperately fueling a hollow world of his own creation

Ultimately, the only way Sherlock makes sense to me as a story — with its insistence on painting Sherlock as inhumanly brilliant and consistently right about everything, even as all other people and things in his life wind up being about him — is if the series is truly pulling an Inception on us and this is all an opium dream.

It’s quite possible that the ending moments of the next and final episode will reveal to us that everything that has happened in Sherlock, from the first moment, has been taking place in the mind of a drug addict who’s painted a world within his own mind, a world where he’s the genius hero and all of his friends are reflections of his own psyche.

That’s the only way I can justify the series’ eternal reliance on setting one narrative trap after another that eternally encircles John within Sherlock’s story, and prefigures all the series’ minor players as willful, oblivious extensions of Sherlock’s mind games.

It’s Sherlock’s — and Moffat’s— world. We may have only one final episode to learn whether they’ve been aware all along that they’re the only people in it.

Correction: This article originally attributed a Doctor Who plot point written by Russell T. Davies to Steven Moffat.

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