Sherlock’s Series 4 has been, rightfully, criticized, both by Rotten Tomatoes certified critics and little wordpress group blogs. But there’s been a running theme of positivity amidst all the criticism: The second episode, “The Lying Detective,” was a strong episode bookended by poor ones. I’m here to tell you that “The Lying Detective” actually doomed Series 4, and quite possibly, Sherlock itself.
OK look, in a vacuum, “The Lying Detective” is the best episode of the series. It’s the most creatively shot of the bunch, with a great villain performance and some thrilling bits of dialogue by Steven Moffat. Take this episode removed from the surrounding series, and it’s a solid work of TV mystery. But I’m not here to tell you it’s the worst, I’m here to tell you it doomed the series. There’s a difference, and the devil is in the details.
So let’s talk about Mary. Mary, Mary, Mary. Her introduction in Series 3 went very quickly from her being a passable side character to a stain on the show. Her character’s reveal as a super special secret agent with a dark past that’s so dark and secretive she can’t tell anyone about it dragged down series 3, and took the show away from its genesis as a modern re-telling of classic stories and into something more along the lines of high budget fan-fiction where Sherlock and Watson wander into James Bond stories. Her character crossed a line into being straight up unbearable in the series 4 premiere, where her super special secret dark past is revealed, and is absolutely underwhelming. And unnecessary. And distracting from the heart of the show. It was bad, and we here at LAS gave it perhaps a too-favorable score. But the episode did do something to set up the rest of the series for success.
It killed Mary.
As if the Sherlock team was aware that her inclusion was hurting the show, they killed her off in the opening episode for series 4, which should have freed up the remaining 180-ish minutes of the series for a return to form. And what did we get?
Unwilling to commit to the decision, Moffat instead has his cake and eats it too, bringing Mary back for hallucinatory witticisms that detract from the main story and, again, seem to indicate that her last name is Sue. Mary leaves a posthumous tape behind for John to watch, and it’s after watching her tape, and her warning to him, that John rushes to the hospital to save Sherlock just in the knick of time. Mary. Nevermind the issue of convenience of John watching that exact section of the tape at that exact time, it’s that the writers couldn’t commit to keeping her dead, and still rely on her as a superpowered crutch instead of cleverly writing John and Sherlock out of a problem in a way so as to have them earn it, rather than luck into it.
It’s not just Mary. Allow me to remind you of the scene near the beginning of the episode where Sherlock takes a walk with Faith, the daughter of the episode’s villain, Culverton Smith. On first watch, it’s a wonderful scene where Sherlock makes a rare connection with another person, slowly unravelling the mystery of her past and her father’s. The moment where Sherlock analyzes the note she had by having her imagine a window with sun shining through it? Best moment of the series. Except…
It means. Nothing.
Surprise! It wasn’t Faith! It Was Eurus, Sherlock’s EVEN MORE super special super smart superpowered sister, who’s like Mary turned up to eleven. It was all a fakeout. Sherlock never met the suicidal, memory-lapsed daughter of Culverton Smith. That personal connection was fake. His analysis of her note was actually wrong. The things he learns about her background and Culverton are false. It’s actually ten minutes of filler, a good scene sacrificed in the name of arbitrary plot twists.
That’s the main tragedy of the episode. Moments of drama are insincere, undercut later on with a revelation that takes away from scenes which should be stellar if left untouched.
Culverton isn’t a mystery. The episode wants you to question his motives, if Sherlock’s really gone crazy or if Culverton’s a killer. But it’s all false tension because it shows you the truth in the first scene.
It introduces the concept of a memory-altering pill, and then abandons it. It’s like it’s set up for some sort of resolution or solution involving the pill, but it’s never heard from again. Chekov’s gun is left on the desk unfired.
Sherlock’s drug addiction? Nah, just all part of an elaborate, convoluted, nonsensical plan. Devised by Mary.
None of the tension in the episode is genuine. Everything established in the episode, Culverton’s mystery, Sherlock’s drug addiction, the memory pill, Faith’s midnight trip to Sherlock’s door, none of it actually carries any weight. Culverton’s mystery never becomes compelling because the show tells you the answer before introducing the question. Sherlock’s addiction isn’t as serious as it seems since it’s his own plan. The memory pill never goes anywhere. Faith isn’t actually trying to recover her lost memory and never actually meets Sherlock. It all goes nowhere. It means nothing. It’s filler. The only things in the episode that actually wind up mattering are Mary and Eurus.
I think they tried to put make-up on a pig here. They tried to dazzle with technical pinache, intricate camera-work and trippy moments meant to look cool and obfuscate the increasingly thin story. But it’s different here than in past episodes. I’m starving so allow me a food analogy: In the past, Sherlock’s visual style was like garnish. Visually pretty but complementing an already great work. It helped to accentuate the modern take on Sherlock and his inner thoughts, but didn’t distract you from the main story. The camerawork here is more like drenching an overdone steak with BBQ sauce. It’s trying to hide mistakes.
OK quick lunch break…
“The Final Problem” was atrocious. But that trainwreck of an episode doesn’t happen if “The Lying Detective” stuck to its guns. This is what I mean by it “dooming” the series. Sure, the technical side of things was great, but the events this episode sets in motion culminate in the worst episode of Sherlock’s history, and the show’s future is now in doubt. I honestly can’t blame “The Final Problem” or “The Six Thatchers” for it. It was “The Lying Detective” that was supposed to right the boat, which was unsteady after the first episode, and already capsized by the time the finale came around.
This episode is the one that ends on the mind-boggling moronic cliffhanger revealing her character. This is the episode which is retroactively ruined by her existing in this show’s universe. It sets up the finale for failure and it seals the fate of the first episode by undermining the one useful thing it did. Every interesting thing introduced in the episode itself is undone after one viewing.
It doomed Sherlock.