The Lying Detective started and ended with a bang, literally, as two gunshots bookended an episode which contained many of the flaws that have crept into Sherlock but also some of what made it so good in its first two seasons.
Episode two of this fourth series revolved around businessman, philanthropist and serial killer Culverton Smith. Sherlock sought to prove Culverton’s crimes while repairing his relationship with John Watson and coming to terms with his own role in Mary Watson’s death. Also looming in the shadows was the third Holmes sibling, who at episode’s end was revealed to be a sister, Euros/Eurus.
The highlight of the episode was Culverton. Actor Toby Jones brought a disturbing, dirty creepiness to the role – appropriate because the character is unambiguously modelled on Jimmy Savile, the fundraising, much-loved celebrity who turned out to be a monster.
The UK hasn’t really came to terms with Savile. He is probably the most prolific child rapist in British history; a guy who walked through the BBC, hospitals, schools, palaces and political offices dressed like a paedophile and went unchallenged and uncaught.
You could judge this episode as being exploitive, of using Savile for cheap entertainment, but I think it is the job of art to explore society and ask questions and Sherlock broached the Savile affair in a way we’ve so far failed – taking us in uncomfortably close to the queasy personality at its heart.
There was a constant temptation throughout to dismiss scenes as being unbelievable – a serial killer almost confessing openly in a hospital room filled with people, and getting away with it. But that’s what Savile did. The Lying Detective laboured the point a little, but given the extremity of the Savile case they could justifiably have a scene were the bad guy says ‘I’m a serial killer’ and yet still walks away without being arrested.
Likewise, Toby Jones could be accused – has been, by The Daily Telegraph, in fact – of putting in a panto-villain performance. But, again, the guy he’s modelling it on was exactly that – a grotesque, over the top character, hiding in plain sight.
The episode reminded me a little of Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, an opportunity for some catharsis, to see the real life monster chopped down by the woodcutter. Inglorious Basterds had Jews carving Swastikas in to the heads of Nazi hunters and I was looking forward to seeing Culverton get his comeuppance, but it didn’t really happen. We saw him instead in the police interrogation room, looking unfazed. Which makes sense, in a way, given how Savile escaped any consequences for his action. I would have equally appreciated some revenge fantasy, but maybe that would be the cowardly choice, inventing a fiction were the good guys won, hiding from the reality were we let the monster roam free.
Running alongside this story was Watson and Sherlock’s mental state, struggling to deal with the loss of Mary. Some of this was well handled. As ridiculous as Culverton’s memory loss IV drips were, it created a nice parallel with Watson’s desire to desperately hold onto Mary.
Sherlock’s scheming this episode was fun at times. His high wire acts can stretch the show to the point of absurdity, but it worked here because they gave him a reason to be doing it – to convince Watson that he was of sound mind, that his insane-sounding accusation of Culverton being a serial killer was coming from someone who can accurately predict what will happen two weeks in advance and is thus credible, doped up as he was.
I wish more of the show was like this, were Sherlock acted with reason. Too much of it lately has stretched credibility and required too much suspension of disbelief. There were elements of this in The Lying Detective. Mrs Hudson, for instance, at this point is a cartoon of a character, showing up driving a sports car being chased by police. This is the kind of nonsense that drags the show down.
And for a show about a detective, we are really lacking in mysteries at this point. The only mystery this episode was solved 25 minutes in. I guess you could also add the question of how Sherlock would catch Culverton but the answer to that turned out to be the stock Hollywood solution of a hidden recording device and confession.
The Lying Detective continued the trend for squeezing as many twists as possible into every passing minute. It is boring at this point. Twists have impact when they are used sparingly. I really am not excited about a possible return of Irene Adler – the woman from series two that Sherlock received a text from this episode – or even really whatever nonsense is going on with the new sibling. Is Euros the teased Sherlock sibling thus far known as Sherrinford, or a fourth sibling entirely? I don’t care, because at the rates the twists come on this show, nothing really matters. Maybe she’s a transgender Holmes, or maybe Sherlock is Sherringford. As utterly awful as that would be, I wouldn’t put it past the show at this point.
Sherlock doesn’t need to be spinning one hundred plates at a time to be enjoyable, quality television. Culverton showed what can happen if it narrows focus, centres on some good characters, gives Sherlock one or two clear goals. Add to that some mystery, a well constructed case, dial back on the melodrama, and massively reduce the number of twists, and Sherlock could be a great show again.
But then, the trailer for the next episode has Sherlock and Watson jumping away from an explosive fireball like action heroes, so maybe that’s not likely.
- Toby Jones was very good. He had a difficult job, essentially the first actor to portray Savile. He managed to capture a lot of the horror we feel towards the whole awful affair.
- “I like to make people into things,” Culverton said. “Then I can own them.” The writers really tried to drill into Savile’s fucked-up psych.
- I liked Martin Freeman’s acting in the mortuary scene: holding still, reserving judgment, cautiously letting things play out. He can convey a lot with facial expressions.
- The Radio Times has an interesting article on how the writers tried to keep the twist involving Sherlock’s sister under wraps.
- I’ll be interested to see the reaction to this episode. I’d expect some backlash coming the show’s way for the use of Savile.