It crops up, both on the page and (repeatedly) the screen: Watson sees, but does not observe. To him, a ripped hem likely passes unnoticed, or if seen, is likely dismissed. To Sherlock, of course, it’s one piece of data that helps to construct a larger picture. He observes, and so he deduces, and so he solves problems and catches bad guys and gets to wear the hat. His powers of observation are so great that, even when he can’t really handle it, that brain keeps ticking away, taking in information to assemble the picture in his head.

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What makes “The Lying Detective” such a gripping installment of Sherlock isn’t merely this tremendous gift of his, and the fascinating horror show of watching it overrun his drug-added mind. In this state, or perhaps in every state, Sherlock’s tremendous capacity for taking in and analyzing information can do more than outrun him. It can blind him to what should, to a mind like his, be obvious. He can observe, but not see.

Just so, “The Lying Detective” does what it does so dazzlingly well that it’s easy to overlook its misses. It’s got the whip-quick dialogue of the best installments of the series, the nimble marriage of character arc to source material that made outings like ”The Reichenbach Fall” so gripping, and a villain—a pair of villains, really—that rival (and may soon, in one case, surpass) Andrew Scott’s Moriarty. It’s got a couple of good twists, some familiar to readers of the stories and others not. It’s affecting and funny and moving and smart, and in short, a great script. But just because something checks all the right boxes doesn’t mean it totally works, and Steven Moffat’s script falls a bit flat where it really counts. It’s as if he’s blinded to the big picture by his own considerable gifts. This is a great Sherlock/Watson story with time to spare for everything but them.

To be clear, nearly all the things this episode does with its 90 minutes are good. Hell, they’re great sometimes. The first smart move here: the choice of source material. “The Adventure of the Dying Detective” is well worth a read, if you haven’t had the pleasure. In it, Holmes uses Watson’s concern for him as a friend and physician both as a tool and as bait. He has a plan, but chooses not to loop Watson in so that his friend’s concern would be the final and most convincing element in the carefully constructed trap he’s set for Culverton Smith. Here, the trap’s for Smith (Toby Jones), but also for Watson, a piece of high-stakes emotional trickery that forces him to move past his understandably complicated feelings toward Sherlock (not unlike the climax of “The Empty Hearse,” in which Watson’s tricked into thinking an explosion is imminent so he’ll get over that whole faked-death thing).

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Weaponizing Watson’s decency to use against him isn’t a new idea for Sherlock, but a few things save it from feeling like a mere retreat. It’s a clever adaptive choice, linking the plot mechanics of the source material to the point to which Holmes returned over and over again in “The Sign of Three”: John Watson saves lives. Is it bafflingly manipulative? God, yes, but this time it’s Sherlock who serves as the bait in the trap, not Watson, and it’s not Holmes who’s designed such a perfect plan, but Mary. The fundamental elements of the plot remain intact, but its emotional resonances run far, far deeper. At least they’re intended to do so.

In the overall arc of the series, this choice serves to move the Sherlock/Watson relationship along its path, but the story itself is a good one. There’s no real suspense in who the villain is—you don’t hire Toby Jones to play a decoy—but that’s not what matters here. As Smith, Jones plays his scenes to the hilt, coming just shy of chewing the scenery in a way that’s both upsetting and a lot of fun to watch. He seems to have taken one of Smith’s later assertions, that people will look past pretty much anything if you’re rich and loved, to heart, and makes it obvious from his first lines that he’s a monster. By the time we’ve arrived at “I make people into things,” he’s likely to have made even the most stoic viewer’s skin crawl at least a little.

That last bit’s true of Cumberbatch as Holmes, as well. In the story, it’s Watson whose commitment needs to be absolute, while Holmes’s illness is more than half feigned. Here, Mary’s request of Sherlock requires him to dive into a dark place, and Cumberbatch laces the twitchy, frenetic energy he called on last week through with something much sadder and more broken. He practically reels through the episode, and the chaos is made all the more painful when it’s contrasted with rare moments of stillness and calm, particularly those in his scenes with Faith. Since Sherlock’s high for nearly the entire episode, Cumberbatch is also saddled with most of the episode’s visual trickery, and unlike some less successful installments, here these sequences serve to heighten, rather than diminish, the performance.

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What sequences they are, too. It’s tough to pick a highlight from the episode’s more trippy first half, though the explanation of Sherlock’s deductions about the kitchen is perhaps the most lovely. Even without the visual trickery, it’s striking and superbly edited, leaping without warning from a scene to some brief, unsettling clip of Smith on television, then back to another, somehow related scene. Other transitions have a more playful feel, such as the mirrored window that slides up to reveal the hospital to which they’re traveling. Most affectingly, simple, clever choices in the directing and editing draw the eye away from a woman on who we’re not meant to linger, or reveal Mary leaning in a doorway or sitting in a limousine, always with John though not always seen.

It’s something of a relief to see Amanda Abbington here, though still one wishes she had a function beyond that of a Lost Lenore. She’s a good enough performer to transcend the trope, however, and she and Martin Freeman together create an intimate portrait of grief and guilt. In playing John’s hallucinations or daydreams of Mary, Abbington’s essentially also playing John Watson, and the combination of her warmth and compassion with his (mostly) restrained pain says more about that character’s journey than even an actor of Freeman’s caliber could do alone. This remains a badly bungled plot development, but “The Lying Detective” adds some of the emotional resonance that its predecessor sorely lacked.

Freeman is excellent, as always. That’s no surprise. In hindsight, the sparsity of good material for him in last week’s installment may have been one of its greatest weaknesses; as good as Cumberbatch is, the show never quite lands when he’s not at or very near its emotional center. If the final moments had never occurred, it’s likely that the big, memorable moments here would be John and Sherlock’s brutal brawl in the mortuary and their eventual reconciliation. It’s a scene that’s surely a delight for ‘shippers, but more importantly, it gives Cumberbatch and Freeman a chance to do the thing they do best together, the thing that’s always key when Sherlock succeeds: it lets them sit down and have a real, gently paced, and character-driven conversation.

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Each of their scenes together works independently, but the emotional climax of their arc doesn’t land as it should, because there doesn’t actually seem to be much to repair. In an episode more willing to spend time with the two together, in pained silences or unuttered grievances, that final embrace may have landed like a punch to the gut. Instead, it’s a showcase for a terrific pair of actors, one of many moments scene that seems like it should be affecting, rather that one that actually manages that task.

Of course, when we look back on this episode in the years to come, none of this will leap immediately to mind. It’ll be the final scene that dominates, a reveal that’s genuinely unexpected. Some may have guessed that Sherlock’s mystery brother was actually a sister—if nothing else, it’s a nice parallel to the Harriet moment in the first episode. In this episode, some may have recognized Faith as the woman from the bus, or noticed that the woman at Smith’s table wasn’t the one who ate chips. (Full disclosure: I recognized her in those first two roles, but not the third, and never suspected she’d be the third Holmes.) Even the few who may have recognized the woman behind the therapists’ glasses, however, must acknowledge the remarkable, thorough transformations of Siân Brooke.

If this is truly the penultimate episode of Sherlock, the lateness of this addition to the cast will be a terrific shame. Brooke’s aided by some smart makeup and costuming choices, as well as the aforementioned cleverness in the direction (from Nick Hurran) and editing, but the lion’s share of the credit must go to her. It’s a masterful piece of acting, each with a voice utterly different from the others (and not simply in with regard to dialects, though that’s certainly an element) and a wildly different physicality. All of them pale in comparison to the briefly glimpsed Eurus Holmes, who’s more frightening in her few minutes than Charles Magnusson was in the entire third season. With one contact in and the other out, she’s a picture of imbalance, and while there‘s certainly still a chance this character could fall flat, it’s a hell of an introduction.

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Through it all, we’ve got moments of Redbeard, a potential love interest for Mycroft (is Eurus under Lindsey Duncan’s face, too?), the looming specter of Moriarty and the question of his relationship to this lost Holmes sister, and dangling threads aplenty. It’s incredibly unlikely that next week’s big finish will provide satisfying answers and with an ending to the story of this friendship. Given that this may very well be the end of the line for Sherlock, that means viewers may have lingering disappointments for years to come. But failing all else, we’ll have one more showcase for some remarkable talents, and it’s just a little thrilling to know that there’s at least one new face in the mix.

Stray observations

  • The single best twist in this episode was Mrs. Hudson getting out of that car. Maybe it’s my favorite Sherlock twist ever. Maybe it’s the best twist in history.
  • The bleeping in the version that aired in the U.S. was extremely distracting. It was, to quote a line of dialogue I had to look up, “utter, utter cock.”
  • The weird thing about quick turnaround reviews is that once you’ve gotten it all down and had some sleep and some time away, it looks different. Case in point: I stand by everything I said in last week’s review, but the troublesome things bother me more and the impressive things mean less than they did a week ago. If this review seems more down on the series opener than the last one, that’d be why.
  • Another great Mrs. Hudson moment: “Get out of my house, you reptile.”
  • “People always give up after three.” “It’s never twins.” I know it’s likely that Sherrinford is a place, but maybe, just maybe, there are four Holmes kids out there?

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