Each season of Sherlock tends to follow a pattern. If the first episode reorients the stakes of the series—the pilot, of course, introduced Sherlock, Season Two’s “A Scandal in Belgravia” threw Irene Adler into the mix, and the third season saw the “resurrection” of Sherlock—then the second usually puts Sherlock in a potentially unwinnable situation. Be it facing down a seemingly supernatural foe in “The Hounds of Baskerville” (recall Sherlock’s agitated, rapid-fire deductions at the pub while unwittingly under the influence of a fear-inducing drug), or taking on the Herculean task of giving the best man speech at John’s wedding (“The Sign of Three”), second episodes carry the potential to defeat Sherlock. For Season Four, Sherlock’s episode two foe looks, at first, to be a serial killer, the enemy du jour of the contemporary crime drama. But Sherlock’s true, nearly insurmountable mission turns out to be reuniting with a shaken John.
Mary is gone, but she’s still very much on John’s mind—she appears to him as an apparition only he can see. Though he fails to mention Phantom Mary to his new therapist, it’s the least of his problems at the moment, as someone (presumably Sherlock, but more on that in a moment) crashes his session. Literally, that is: a red sports car pursued by police cars and helicopters.
Flashback to three weeks prior: Sherlock is also reeling from Mary’s death, and the added loss of John from his life. He’s back on heroin, this time on much higher doses than we’ve ever seen him take before. The tables in his apartment are riddled with syringes, he’s got some kind of meth lab running out of his kitchen, he hasn’t showered or shaved in days and, most distressing of all, Sherlock’s mind has gone a little nutty. As illustrated by his behavior with new client Faith Smith, there’s a lag between his observations and his ability to deduce helpful information from it.
Faith comes to Sherlock with an intriguing mystery: a hastily scrawled note from three years ago, upon which she copied down the vague details of a murder confession given by her father, entrepreneur and philanthropist Culverton Smith (a suitably creepy Toby Jones), before her memory was forcibly wiped by an experimental anaesthetic used in the hospital funded by her father. Yes, it’s convoluted, but the density of the mystery doesn’t end there. Sherlock muddles through the clues, coming to suspect Culverton of being a serial killer. The constant stream of heroin in his veins ups his paranoia, and by the time he reaches out to John three weeks later, he’s fully obsessed with exposing Culverton to the world, his apartment wallpapered with every news story and photograph of the suspected killer—an unsettling shrine to a murderer. The entire episode is edited to mirror Sherlock’s manic state, with snippets of Culverton’s various media appearances flashing by throughout the runtime.
Which brings us back to John. It turns out that the red sports car that interrupts his therapy session is driven by a panicked Mrs. Hudson, with Sherlock trapped in the trunk (she was concerned for the detective’s well being after he started shooting up the apartment in a feverish state, after having publicly accused Culverton of being a serial killer on his blog). But, per usual, Sherlock is several steps ahead of everyone, even while high. Having sussed out where John’s new therapist is located (based on proximity to his workplace, among other clues), Sherlock has arranged a meeting with Culverton, and a limousine arrives shortly to pick the two of them up. Though skeptical of Sherlock’s conviction that Culverton is guilty, John (with a push from Phantom Mary) is back in the game.
The duo confront Culverton at his hospital, during which Sherlock steals the millionaire’s cell phone to text a message to Faith, pretending that her father is ready to confess. But when Faith arrives, it’s not the same woman that enlisted Sherlock’s help in the first place. Horrified at the thought that he may have, while under the influence, hallucinated the entire encounter, Sherlock snaps and attempts to stab Culverton with a scalpel. John also snaps: The rage that’s built up since Mary’s death finally bubbles over, and he beats Sherlock senseless. While Sherlock lies helpless in the same hospital, Culverton appears from behind a wall. He is indeed a serial killer, and the hospital had been designed to serve his needs, including hidden passages into private rooms and unhindered access to the morgue (clued earlier by Culverton’s reference to H.H. Holmes, the serial murderer who built a hotel to serve a similar purpose during the Chicago World’s Fair).
In true Sherlock fashion, though the detective is once again several steps ahead. He purposefully put himself in danger (or rather, faux-danger, as Sherlock had the pain meds in his IV bag replaced with saline, rendering Culverton’s attempt to overdose him unsuccessful). It was all a plan to get John back in the game with Sherlock, as directed by Mary in a video message left for Sherlock in the closing moments of the previous episode: If Sherlock puts himself in harm’s way, John will come. And thus, the boys are back together, albeit tentatively. As I suspected last week, much of John’s anger at Sherlock was mostly a projection of guilt that he felt after having had an affair with the woman on the bus.
And likewise, if John is in danger, Sherlock will come. At another session, John’s therapist reveals that it was she who had originally masqueraded as Faith Smith, because she is Sherlock and Mycroft’s secret sister (a sibling briefly mentioned in passing by Mycroft last season). The episode ends with John having seemingly been shot at point blank range, and Sherlock discovering a hidden message from Moriarty. “The Lying Detective” was perhaps an overly complicated way to get the duo back on track, but hopefully the next week’s sure-to-be Moriarty-heavy finale (“The Final Problem” being a reference to the original Doyle story that introduced Sherlock’s nemesis) will bring some of the same thrills as “The Reichenbach Fall.”
Mallory Andrews is a senior editor for cléo, an online journal of film and feminism. She is a bi-weekly columnist for Movie Mezzanine, and has also contributed to The Dissolve, Indiewire, Cinema Scope and Esquire.