Outside the Government: The Lying Detective
CW: Discussions of Jimmy Savile and sexual assault.
It’s January 8th, 2017. Clean Bandit remain at number one, while Zara Larsson, Little Mix, Neiked, and Louis Tomlinson & Steve Aoki also chart. In news, the British Red Cross declares there to be a humanitarian crisis in England’s NHS hospitals, and the US Intelligence Community releases the results of its investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. On television, meanwhile, Sherlock’s fourth and potentially final season reaches its hump episode, which this time around is the one written by Steven Moffat.
Faced with an impossible task, Moffat took the obvious approach and failed. The Lying Detective does not fix the stumbling fourth season of Sherlock. Indeed, its efforts to do so are by and large its biggest problems, a point we will get to in good time. But I’m still coming off of two months of talking about why Class failed every week, and my next two posts are the finale and Broadchurch, so let’s put off that perspective for as long as we can and see what else we can do here.
After all, this is the first time Moffat has opted to give himself the middle episode. These have always vexed Sherlock to an extent, featuring so far their single worst episode, a low-stakes adaptation of a Doyle classic, and an ostentatious bit of comedy fluff. We’ve even talked, albeit a long time ago, about the way in which the three episode seasons of Sherlock and its own tendency towards constant event means that the middle episode, the only one not to be a premiere or a finale, is an inherent challenge. And so finally they think to have Moffat do one in the manner of Listen, a lower stakes “prove he can write” episode.
Well, for Sherlock at least. Sherlock never quite goes low budget, but this one largely avoids action scenes and elaborate set pieces. Mostly it functions by putting Toby Jones and Benedict Cumberbatch in a room and letting them do stuff. And there’s no time for an episode that doesn’t have at least some big arc responsibilities, and so this has to repair John and Sherlock’s relationship off the back of Mary’s death, give John a satisfying grieving arc, and do the Eurus reveal. Then again, the “prove he can write” pieces include Heaven Sent as well as Listen, so it’s not quite that these inherently have to be the quiet ones.
Nevertheless, at its heart what we have here is the long overdue return of Moffat writing out of anger. Last time we saw this was, fittingly, His Last Vow, where Moffat relished creating a truly nasty villain out of the detritus of current events and then saying exactly what he thought should be done with him. Here he repeats the trick. Ultimately, The Lying Detective is an exercise in monster design. Except instead of child-friendly creepiness, Moffat is depicting moral depravity. For this, unsurprisingly, he turns to Jimmy Savile.
It is difficult to find where to start when talking about Savile. Perhaps the most sensible angle, given our subject, would be to contrast him with Rupert Murdoch. It is, after all, an interesting question which of them is worse, although what is interesting about it is mostly what it reveals about how we conceptualize morality. Murdoch is monstrous, but exists purely on a level of large scale power and its exercise. He has been materially involved in empowering and sustaining multiple political regimes culpable in war crimes. The man caused Fox News to happen, for fuck’s sake. He’s a shoo-in for a high place on any ranking of the most corrosively destructive people in the world. But everything he does falls on the wrong side of the tragedy/statistic divide. He harms people at a distance. On the rare occasions where there is a personal touch, there is still the cooling, depersonalizing influence of business and profit.
Savile, on the other hand, harmed a mere few hundred people. A couple thousand, perhaps, if you want to expand the field and include families and loved ones of his victims. But there is a visceral, intimate horror to his crimes that the civilizing alienation of capitalism prevents Murdoch from attaining. Savile’s evil is bodily. It is difficult to imagine people being triggered by helping sell the case for the Iraq War; Savile, on the other hand, is self-evidently triggering, his evil encompassing a space that is immediately upsetting to contemplate. Despite any rational-minded assessment concluding Murdoch is the worse person, it is Savile who conjures raw, shuddering horror.
It is interesting, then, that Moffat looks at Savile and sees a primarily systemic horror. He alters the crime, which is obviously the correct decision for dashing adventure funtimes, but the resultant choice to have Culverton Smith be a serial killer makes the crimes themselves appreciably less immediate in their horror. Moffat (and Toby Jones, who is so perfectly cast one struggles to imagine the episode being worth doing without him) hedges against this with a few well-chosen details like Smith’s demand for eye contact, but the effect is, oddly, to make him less skin-crawlingly malevolent than Magnussen’s face-flicking, cheek-licking, fireplace pissing snake.
Instead, Moffat approaches Savile from the perspective of a cultural wound. He certainly is this—a grotesquely prolific serial rapist whose hunting grounds were not merely the hospitals and charity programs he funded specifically to cultivate access, but decades of British popular culture into which he was woven. If you ever want to craft the single bleakest and most miserable psychochronography possible, just trace Jimmy Savile’s path across culture. It’ll be as revealing as Doctor Who, except completely unreadable and probably even less emotionally healthy than listening to Nazi podcasts all day.
And for Moffat, it seems, this is the real horror: the way in which power enables and facilitated Savile’s crimes. The fact that everybody knew, and that everybody knowing simply didn’t matter. In this regard, perhaps the most well chosen detail of the episode is Smith’s response when challenged in any way by an employee at the hospital, calmly asking how long they’ve worked there. The implication being that any significant amount of time is long enough to necessitate complicity. This is, of course, terribly savvy of Moffat, aptly anticipating #MeToo and the grim torrent of powerful men whose predatory behavior went utterly unchecked by widespread knowledge of its existence. But Moffat takes this a step further. He doesn’t just view Savile as a horrific manifestation of power and entitlement, but as grotesque but inevitable consequence. His deliciously evil line at the end about liking to turn people into things positions all of this as not just an abuse of power but a perversion that extends from capitalism itself.
So we have Moffat in monster sketching mode, and with a host of on point details. We’ve already talked about Toby Jones’s deliciously leering and malevolent portrayal of Culverton Smith, but we should note the general ambience of medical horror, from a creepy hospital to shots of a phalanx of nurses wheeling glowing IV poles that are clearly a dry run for World Enough and Time. This is one of the things Moffat does best, and when he’s on his game no one can touch him. This week, at least, he is.
The problem is that he exists entirely in isolation here, his virtuoso performance played over an out of tune and ill-conceived backdrop. We might start with the resolution, which cannot hope to be compelling. When squaring off against Rupert Murdoch, Moffat was able to be transgressively bold and assert that the correct solution is just to shoot the fucker in the head. This was delightful. But the point that child molesters—or for that matter serial killers—should be quietly dispatched without any handwringing is frankly banal. More to the point, because the figure Moffat is allegorizing here is already dead, killing him doesn’t feel like a solution in the first place. And so Moffat is unable to come up with any better ideas than “try to extract a confession,” which is not quite what you’d call compelling.
And so instead of being a story about Moffat’s astonishingly malevolent creation, The Lying Detective has to be a story about repairing the series’ central relationship post-fridging. And those remain rotten foundations to build upon. The big failure is the transition between Act II and Act III, as John has to lose his faith that Sherlock knows what he’s doing and beat him, a process that’s bewildering in its lack of motivation. The crux of the problem is that Smith is simply too good a monster, and has been too consistently and utterly awful through the second act for Moffat to then turn around and sell John’s doubts.
But the larger problem, frankly, is that the entire structure here is clumsy and forced. Moffat’s intricate resolutions often falter in the face of refrigerator logic, and the conceit that Sherlock always has to be steps ahead of all of his antagonists often necessitates some fairly tortured chains, but this is deeply egregious. It’s useful to compare to His Last Vow, which similarly relies on Sherlock both outthinking his opponent and having a chain of reversals where his assumptions go wrong. There, however, Sherlock’s ultimate play is made to feel desperate. Yes, he thought to have John’s gun on hand, but this feels like a last fallback plan, enacted after Sherlock’s missteps have cost him dearly.
Here, however, his only real misstep is his failure to recognize Eurus impersonating Faith, and there are precious few consequences for it. Indeed, there’s a strong sense that the plan was always to catch him with the recorder in Watson’s cane, since only that outcome serves to fully resolve the mandate laid down by Mary on how to save John. But this doesn’t just reduce the episode to a sort of worst case parody of Sherlock in which the entire episode is just the mechanistic resolution of Sherlock’s pre-existing plan, it’s also just really dumb.
We might also note that hinging an entire episode on Sherlock’s drug addiction is not the best call Moffat has made. While there are aspects of Moffat’s treatment of addiction that I like, it has, to say the least, had diminishing returns as it’s moved from the ambiguously sound plan to ensnare Magnussen to the crass “drugs give you superpowers” of The Abominable Bride to… whatever this is. I mean, it’s at least not suggesting that drugs have given Sherlock superpowers, but it’s still staying in a model where an addict relapsing is part of a clever plan and something that’s still ultimately basically controllable (in that everyone helps him get clean again at the end and he suffers no long-term effects or consequences). There’s still, at the heart of it, a romanticization not of drug use, which I wouldn’t give a shit about, but of addiction, which is an actual disease that destroys lives. Like way too much about this episode, it’s gross and tactless.
And that, in a nutshell, is where it goes wrong. Culverton Smith may be a phenomenal villain, but he disappears fifteen minutes from the end so that we can have a big John/Sherlock reconciliation scenes that is, frankly, a tedious and faintly desperate seeming mess that casts around aimlessly, invoking Irene Adler to no real point or purpose, and generally failing at the task of having anything to say.
Perhaps there was no better way for things to be, and the decision to kill off Mary really did put the show in this deep of a hole. And for all the impossibility of his task, Moffat really did turn out a remarkable and chilling episode. Nevertheless, the weight of errors and missteps around this season are sufficient to bring even its ambition down. Even Moffat can’t win ‘em all.
April 1, 2019 @ 5:13 pm
I have no plans to watch Series 4 but this entry almost makes the episode sound worth it.
Speaking of deeply lacking television, how’s Broadchurch going?
April 1, 2019 @ 10:53 pm
I think the satisfaction in the resolution is seeing Culverton Smith arrested.
A vigilante approach works for a Murdoch figure, whose crimes are too huge and corporate for courts, but if you make a figure into Jimmy Savile, then the satisfying resolution is to see the machinery of justice swing into action like it should have all along and work.
That’s the fantasy gratified by the Lying Detective. It shows you Jimmy Savile, and it shows you the actions of people animated by justice and moral outrage, and then it shows him in chains.
April 2, 2019 @ 1:22 pm
Aye, but there’s also the perverse flourish that the Savile analogue wants to be in chains – once he’s caught, Culverton Smith muses about how this will only make him more famous. Which puts a brilliantly uncomfortable finish on things.
April 2, 2019 @ 5:57 pm
Not only more famous, but it’s made pretty clear throughout the episode that he gets a sick thrill out of confessing, whether he’s using ambiguous terms, dosing people with amnesia drugs, or just planning to kill them anyway. Now he gets to describe his crimes in all the detail he wants, for all the world to hear.
If Magnussen’s death is “this is what should happen to Murdoch”, Smith’s imprisonment seems to be more like “this is probably the best that could have been done about Savile, even if it’s not entirely satisfactory”.
April 2, 2019 @ 2:22 pm
I remember enjoying this episode when it aired – things moved fast enough for me not to notice how shoddily it was put together and Culverton Smith was indeed properly unsettling. And yet I haven’t rewatched any part of S4 since, unlike the previous 3 seasons. Having read your essay, I now kinda wish we got a sexual predator in “The Lying Detective” instead of a serial killer – fictional serial killers have long lost their ability to shock the audience. But perhaps that would’ve been too much.
“More to the point, because the figure Moffat is allegorizing here is already dead, killing him doesn’t feel like a solution in the first place.”
This is very interesting to me because I’ve never heard of Jimmy Savile before watching this episode, so for me Culverton Smith was a purely fictional construct – and I was satisfied with his arrest. But the very idea of real life context weighing down on such characters is fascinating. If you don’t know the context, can you still feel it? Sometimes, maybe? After all, there are times when you can just tell that certain idiosyncratic details of a fictional work are based on real life experiences of the author. Perhaps it’s similar to that.
April 2, 2019 @ 3:05 pm
That’s weird, my comment seems to have been eaten 🙁
This write-up almost makes me want to watch the episode and thus part of Series 4. Almost.
Speaking of deeply lacking television, how’s Broadchruch-watching going, El?
April 2, 2019 @ 3:10 pm
Sorry, we’ve been getting a lot of spam and it looks like I accidentally clicked yours as spam while cleaning out a bunch of actual spam.
I’ll start S3 on Thursday. Yay
April 2, 2019 @ 4:54 pm
April 2, 2019 @ 4:58 pm
Come to think of it, you should probably receive some sort of medal for watching all three…let’s see what we in the Discord gang can do 😛
April 3, 2019 @ 1:09 am
He’s more than a little Trumpy, too.
Toby Jones is our generation’s Peter Lorre.
April 3, 2019 @ 2:43 am
The Detectorists with Vincent Price and Peter Lorre? I’d watch that, for sure!
April 4, 2019 @ 11:50 am
Reading these posts, the big thing that’s struck me about “Sherlock” Series 4 is how much it would’ve been instantly improved if they had killed Watson instead of Mary.
“The Six Thatchers” would play the same, only Mary would get into the line of fire and Watson would take the bullet for her. Have “The Final Problem” reveal that Sherringford cheated with Watson to make him ashamed enough with himself to take such an action and watch as Sherlock loses it at his sister (giving that dynamic a bit more meat).
The rest of the series is basically the same. Sherlock still has this character arc about failing his vow when one of his friends dies on a case. Give Mary the fridging material and watch it become immediately more interesting when it’s an exceptional female actor working her way through it. And you can even keep Watson around: having Watson be a guilt-induced hallucination who only exists in Sherlock’s head and gives him subconscious clues about the case-of-the-week is something which “Sherlock” is pretty much uniquely poised to be able to pull off. (Hell, that’s basically what they did with Mary.)
“The Six Thatchers” would’ve ended on a headline grabbing, series changing and completely unexpected twist; “The Lying Detective” would have a more solid foundation on which to place its genuinely impressive villain; and “The Final Problem”… would still be flawed but would at least be more able to coast off the reputation of the previous two episodes.
If anyone should’ve died in Series 4, it was Watson.
December 11, 2020 @ 2:58 pm
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