Sherlock: The Lying Detective
Directed by Nick Hurran
The BBC’s modern-day adaptation of Sherlock Holmes brings the famous sleuth into the 21st century. The series, which is famous for its innovative style and technological achievements, recreates Arthur Conan Doyle’s most iconic stories through a series of stylistic narrative short films. In the second episode of the fourth series, “The Lying Detective,” Sherlock Holmes, in an attempt to reconcile with John Watson following his wife’s death, seeks to expose celebrity psychopath Culverton Smith as a serial killer. The narrative of Sherlock’s drug use and Eurus Holmes’s character reveal are crafted through the episode’s distinctly chaotic structure and unique formal qualities.
In an attempt to place the audience into the deranged and wild mind of Sherlock Holmes, director Nick Hurran uses an unstructured narrative and formal qualities to evoke the sensation that the audience is experiencing the episode through Sherlock’s mind. “The Lying Detective’s” distinctly chaotic structure does not progress linearly throughout the episode, rather it moves non-chronologically to emphasize important moments and key relationships. The episode opens with a prologue that takes place in the middle of the episode’s arch, foreshadowing the events about to unfold. The structure then turns into an extended flashback, looking at all the events that have brought the characters to the moment foreshadowed in the opening. The flashback includes a look at Culverton Smith’s confessional, which happens outside of the timeframe of the episode but provides context for the episode’s main plotline, and Sherlock’s activities during the three weeks before the prologue, all the while bending time and space to create an unruly structure. When the episode returns to the “present day” (the events depicted in the prologue), it continues to intercut flashbacks and flashforwards throughout the remainder of the episode to build tensions and suspense as the episode reaches its climax.
This messy structure simulates for the audience the inner-workings of Sherlock’s wild and drug-ridden mind. As a prominent plot device in this episode, which plays on Conan Doyle’s original stories in which Sherlock uses cocaine to stimulate his deductions, Sherlock’s drug-ridden mind creates unstructured time and hyper-real disillusions, making his actions and thoughts unmanageable. The audience is able to experience Sherlock’s narcotic state through the chaotic structure, making the audience, like Sherlock, work hard to follow the events and clues that lead to the eventual conclusion of the episode. The episode’s disorderly narrative and chaotic time create a new visual style that imitates Sherlock’s brain functions for the audience and puts them directly in the mind of the detective.
In addition the erratic timeline, Hurran also includes a number of formal elements that places the audience into Sherlock’s unstable mind. When Sherlock has the revelation that Culverton Smith is a serial killer, he becomes unhinged and displaced with delusional visions due to his excessive drug use. Hurran visualizes Sherlock’s meltdown with the use of bizarre camera angles, fast cutting between memories, and confusing locations, all of which displaces Sherlock and the audience and makes them question what is real and what isn’t. Hurran also includes shots of Sherlock walking up the wall, showing once again that he has, according to Wiggins, had “too much.” Hurran relies on these elements again later in the episode when Sherlock has another breakdown in the mortuary. Hurran uses the intense cutting between the events in the mortuary, Sherlock’s meeting with Faith/Eurus, and John’s police interview; non-diegetic laughing and sound effects; and emotional performances to increase the tension and intensity of the moment, placing the audience firmly in the scene. This all creates a surrealist viewing experience, mimicking Sherlock’s drug-fueled reality for the audience.
Moreover, “The Lying Detective” uses formal qualities to connect this episode with the rest of season’s plot arch, most notably the introduction of Eurus Holmes. Through the use of cinematic trickery, this episode plays on one of Conan Doyle’s most iconic Sherlock Holmes quote, “you see, but you do not observe,” as this and the previous episode introduces a number of female characters played by Sian Brooke, who is later revealed to be the Holmes’s estranged sister, Eurus. Beyond the cosmetic changes that are applied to Brooke’s multiple characters - costuming, hair and makeup, and accents - the formal qualities of the episode also conceal Brooke’s identity through camera angles that prevents the audience from seeing her complete features, quick cuts that don’t linger on her face, and staging that places her in the background of scenes preventing her from being the focus of attention. The unruly nature of the narrative also prevents the audience from noticing Brooke playing multiple characters because the audience’s main focus becomes trying to follow the plot, drawing attention away from Brooke’s supporting characters.
In addition to Brooke’s appearance, the introduction of Eurus’s riddle provides foreshadowing to the season’s final episode. During Sherlock’s breakdown on the South Bank after speaking with Faith/Eurus, Eurus’s theme begins to play. The song, which has not yet been introduced into the plot, mixed with the flashes of clips from Sherlock’s childhood, creates an unconscious relationship between the audience, Sherlock’s desire to remember, and the unknown woman he’s conversing with. Although the audience is not aware of the relationship upon first viewing, the unconscious association built in this episode makes the connection between Eurus, Sherlock, and the song in the next episode more dramatic and riveting.