After a creepily atmospheric opening sequence we find ourselves back in the familiar confines of 221B where Sherlock makes an extraordinarily dramatic entrance. It’s quite the visual image. Almost literally jumping out of his skin with boredom his day nonetheless perks up with the arrival of Henry Knight (Russell Tovey) a softly spoken, pale, twitchy man with a terrible tale to tell. Poor Henry saw his father brutally murdered by a huge dog with blazing eyes 20 years ago and now he wants to hire Sherlock to find out for him what truly happened that terrible night out on the Moor. Sherlock, initially incredulous, is intrigued by the description of Henry finding “the footprints of a gigantic hound” and before you know it he and John have swapped the familiar sights of London for bleak and barren Dartmoor.
Surrounded by a rogue’s gallery of engagingly drawn characters (the garrulous monster hound tour guide, the genial B&B owners, the research scientists, the surly Major, the pretty therapist that catches John’s eye) Sherlock and John have their work cut out for them trying to work out what truly killed Henry Knight’s father. Is a monstrous creature from hell really roaming the Moors at night? And what link does it have to Baskerville, the forbidding military base surrounded by a mine field to keep out prying eyes?
It would be all too easy of course for Hounds to descend into gothic melodrama at this point but Mark Gatiss is far too talented a writer for that. As his informative & engaging BBC 4 documentary A History of Horror showed this is a man who truly understands that when it comes to horror less is more. That there is nothing more terrifying that that quick flash of movement, half glimpsed out of the corner of your eye when you’re alone in the dark. And as the action unfolds there is this overwhelming sense of pervading dread as the tension starts to wind tighter and tighter until every flash of light, every sudden noise will result in you jumping a mile in your seat. And right in the middle of this psychological tale of horror is Henry Knight, a man visibly disintegrating in front of our eyes as the monstrous hound haunts his dreams and conspires to steal his sanity. It’s a quietly understated but haunting performance from the always superb Russell Tovey.
But of course this is an episode about Sherlock Holmes and fear and for the audience to be truly unsettled our unflappable protagonist must also succomb to that most human of emotions – fear. Because if the great Sherlock Holmes is scared what hope is there for the rest of us? In this episode we get an insight, a glimpse into what Sherlock Homes is truly afraid of and it’s powerfully affecting. A sequence of a belligerent Sherlock (Cumberbatch, as brilliant as ever) trying to master his fear, shaking off John’s kindness is the highlight of the episode. John, also isn’t immune and has to face his own fears in an agonisingly tense sequence within Baskerville.
But it isn’t all doom and gloom. The narrative is shot through with fun nods to canon (from the most famous of references to delightfully obscure ones) and laced with black humour like the ghoulishly pragmatic Doctor Stapleton (a fun turn from Amelia Bullmore), the revelation of the Major’s pass code or John’s highly unfortunate discovery on the Moors. It’s a testament to how prestigious the show has become that very fine actors like Simon Paisley Day (brilliant recently as Malvolio in Sir Edward Hall’s production of Twelfth Night at the National) are prepared to appear in rather small (but perfectly formed!) roles.
So Hounds is a very different story to the fireworks and non stop pace of Scandal but all the better for it. The more linear narrative allows the story to breathe and the atmosphere to build until you can practically hear the wind howling on the Moor and feel the Hound’s breath on the back of your neck. Visually again Paul McGuigan shows what a masterful director he is. Dartmoor looks glorious – beautiful and treacherous all at the same time and the use of light and shadow in the night sequences is impressive. Cumberbatch and Freeman are beautifully lit throughout and look utterly iconic standing on Hound Tor (Cumberbatch especially who looks positively Byron-esque).
Mycroft appears in a much reduced role from the previous week but is a picture of brotherly exasperation. The always welcome Rupert Graves also puts in a brief, warm performance as Lestrade (and you get confirmation as to his first name) and gets to be delightfully bad ass at the end of the episode.
But whilst Hounds is an effective piece of psychological horror it wasn’t so much the Hound that has stayed with me as all the wonderful character moments between Sherlock and John. Gatiss and Moffat clearly have so much affection for these characters and their great abiding friendship and it shows so clearly in Gatiss’ wonderful dialogue. Last week was all about whether Sherlock had a heart and could feel something for another person and Hounds shows so clearly that of course he does. Sherlock may have deemed sentiment to be “a defect found in the losing side” but his actions in Hounds show how hollow his words to Irene were. John is shown to be desperately important to Sherlock. We see why Sherlock needs him and they’re very much equals – with John helping Sherlock with his investigations and following leads of his own (those who felt John may have been short changed in terms of screentime in Scandal will be delighted that he is front and centre in Hounds and that Martin Freeman is a class act as ever, bringing depth and nuance to every single scene).
There is one discussion between Sherlock and John that is just so perfectly judged and beautifully written and performed that it quite warmed my cold dark heart! A truly lovely moment.
And then there’s that ending. A short, sharp discordant little sequence that even now 24 hours later leaves me feeling quite…unsettled.
And eagerly anticipating The Reichenbach Fall.
They’ve done Sherlock and love, Sherlock and fear and well, we all know what comes next…