Sherlock: The Blind Banker (Review)

Sherlock's Sophomore Curse

Although not as engaging as the excellent "A Study in Pink", Sherlock's second outing "The Blind Banker" is a moderately entertaining episode that banks on (sorry) the considerable chemistry between the series' two leads. As the episode begins, John Watson (Martin Freeman) finds that a soldier's pension isn't enough to live on, and asks to borrow money from flatmate Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch). This request, combined with a job offer from an old university classmate of Sherlock's, prompts the two to visit an exchange in London's financial district.

Based loosely on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's short story "The Dancing Men", the episode bears very little resemblance to the source material. As an indicator of modern social concerns, the love triangle in Conan Doyle's story has been replaced with a plot involving smuggling and Chinese gangs. The end result is a backstory that, for all the show's trappings of modern-day detective work, seems oddly dated.

Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and John Watson (Martin Freeman) at the exchange.
Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and John Watson (Martin Freeman) at the exchange.

Not Your Typical Locked Room Murders

At the exchange, Sherlock's university classmate offers a hefty payment for him to solve a mystery: how did an unknown person enter a locked room at the exchange to spray-paint some symbols on the wall without triggering any alarms or being caught on camera? More importantly, what do the symbols mean and who was meant to see them?

Sherlock deduces that the message was meant for a certain trader who dealt with Hong Kong accounts, and further investigation turns up two more "locked room" mysteries. Although the 'how' of the mystery is not too hard to figure out--indeed, Conan Doyle himself wrote, “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth”--the locked room murders are merely the first level in a convoluted plot.

Soo Lin Yao (Gemma Chan) has troubling ties to the murders in "The Blind Banker".
Soo Lin Yao (Gemma Chan) has troubling ties to the murders in "The Blind Banker".

A Modern Detective, an Ancient Code

When Sherlock needs help deciphering the spray-painted message, he seeks the advice of an "art expert", that is, a street graffiti artist. Sherlock's connections with London's marginalised and underground elements is intrinsic to many of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories; the graffiti artist is likely a reference to the detective's large network of operatives called the Baker Street Irregulars, comprising mostly street urchins. The Baker Street Irregulars are revisited in the next episode even more effectively, and because this Sherlock Holmes is modern and urban, I wouldn't be surprised if the Irregulars appear more frequently next season.

Sherlock and John's investigation eventually leads them to a shop in Chinatown called Lucky Cat Imports, which seems to deal in cheap curios and knickknacks. There, they discover that the spray-painted messages are Suzhou numbers. Unfortunately, Sherlock calls Suzhou numbers an "ancient Chinese dialect", which is wrong and sadly out-of-character. (I think that Sherlock Holmes would know the differences between a system for writing numbers and a dialect, which has to do with language.)

Sherlock and John with Detective Inspector Dimmock (Paul Chequer).
Sherlock and John with Detective Inspector Dimmock (Paul Chequer).

John Gets a Job--and a Date

It remains to be seen if John's traditionally womanising ways will be softened in Sherlock (it's 2010, after all); however, he still has an eye for the ladies, and soon after landing a job at a medical clinic, he has a date with another doctor, Sarah (Zoe Telford, who co-starred with him in Men Only, which also starred Stephen "vampire Bill" Moyer). John and Sarah's date is at a Chinese circus. Sherlock, who realises that the circus troupe must have ties to the Chinese gang, tags along as the third wheel.

The three watch the circus troupe perform a theatrical escape act (a bag of sand is pierced, the sand gradually fills a cup, which springs a deadly spear at a masked and bound 'warrior') while Sherlock explains the "classic Chinese escapology act" in belaboured fashion. If I were John, I'd be telling him to take a hike and leave me alone with my date, but this is television, so--Chekhov's gun, anyone?

John and Sherlock (background) at 221B Baker Street.
John and Sherlock (background) at 221B Baker Street.

Filler, But Fun (If You Ignore the Stereotypes)

Convoluted premise aside, the most problematic aspect of "The Blind Banker" is its representations of Chineseness, such as:

  • The manner in which the locked room murders are perpetrated.
  • Soo Ling Yao, an attractive Chinese art historian, who's "obsessed" with a tea ceremony. She is beautiful and remote, and her nerdy white co-worker makes a clumsy pass at her.
  • The Black Lotus gang--yes, that's their name--brand members with a black lotus tattoo on their feet. Gang members' calling cards are origami black lotuses.
  • The Lucky Cat's stereotypical Chinese proprietor, who hawks her wares, "Lucky cat, ten pound, ten pound!"

Sherlock Holmes has been updated for the 21st century, but Chinese people are still depicted as being exotically mysterious, versed in 'ancient' arts, and adherents of gangsters' code.

In addition to its problems of ethnicity, "The Blind Banker" lacks the wit and the unique tone set in "A Study in Pink". Though it is not a terrible effort, the episode seems sluggish and generic in comparison. Of the three episodes in Sherlock season 1, "The Blind Banker" is the weakest; not coincidentally, it's the only one not written by Mark Gatiss and directed by Stephen Moffatt. If you can overlook plot irregularities and implausibilities, it is still worth watching for Sherlock and John's developing camaraderie, and the performances of the Cumberbatch and Freeman, both of whom excel in dramatic and comedic moments.

Part of a "classic Chinese escapology act".
Part of a "classic Chinese escapology act".

The Sound of 'Sherlock'

Sherlock's distinctive score is composed by David Arnold (James Bond films) and Michael Price (Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy). It has a timeless sound, at once classic and contemporary. Play the video below to hear samples.

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