Note: I’ll be doing recap-style reviews for the remaining two episodes in Sherlock’s inaugural season, so unlike last week’s more wide-ranging review of the series première, this writeup and next week’s will include specific plot details.
The second episode of Sherlock signals its neo-Victorian bent early, as Sherlock fends off a cutlass-wielding assassin of indeterminate Middle Eastern origin, one who seems to come straight from a Rudyard Kipling yarn. The series is unapologetic about its grounding in the present day, but it isn’t ashamed to offer a nod to its roots, either, especially when it can do so with such a playful, light touch. Sherlock’s life-or-death grapple is intercut with Watson’s own battle against a self-checkout station at the supermarket, so it’s a comic sequence instead of just a campy one.
Sherlock wins his fight, and Watson loses his (a TKO by way of insufficient funds), which leads the audience to the conclusion that Sherlock has already reached: he’s fine on his own, and Watson is mostly there for company. But this is another one of those misdirects that the series does with such skill, as “The Blind Banker” is really about the growing symbiosis between the two residents at 221B. The duo’s greatest successes come when they’re together, and their greatest frustrations emerge when they’re apart.
The clever combat sequence is unfortunately preceded by a cold open that epitomizes the worst aspect of “The Blind Banker,” its occasional tendency toward lazy Orientalism. A Chinese woman demonstrates a tea ceremony at a fine-arts museum, her moves captured in slow motion and accentuated with the sound of breeze sweeping through the weeds, as if she were some unknowable mystic. The woman is Soo-Lin, an antiquities expert who plays a central role in this week’s mystery, which is a shame, since every scene that features her is a tedious dead spot.
The trouble with Soo-Lin is that the actress delivers every line as if it were an ancient proverb of infinite wisdom. I think this tiresome habit is less a problem of the actress’ talent than bad direction, because the problem afflicts every Chinese character in the episode to some degree. The writers even go explicitly to the “ancient Chinese proverb” well at one point, although by then it seems to be at least partially in jest.
The mystery of the week is afoot when Sherlock receives a message from an old college acquaintance, Sebastian. The fellow alum of Unnamed University is a douche-y investment banker who feigns friendship and tolerance for Sherlock’s analytical “trick.” He’ll put up with his weird old dorm-mate because he wants the consulting detective to find a hole in his office’s security. See, someone broke in the previous night and spray-painted a couple of strange symbols in the unoccupied office of the firm’s former chairman. Sebastian only wants to know how they got in; Sherlock is more interested to know why.
Bobbing and weaving around the office, Sherlock determines that the cryptic message was intended for Edward Van Coon, a Hong Kong trader whose office is the only one with a direct view of the graffiti. He heads with Watson to Van Coon’s apartment building, where there’s no answer at the buzzer downstairs.
This sets up my favorite shot of the episode, a close-up on Benedict Cumberbatch’s face as Sherlock tries to convince a woman upstairs, over the intercom, to let him in. In the space of 15 seconds, and without any cutaways, Cumberbatch goes through a range of expressions that give a vivid picture of Sherlock’s mental agility. It’s impressive enough that Sherlock shifts to the lip-biting humility of a regular schmoe in such convincing fashion. The genius part is that when the woman upstairs confirms Sherlock’s theory that she’s a new resident, he breaks the friendly-neighbor façade just long enough to slip Watson an “I told you so” glance. If you want to see why Cumberbatch is the perfect choice to play this character, watch that little sequence again. (That’s assuming PBS didn’t cut this part out—I’m going from the uncut British airings.)
It turns out that Van Coon’s dead, and Sherlock maintains that it’s a murder, despite the appearance of suicide. When a journalist turns up dead under the same circumstances—dude encounters some weird spray-painted markings and then gets offed by a building-climbing assassin not soon after—Sherlock takes the new evidence to Detective Inspector Dimmock, the cop assigned to the case. Initially suspicious of Sherlock, Dimmock admits that the ballistics report did indeed confirm that the Van Coon death was a murder, and Sherlock declares, “This investigation might move a bit quicker if you were to take my word as gospel.”
That’s a revealing line, because what Sherlock doesn’t realize in his bluster is that the investigation would also move more quickly if he listened more closely to Watson. They’re still early in their relationship, so Sherlock is all too eager to tune out his friend/colleague associate. He ignores Watson’s pleas to open the door while he inspects Van Coon’s apartment. He leaves him holding the bag, literally, after the cops break up a consultation session with a Banksy-esque graffiti artist. And he locks Watson out once again while he noses around Soo Lin’s abandoned home—though tellingly, he croaks “John!” as the Chinese assassin (who happened to be there as well) grasps Sherlock in a choke hold.
The killings come into focus. Van Coon and the dead journalist were both part of an underground ring that smuggled artifacts between China and London, and the mob is hunting down its couriers because one of them stole something valuable during his last stop in China.
Sherlock is the one unraveling the broad strokes of the plot, yet it’s Watson who provides most of the pieces that advance toward a solution. This is a troubling state of affairs for Sherlock—it’s important to solve the puzzle, yes, but it’s equally important that he is the one to solve the puzzle. When the two men bump into each other at a West End café, both hot on the trail of the smugglers’ drop-off point, Sherlock rattles off the picture he’s managed to piece together from scraps of information. But Watson already knows where the smugglers ended up: “That shop, over there,” he says. Sherlock is indignant. “How could you tell?” he says, glaring. Well, the address was right in the journalist’s diary, which Watson got from the police as instructed. It’s progress, but Sherlock would have preferred to get there his way.
Along the same lines, when Watson brings Sherlock back to a railroad underpass filled with the mysterious ciphers they’ve been trying to decode—only to find that the wall has been painted over—Sherlock whips Watson around the tracks in a desperate effort to make the poor doctor’s feeble mind recall the image he saw. Watson is eventually able to slow Sherlock down enough to explain that there’s no need for worry, he’ll remember, because he took a freaking picture on his phone.
There’s no extraordinary craft to what Watson does, but he can see the forest while Sherlock is inspecting the age of the mildew on the underside of the bark on the trees. Sherlock is slowly recognizing, if not acknowledging, the value in Watson’s point of view.
At the smugglers’ drop-off point, a Chinese souvenir shop, Sherlock and Watson discover that the ciphers are, in fact, pairs of digits written with an ancient Chinese numbering system, the “Hangzhou” system. The episode screeches to a halt as the hunt returns to the museum, where the boys corner Soo-Lin and press her for more information. Careful what you wish for. She tells the boring, predictable story of how she got involved with the Black Lotus clan when she was a little girl in China. Far shorter version: She was poor, so she joined a gang.
Just when she’s almost getting around to explaining the code, the assassin—Soo-Lin’s brother—shows up, and a rather scattered chase/gunfight ensues. Sherlock and Watson lose track of the attacker, and Soo-Lin shares some parting words with her sibling before he does her in. The scene probably ought to have been more wrenching than it was, but the actress played the role with too little humanity, so Watson’s post-gunshot “Oh, my god” is more moving than anything we get from Soo-Lin herself. Martin Freeman’s delivery makes it clear that Watson has tried and failed to save a life many times before, and now it’s happened again.
It’s not all gloom for Watson, though, as he smoothly asks his new boss, the manager at a local clinic, if she’d like to join him on a date. She obliges of course, because who can resist the Martin Freeman charm?
Sherlock finds the idea of Watson’s night out “dull” but suggests that Watson take Sarah to a Chinese circus act that is in town for one night only. Oh, and surprise, he shows up unannounced to tag along as the third wheel, because Sherlock suspects that the circus is a front for the smuggling ring. He needs to keep working on the case.
Of course, why bother Watson with this when he’s supposed to be out on a date? For one, Sherlock doesn’t care about Watson’s romantic life. More to the point, Sherlock was spooked by the encounter in Soo-Lin’s apartment earlier. It broke through the cockiness just enough for Sherlock to accept that he needs his flatmate more than he thought. He’d never admit as much, though. The closest he comes is when Watson threatens to take Sarah and leave Sherlock by himself at the circus. Sherlock says, “I need your help!” but he growls it, like an overstressed convenience-store manager whose stockboy has flaked out on him yet again.
Sherlock’s circus hunch turns out to be right, as does his instinct that he would need Watson’s help (not to mention Sarah’s) to survive in the midst of the Chinese thieves and killers. Yet when they escape, it’s rock bottom. Sherlock’s police contact, Dimmock, is fed up after ordering a raid on the circus venue—on the amateur detective’s advice—which turns up nothing. And there’s no concrete evidence of the ultra-valuable artifact that Sherlock surmises the mob is after. Even the code remains a dead end. While Sherlock believes that each number pair in the cipher refers to a page and number in a certain book, a search through the libraries of both dead men has failed to turn up the all-important tome.
The stalemate is broken by a pair of German tourists bumbling down Baker Street. After “borrowing” their London A To Z guidebook, Sherlock finds that the ciphers left for the investment banker and the journalist decode as “Deadman.” Huzzah, the key is unlocked, but meanwhile, Watson and Sarah have been abducted to Black Lotus headquarters.
The Chinese ringleader, she who recites “Chinese proverb,” believes that Watson is actually Sherlock. Indeed, thanks to some nice setup from the first 80 minutes of the episode, she has good reason to think so. To make him talk, Sarah is put at the receiving end of a deadly crossbow set to fire when triggered by a slo-w-w-wly lowering weight. It’s a reprise of a circus act they saw earlier.
Sherlock arrives to play white knight, but he gets sidetracked by the same Shanghai Strangler who vexed him before, so it’s the bound-and-gagged Watson who saves both Sarah and Sherlock by redirecting the bolt into the sternum of Sherlock’s attacker. In an even bolder act, he assumes that there will be a second date.
Sherlock finds the stolen bauble—a £9-million jade hairpin—poking out from the blond tresses of Van Coon’s secretary. Back at their flat, Watson and Sherlock have one last exchange over breakfast, and I’d happily watch the two of them chat all day. What makes “The Blind Banker” such a delight is not so much its serviceable mystery but rather the exchanges between Cumberbatch and Freeman, who take the brilliant layers of the writing and add a couple layers more. Their performances make this a very good episode despite its mistakes. The story concludes with a fleeting off-screen appearance by a mysterious figure known only as “M,” and thus the creators set up this season’s final adventure, one that makes very few mistakes at all.
— The set dressing for Sherlock and Watson’s apartment is full of great little points of interest. Nice attention to detail there.
— I don’t understand why the London A To Z book wasn’t in the boxes of books from the two men’s apartments, which Sherlock and Watson seemed to inspect pretty thoroughly. (It took all night, after all.) Did the episode explain this somehow?
— A little research reveals that the ciphers are actually Suzhou numbers, not Hangzhou, and whatever the numbering system is called, it seems like exactly the type of thing that Sherlock would already be familiar with. I’m a little dubious of the notion that, given the China connection, it wouldn’t occur to him that a horizontal line is the number for “one” in China and in pretty much all East Asian countries.
— “He was left kind of trying to cut his hair with a fork. Which of course could never be done!”
— I find myself referring to John Watson as “Watson” rather than “John.” I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because the show’s preferred nomenclature of “Sherlock” still makes for a distinctive character name, but “John” doesn’t.
— I liked this episode a bit less on second viewing, whereas I liked the season première a bit more the second time around. So to those of you in the comments last week who said that “A Study In Pink” is superior to “The Blind Banker,” well, I’m still not there, but I’m not going to argue with you, either. They’re both pretty good.
— The show’s music is excellent all-around, but I especially liked the touches of electronica that peeked into the background themes at times in this episode.