S1, E2: ‘The Blind Banker’
Cock-blocking! Kidnapping! Racial stereotypes!
***SPOILERS FOR ALL EPISODES OF SHERLOCK UP TO S1, E2****
Hey, I meant it when I said that the show was maddeningly inconsistent. Hot on the heels of its whip-smart, dexterous first episode, comes this lurching, misshapen square-wheeled cart. Its pace is awkward, it relies with slavish dependency on the Idiot Ball, and it traffics in cultural stereotypes that were nowhere in the source material. Which was written in the nineteenth century. Impressive, that.
All right: let’s get to it.
‘….from the distant shores of the Yangtze River…’
An organisation is sending graffiti messages to various people: one to a colleague of an obnoxious former classmate of Sherlock’s, now an investment banker (Bertie Carvel, or Jonathan Strange); one to a journalist subsequently found murdered; and one to a pretty antiquities curator called Soo Lin Yao (Gemma Chan) obsessed with the maintenance and care of ancient tea vessels.
Sherlock and John are called in for the first case. They quickly figure out the intended recipient, and discover him dead of an apparent suicide in his Docklands flat. Sherlock quickly does his thing and convinces DI Dimmock (Paul Chequers) that the ‘suicide’ is actually a murder, and a quick nose around the journalist’s flat shows that there’s a distinct Chinese connection: both men were frequent visitors to a specific shop in Chinatown, and furthermore the graffiti consist of ‘Hang-Zhou’ numerals. Once Sherlock discovers that Soo Lin’s flat has been abandoned in a hurry, is nearly choked to death for his troubles and surfaces holding an origami black lotus, they head to Soo Lin’s place of work.
I’ll say it right now: every time the episode has anything to do with Soo Lin Yao, it comes to a screeching halt. The girl seems resolutely incapable of speaking in anything other than halting aphorisms e.g. ‘Sometimes you have to look hard at a thing to see its value’, and she takes for. Fucking. Ever. To tell the simplest story. What she wants to tell Sherlock and John – in the certain knowledge that a killer’s looking for her and that there’s a definite time pressure – is ‘a subset of the Chinese Mafia is after me. The graffiti is a cipher based on the London AZ’. Instead, she whispers and limps through what it was like to be a fifteen-year-old orphan in the mean streets of [Hong Kong? Shanghai? Beijing? It’s never clear] and how she became a mule for the gang and how they never let you leave and how she met the killer – whom she refers to with an ambiguous ‘he’ until she reveals dramatically that he is her brother literally twenty seconds later. I understand that witnesses are often traumatised and need to be allowed to tell their own story their own way, but this is so obviously and tooth-grindingly filler designed to spin the whole affair out so that Soo Lin gets bumped off before she can tell Sherlock and John which book to use to crack the code. And she gets bumped off why? Because she doesn’t stay put in her hiding place. RIP, Soo Lin.
So Soo Lin is a set of particularly irritating Damsel In Distress tropes. Combined with a whiff of Doe-Eyed Oriental as well. You ain’t seen nuthin’ yet, though. Because Sherlock and John go to a Chinese circus where there are acrobats and an escapology act, and in the finale John and his date are kidnapped and held at arrow-triggered-by-sand-falling-from-sack-point. All while a James Bond villain speech is directed at the captives and the phrase ‘Ancient Chinese proverb’ is used – at least in part ironically. I hope. I think. I hope.
Honestly, the central mystery isn’t too dreadful. But it’s very clear that the conceit couldn’t hold for a full ninety minutes. I just somewhat object to the Yellow Peril stereotypes that were used to pad out the runtime.
‘D’you think you could let me in this time?’
I’ve speculated before about what John brings to the table, but why does Sherlock think he needs John? Certainly it’s not John’s physical prowess: once in this episode Sherlock fends off a random Scarfed and Turbaned Desperado wielding an actual I-shit-you-not scimitar (Orientialism ahoy! Some more!), and in the finale Sherlock rescues John and his date. And Sherlock can handle the dizzying flights of logic all by his pretty little lonesome. But clearly Sherlock has some use for John: witness his hilarious petulance at John’s attempts to have a non-Sherlock life. He gatecrashes John’s date, whispers in his ear throughout, and sighs and tuts and pisses and moans every time the poor woman asks a perfectly reasonable question. Yes, Sherlock, a girl’s found your and John’s clubhouse and it’s too late to pull up the ladder.
My hypothesis, as from A Study In Pink, is that John’s common-sense has value. Twice in this episode John’s no-nonsense approach yields results at least as quickly and reliably as Sherlock’s intricate processes. Once Sherlock puts together a series of movements from timestamps, tube tickets and restaurant receipts and arrives in the general neighbourhood of where he needs to be: only to find that John is heading to a specific location because he actually, you know, read a guy’s diary. On another occasion a wall of graffiti has been painted over before Sherlock can take a look at it. Sherlock grabs John’s shoulders, stares intensely at him and begins babbling about maximising his visual memory, while John’s struggling to reach his pockets because he thought to take a photograph of the wall. Notice, too, that when Sherlock pissily refuses the offer of payment from his insufferable former classmate, John quickly intercedes and looks after the cash for him.
What this episode has failed to address is why John would bother with Sherlock. The man crashes his date, continually leaves him behind at crime-scenes, allows him to receive an Anti-Social Behavioural Order that will go on his record (!), and renders him absolutely useless for work. Lucky John’s boss has a crush on him, eh?
And that’s another thing. Here’s another episode with deeply dodgy gender politics. The women in this episode are utterly unprofessional in their places of work because they’re in thrall to a man. Molly (Ugh, Molly) wheels out two stiffs for Sherlock to take a look at because he complimented her hair, and Sarah (Zoe Telford), John’s new boss at the GP clinic, covers for him when he’s sleeping on the job and not even remotely apologetic enough, and forgives him the instant she learns that he’s single and is in fact asking her out. At least Sarah gets to take out a baddie with an iron rod, and seems funny and otherwise together. That’s something.
‘A date. It’s when two people who like each other go out and have fun?’ ‘That’s what I was suggesting.’
Ah well. At least this episode hasn’t forgotten its bread and butter: Sherlock and John, bantering and confabulating and being delightful together. Check out the sequence where Sherlock’s blagging his way into one victim’s flat by pretending to a neighbour that he’s forgotten his keys. He slips into character effortlessly as a ditz, but notice when the neighbour proves him right on a point. He glances briefly and triumphantly across at John. Notice, too, the end where John and Sherlock are quietly going over the implications of the case back in 221B. Freeman and Cumberbatch create a specific prickly domesticity and camaraderie with the merest slouch and murmur. The mysteries may be silly and sexism may be rife, but at least we know this show’s getting one thing absolutely bang-on.
Deerstalking: Holmes canon nods
- The Adventure of the Dancing Men also uses symbols painted in public places to send a message to someone trying to escape her past
Odds and sods
- The Chinese Mafia get John and Sherlock mixed up because of a set of plausible enough circumstantial evidence….if you believe that said Mafia doesn’t have access to, you know, the internet or any means of actually checking the identity of John Watson or Sherlock Holmes.
- How oblivious is Sherlock Holmes? Last episode, he was offhand and brusque to Molly, but seemingly unaware that she was asking him out. Here, he deliberately plays on her interest in him. Which is it, show?
- On the other hand, Sherlock is brusque and peremptory this episode, but he seems to have dialled back the more obvious crowing over his own cleverness. A huge improvement.
- Where was Lestrade? Couldn’t they even get Sgt. Donovan?
- Moriarty offs the Tong ‘General’. In fairness, she was rubbish at her job.
- I feel like Google Goggles would have put paid to a lot of this mystery.
- Apparently the numerals are Su-Zhou, not Hang-Zhou?
- A German friend was deeply irritated that the show couldn’t find actual Germans to play the German tourists.
- Would tattoos look that minty-fresh after so many years?
- On a shallow note: Sherlock looks mighty toothsome at several points in this episode.
For more of my posts about Sherlock, see here.