Sherlock – “The Blind Banker”

“The Blind Banker”

August 1st, 2010

Look, “The Blind Banker” was bound to be a disappointment.

First of all, it’s the second act of a three-act series, which means that it has nothing to introduce and nothing to conclude, robbing it of any real serial potential.

Second, it’s the one hour not scripted by the series creators, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss.

And third, it has the ominous task of coming after a very strong premiere which overcame most people’s expectations for the project.

Mind you, I do not mean “disappointment” in the sense that I was not entertained by the episode, but the episode just has too much to live up to – the story is fine, and the characters remain well drawn, but the episode’s plot is thin enough that it seems to draw out my issues with the series as opposed to highlighting its best qualities. Lacking in both continuity and ingenuity, “The Blind Banker” struggles under the weight of its running time and eventually feels like little more than a basic procedural with some strong performances.

Which isn’t the worst thing in the world, but certainly isn’t the same series we saw last week.

There was no need for “The Blind Banker” to run for ninety minutes: considering that Sarah remained largely undeveloped, and considering that the new Detective Inspector was given little to work with, stretching this story to ninety minutes honestly made Sherlock Holmes seem a bit stupid. He could never deduce anything too quickly because that would mean that he might actually solve the case, which would mean that they wouldn’t be able to fill the entire running time. It seems strange that he wouldn’t have recognized the ancient Chinese numerals before seeing them in the shop, just as it seems strange that he wouldn’t have continued his search of “most commonly used books” for the London A-Z volume (although one presumes that he doesn’t own the book since he doesn’t need it, and yet he does own a map so that doesn’t seem like a logical excuse at all when I really think about it). Plus, why did it take him so long to piece together the assistant’s relationship with the first victim, especially since you would have thought he had read her grief the moment he met her? If Sherlock Holmes is such a genius, this case would have been over much faster, and so the challenge becomes placing obstacles in his way which would logically undermine his efforts.

Unfortunately, those obstacles were not as brilliant as they needed to be: it would have been one thing if they had brought back the coroner he feuded with, or Mycroft, or someone else who could logically stand in his way for whatever reason. Instead, the case just takes a long time to solve, everything drawn out more than would seem logical: the police don’t notice the tattoos sooner, for example, because it takes up more time to hear the museum employee’s story and learn about the tattoo first hand. I think it is valuable to spend time with other characters involved in these incidents, and I thought her personal connection to the crime syndicate was a nice touch, but the episode spends as much as time as it does not because it’s going to be particularly meaningful to the conclusion but rather because it takes up time on the way there. Her death is a footnote, and once she dies they don’t seem to work particularly harder or change their tactics in any fashion. They still move pretty slowly, Watson still goes on his date, and the level of tension barely fluctuates.

None of this takes away from the fact that Cumberbatch and Freeman are extremely well-cast, or the fact that they’re giving some strong performances as a pairing; rather, the fact that the episode never really comes together from a plot perspectives means that you spend your time wondering why they couldn’t be doing something more interesting instead of enjoying what it is they are doing. It’s impossible not, to really: over the course of ninety minutes, the mind wanders, and it tends to wander to cases where the potential within “A Study in Pink” really came into its own. However, there is a severe lack of continuity: with all of the recurring police characters out of the picture, there’s no sense that their warnings to Watson ever even happened, and there are no residual effects from Watson shooting the cab driver or anything of that nature. And while an introductory story can fit into ninety minutes, and next week’s concluding story is likely going to have enough material to work with, there is no way that a standalone detective story with no exposition and no serial elements can keep my attention in the same fashion.

However, pared down by a half-hour, I think there was some potential here: as a tighter story, I think the idea of piecing together an unconnected group of killings through their role as smugglers might work, and I thought the conclusion (that the hair pin was given as a simply apology gift without its true value being known) would have played better without quite so much time before the first death and the final one. There is simply a point where episodes take things a step too far, where good ideas simply run out of steam before they really get a chance to develop. “The Blind Banker” is very much an example of this, and thus is unfortunately lives down to my lowered expectations: without any continuity, and without providing a good reason for Holmes to struggle with this case long enough for it to fill the running time, this becomes the disposable second act from the non-creator.

Here’s hoping for a rebound next week.

Cultural Observations

  • I’m usually a fan of nonchalantly joining a story already in progress, but I was a bit annoyed that we never got any context at all for the opening sword fight – I get that it’s part of the “fun,” but I thought it could have been more purposeful to start off the episode. The grocery scene was similarly useless, except to set up the eventual mistaken identity (which wasn’t all that important, but which was at least well-constructed into the story.
  • I also wanted an explanation for why Sarah was so adept with a weapon, quite successfully beating off the attacker at the Circus – she really jumped into the conflict as if it didn’t faze her a bit, which I thought needed a tiny bit more explanation (perhaps a line about how she, unlike John, wasn’t so much a fan of the mundane).
  • Did we ever learn why the journalist began smuggling? We got “Orphan with nowhere to go” and “Lost a Lot of Money” for the other two, but I don’t remember getting a reason for the journalist.
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6 Comments

Filed under Sherlock

6 responses to “Sherlock – “The Blind Banker”

  1. Thomas

    Agree with your review, though I’d like to add that, visually, this episode also felt a bit weird. On GAF, someone pointed out that last-week’s text-on-screen was all there to indicate the things going on in Sherlock’s brain, but all we saw this week was the Chinese numbers being ‘translated’. Which is a shame, as I really liked that stuff last week.

    But then again, this episode also had a different director from last week. Curious what next week’s episode will be like, as some have been saying it’s the best one yet, and it’ll have the same director as episode 1, and is written by Gatiss. Can’t wait.

    On the ratings-front, btw: about the same amount of viewers as last week, still ranking as the #1 show in its timeslot. All in all, looks very likely we’ll get a second series.

  2. Jonathan Chaffer

    Having only peripheral familiarity with Arthur Conan Doyle’s work, I wonder: Was this story, like the previous one, patterned after a particular Holmes story? Or is this a new mystery with the existing characters?

    If this one is brand new, I wonder if that could account for some of the lack of “content.” Moffatt is, of course, a fantastic writer, but you can tell in the first episode a lot of the details and inspiration come from deciding how to twist and alter pieces of the original to make it familiar to fans, yet fresh at the same time.

    • The story this week was in fact based on a few elements of different stories from the Canon — the code-breaking and the woman fleeing a criminal past are lifted directly from “The Adventure of the Dancing Men,” and that’s the story that Moffat and Gatiss have been saying this is a very loose adaptation of. However, the particular cipher they used and how it worked (based on a book) was lifted from The Valley of Fear, and some have made mention to other elements from The Sign of the Four being incorporated into this story.

      Next week’s story clearly looks to be based (initially) on “The Bruce-Partington Plans,” but as with all of these, there are significant divergences and they can’t really be called adaptations. More like inspired by original stories by Doyle.

  3. Thomas

    This episode was (very loosely) based on The Dancing Men, according to Steven Moffat on Twitter. Also, this episode wasn’t written by Moffat, but by Stephen Thompson. Who’s… not really known for writing anything else, at least as far as I can find.

  4. I agree for the most part that this was a substantially weaker episode, for many of the reasons that you have cited above. However, for me the biggest change was in Cumberbatch’s performance as Holmes. Instead of being Aspergery yet relatable, he was just Aspergery and grumpy and rude.

    The 90-minute format is pretty much a standard trope for British crime dramas like this. Nearly all of them seem to fall for the same trappings like the ones you mentioned. How last week’s was different seems more like a fluke, and the nature of setting everything up meant more time was used in re: Mycroft and Watson himself. It’ll be interesting how Gatiss and McGuigan accomplish the ‘finishing off’ of the series. It won’t be the end; the BBC would be so idiotic not to recommission a series that has massive public support (6.4 mil viewers… extrapolated to about 30 mil US viewers – although the differing number of TV sets and diffferent TV-consuming cultures make the extrapolation kinda pointless).

    I’ve written my own review of this episode: http://culturemeh.wordpress.com/2010/08/03/sherlock-the-blind-banker/ and the previous one, if anyone wants to read for comparison.

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