Monday, November 1, 2010

Sherlock: The Blind Banker

Yesterday Sherlock continued on Masterpiece Mystery with a brand-new episode, entitled The Blind Banker. This story was loosely (VERY loosely) based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic Holmes short story “The Dancing Men.” While story-wise I don’t feel that this episode is quite as strong as last week’s A Study in Pink, it was nevertheless a wildly enjoyable showcase for the developing Holmes-Watson dynamic. Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman continue to shine as Holmes and Watson – their casting was a stroke of genius and their on-screen dynamic is electrifying.

Here’s the story summary for The Blind Banker from the PBS website:
Turns out that living with a genius isn't so easy — just ask Dr. John Watson (Martin Freeman, The Office UK). Watson is scrambling to do the errands and find a job while Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch, The Last Enemy) sits around, apparently in deep contemplation. Sherlock seems oblivious, and in no hurry to take a case. When there's been a break-in at a bank, Sherlock inexplicably springs into action. Nothing has been stolen, only indecipherable graffiti painted on a wall. A bank employee is soon found dead in his apartment, the windows and doors locked from the inside, and Sherlock is at full, frenetic attention. An exhausted and hungry Watson (Sherlock doesn't eat while on a case — it just slows him down) watches from the sidelines of a case of which he'll soon inexplicably find himself at the center. Sherlock is based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes and is co-created by Doctor Who producers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss. (One episode; 90 minutes, TV-PG)

The opening moments of this episode were so funny I was nearly in tears from laughing so hard. Apparently some time has passed since Watson has become Holmes’s roommate at 221B Baker St. He needs to generate some income so he’s trying to find work and run errands, because someone has to keep the household going since Sherlock apparently can’t be bothered. After all, the man sits at home all day thinking – or so Watson assumes. While the good doctor is engaging in verbal warfare with a self-checkout machine* at a grocery store, Sherlock is fending off sword-wielding assailants in their living room. When Watson returns to the apartment after the final insult (his debit card is denied), his absolute disgust and exasperation with Sherlock’s apparent laziness is practically palpable. And of course the fact that Sherlock would apparently rather die than admit what he’d been doing to his roommate only adds to the humor of the scene.

*This is probably a really dumb observation, but for some reason it never crossed my mind that self-checkout machines exist in other parts of the world. It is somewhat gratifying to realize that the British have equal opportunities to get annoyed by the whole “unauthorized item in the bagging area” spiel like me.

The crime in question concerns a mysterious break-in at a major London bank. Sherlock is called to investigate when he receives an e-mail from an old acquaintance he went to university with, Seb Wilkes (Bertie Carvel). Witnessing Sherlock’s interaction with Wilkes was quite enjoyable – Wilkes keeps trying to bait Sherlock by mocking his powers of observation, and Sherlock shows a great deal of restraint by not rising to the occasion. He’s intrigued enough by the crime, where there’s no sign of a break-in and only graffiti is left behind, to overlook lesser men attempting to insult his intelligence. The result of this was a nice moment where Watson gets to show how much he’s learned about his new friend by recognizing Sherlock’s restraint in not tearing Wilkes to intellectual shreds.

As I mentioned earlier, this story was loosely inspired by Doyle’s short story, “The Dancing Men.” It’s been a while since I’ve read the story or watched the episode Jeremy Brett filmed during his long run as Holmes, so forgive me if my memory of specifics is a bit hazy. Showrunners Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat used “Dancing Men” as a jumping off point to craft a fast-paced mystery where unintelligible ciphers are the only clues that bind together a series of seemingly unrelated murders. Both the “dancing men” and the yellow spray-painted symbols incite the same level of terror in their recipients, and the crux of both tales can be traced back to shady underworld organizations. Other than that, the two stories couldn’t be more different (but, I’d say, equally enjoyable).

In the case of The Blind Banker, the shady underworld organization dirtying up London with yellow graffiti is a Chinese smuggling ring called the Black Lotus. Now, I can’t for the life of me place it, but as the whole Black Lotus angle played out, I felt like I’d seen it before – everything seemed super familiar. The only thing I can think of is that perhaps the Chinese underground angle gave the episode a “throwback” feel to the Brett/Holmes-era. I seem to recall more than one occasion where Holmes met some interesting characters when frequenting the Chinatown sections of London when on a case or in order to indulge his opium addiction.

One of the three targets of the Black Lotus organization is Soo Lin Yao (Gemma Chan), a curator at the National Antiquities Museum who lives above the Lucky Cat Emporium – the destination of the other two targets of the ciphers who turned up dead. I’d completely forgotten this until I looked up Chan on the IMDB, but she was in the Doctor Who special The Waters of Mars earlier this year. Anyway, I was not entirely happy with the way Soo Lin’s story ends. It is revealed that she was an unwilling participant in the Black Lotus’s smuggling operations, and thought she’d left that part of her past behind her for good. But the Black Lotus is after a priceless missing treasure, and Soo Lin is viewed as one of their assets. When she refuses to cooperate, her own brother is sent to kill her (and he obliges quite dispassionately). However, what rather upset me was that crack-shot Watson leaves her ALONE in the museum to go “help” Sherlock, which means both he & Sherlock were running around rather pointlessly, leaving Soo Lin unprotected. *sigh* Hopefully Watson will learn from this episode!

Another reason this felt like a throwback episode was the fact that the members of the Black Lotus gained entry visas into Britain by posing as members of a traveling circus troupe. It worked in the long run, but it was so over-the-top it almost felt a little funny. I mean it’s obviously a set-up when the performance is attended by 20 people at best. The circus turns out to be the scene of Watson’s first date with his boss at the medical clinic where he’s agreed to work part-time. Sarah, played by Zoe Telford, was overall a welcome addition to the cast, and she gets points for being game for anything and putting up with Watson’s unorthodox friends. *grin* Telford may be a familiar face to some – she’s appeared in Foyle’s War (the Killing Time episode) and Collision (from Masterpiece Contemporary). Only time will tell if Sarah ends up being a permanent love interest for Watson, but Telford and Freeman have great on-screen chemistry, and so far I really like her character. And I LOVE how she doesn’t let the fact that Sherlock appears to barely tolerate her association with Watson put her off, AND she gets to one-up the great detective by pointing out that Soo Lin had left him critical translation clues prior to her death. (I also loved the moment when Mrs. Hudson, played by Una Stubbs, makes a brief appearance and tries to help Watson salvage his date prior to the kidnapping – she’s so funny, and obviously has a soft spot for the long-suffering Watson.) Sarah’s presence was a welcome and funny shake-up to Sherlock’s equilibrium and plans, but doesn’t let anything put him off either – he barrels on with his agenda in spite of the fact that his presence proves to be anything but conducive to Watson’s romantic ambitions toward Sarah. Poor Sherlock…his rudeness can be quite the killjoy when he’s the unexpected “fifth wheel” on the date.

This episode culminates in a scene that’s both edge-of-your-seat suspenseful and just a tad cheesy in its over-the-top glory when Watson and Sarah are kidnapped by a Black Lotus flunkie and taken to a secret location to meet group’s “general.” They are operating under the mistaken assumption that Watson is actually Holmes (set up thanks to a series of comic moments throughout the film), and that they can scare him into revealing the location of their missing treasure by threatening Sarah’s life. This being a Holmes story, Sherlock arrives in the nick of time (and rather full of himself I might add!) to save the day, but Watson gets to save the girl. In spite of the fact that his rescue was rather contrived (Sarah could probably have saved herself if she’d thought to tip the chair she was tied to over on its side), it was a very welcome moment. It underscores the reality that this Watson is no dense sidekick; as played by Freeman, Watson is vibrant, active, and intelligent – and rather cheeky as he promises Sarah their second date won’t involve near-death experiences. Like me, he must’ve been able to sense that Sarah has a remarkably high tolerance for the bizarre in everyday life. *grin*

I have to come back to Holmes & Watson’s relationship in this episode (I’d say excuse my blathering on and on and ON about this show, but ya’ll should be used to my inability to be concise, especially when it comes to British TV *wink*). The mystery was fun – big and over-the-top and convoluted – but the heart of the episode was seeing how well Holmes and Watson work together. I’m having a hard time coming up with a comparable on-screen duo who jelled so well and so fast. The closest I’m coming up with are Peter and Neal from White Collar. Gatiss and Moffatt have crafted an electrifying version of Holmes and Watson, and it is a credit to their writing and to their luck in finding two actors in Cumberbatch and Freeman with great on-screen “buddy” chemistry to bring Holmes and Watson to vibrant life. The weaknesses in one are more than compensated for by the strengths in the other, and vice-versa, underscored by mutual support and a genuine regard that’s apparent in the Holmes and Watson relationship in spite of their near-constant bickering.

I fell so hard, so fast for Cumberbatch as Sherlock that I didn’t see how it would be possible to love him more – but The Blind Banker proved me wrong. Cumberbatch unleashes the full range of Sherlock’s moods, and his fits of manic energy and sulkiness and humor are all on glorious display. From hopping up and down in the bank, trying to find the best angle from which to view the first cipher, to refusing to admit to Watson that he was nearly strangled by an assassin in Soo Lin’s apartment, Sherlock is never so riveting as when he’s fully focused on a case and refuses to let anything get in his way. (Like admitting he could do with a bit of help, LOL!) And when he turns on the charm – be still my heart!* You know he’s being manipulative, but like the poor coroner who melts when Sherlock compliments her hair in order to get a look at two murder victims, we just don’t care because he’s THAT fabulous. While he may come across as a bit selfish, like when he crashes Watson’s “date,” Cumberbatch never fails to make sure that Sherlock skates the delicate balance between haughty brilliance and empathy. When one gains entrance to Sherlock’s inner circle, you get the feeling that there’s nothing he won’t do to protect a friend – and I LOVE that.

*Fun fact: I discovered that Cumberbatch's real-life girlfriend Olivia Poulet guest-starred in this episode as Amanda, the first victim's mistress. When Sherlock reveals that the longed-for treasure was in her possession, and it was worth a cool nine million pounds, the look of sheer delight on his face at Amanda's reaction rather means a little more to me knowing the two are in a relationship. One gets the sense Cumberbatch really got a kick out of playing that scene. *wink*

I can’t believe that next week’s episode is the finale of this season of Sherlock! Thankfully, the BBC has confirmed that the show is returning for three more episodes in fall 2011. This is one hiatus that is definitely going to try my patience! Next week we should see the return of Lestrade (Rupert Graves) and Mycroft (Gatiss), both of whom I found I sorely missed during this episode. Moriarty, the shadowy villain and “fan” of Sherlock’s, who has been lurking in the shadows for the past two weeks, may finally be revealed. People, I don’t think I’ve ever anticipated the reveal of a villain more – this Moriarty promises to be a properly threatening criminal mastermind, and I can’t WAIT for him to clash wits with Sherlock.

Believe it or not, I could continue to sing the praises of this wonderful show (I could write paragraphs about the gorgeous score, for example!), but I’ll stop here (for now…haha!!). If you haven’t been watching Sherlock, well what are you waiting for? PBS is streaming The Blind Banker online through December 7th. And then please come back and feel free to share your thoughts! :)


Vic said...

Ruth, As always I am more intrigued with the personal lives of the detectives than their sleuthing. The scene where Holmes is inside the apartment and Watson is waiting to be let in (peering through the letter box in the door), and Holmes is nearly strangled while Watson waits steaming mad on the street is hysterical.

And what a memorable first date!


Charity said...

Story-wise, this is the weakest of the thee, but highly entertaining nevertheless. I think my favorite scenes are Holmes fighting the villain in the flat while Watson is yelling at the cash machine, and then later when Watson is offended that not only is Holmes using his laptop, but he had no trouble guessing the password. That amuses me every time!

Love that Holmes can be charming when he needs to be -- and the instant a woman's back is turned, the pleasant expression drops from his place and is replaced with a proverbial eye-roll, as if saying, "Oh, Lord, how pathetic women are!" Love it.

Unknown said...

@Vic - Thanks for dropping by! I agree with you 110%, the most interesting aspect of these shows for me is the personal lives of the detectives in question. I want to know what makes them tick! The scene where Watson is yelling through the letter slot in the door is another one of the episodes funniest momements - thoroughly enjoyable! And I've got to give Sarah credit again for being so "game" during her rather unorthodox first date with Watson.

@Charity - Oh, Watson's indignation over having his password so easily hacked was priceless!

Cumberbatch as Holmes is genius...I love watching him turn the charm on and off like a light funny! Love it!

Kaye Dacus said...

I'm tempted to Google the third episode and see if Moriarty does show up (and who's playing him), but that's balanced with an equal desire to just be surprised when I watch it.

I didn't enjoy this episode nearly as much as the first one---the filmmakers didn't seem to take as much joy in making the look of the film as cheeky as they did the first one (with the floating text messages, for example). It's almost as if they took this one more seriously and it suffered a bit for it.

Unknown said...

@Kaye - Stay strong! Resist Google! ;)

I actually found this episode funnier in many respects, and a little too "out there" at that's where I thought it fell a bit short of the first ep. I guess the text messages were replaced with the floating symbols, showing Sherlock mulling those over...much subtler, and definitely lost some impact.

Can't wait till next week!

Lori said...

I am getting really frustrated watching these online since I no longer have TV service. I don't know if there are too many people watching online or if my internet service is starting to suck, but it kept pausing so many times that I was having trouble following (and definitely ENJOYING!!) the show. ARGH!! I agree with your review, though I need to see it uninterrupted to really weigh in.

Kaye Dacus said...

Lori, I've been watching them online, too, and while it doesn't pause during playback, it is pixellated and jumpy, not smooth and almost HD looking, like when I watch Castle online on ABC's website.

But, for those of us who can't watch when it airs and who don't have a DVR (anymore), being able to watch it at all is a boon.

Unknown said...

@Lori - Oh, that's a bummer! Maybe PBS needs to upgrade their streaming capabilities or something what with the growing popularity of the Masterpiece programs!

@Kaye - I'm so glad I don't have other shows on Sunday nights, because I still pretty much hate watching TV online...I'm thinking about scaling back my cable package and possible re-adding a DVR. Or just scaling back...I'm very indecisive about this right now. LOL!