Backstrom: Ancient, Chinese, Secret Review

In which a Chinese fortuneteller is murdered and the de-mystified get re-mystified.

“Moto, that’s racist.”

Okay guys, this one is kind of heavy. It’s been no secret amongst my reviews or the show itself that Backstrom isn’t exactly brimming with subtlety and tact. At times it even feels like the writers’ room is spending more time thinking about what sort of prejudice can be exploited this week rather than developing a harrowing crime. So when the murder of a Chinese fortuneteller (which involves a sword, no less) at the hands of Portland’s Chinatown (the most dangerous, counter-culture Chinatown of them all) is placed in the Special Crime Unit’s laps, they don’t hold back from swinging for the fences. And don’t worry, it’s before the end of the cold open that the expected “Did the psychic see it coming?” low fruit is grabbed.

The majority of the clichéd, cursory Asian stereotypes that you might jump to are all in full force in this episode. We see an Asian laundry service get invaded, only for it to be housing an illegal gambling ring in the back. All the while Backstrom is constantly mixing up Chinese phrases with crude approximates like “Cheech and Chong.” I mean, the episode itself is even titled, “Ancient, Chinese, Secret” referencing the ad that mystified the group of people. The episode launches off with a discussion about racism, as if acknowledging the issue head-on would save any face, but it doesn’t really.

Look, I understand that this is how Backstrom, both the character and the show operate, and I’m by no means asking this character to change or be something that he’s not. It’s just that all of this feels so easy and lazy for the show, rather than working a little harder to perhaps build a “compelling prejudice” (I can’t believe I just said that). In most moments of this episode (like when the surviving fortuneteller tries to contact her dead grandfather) it feels like the Chinese are the brunt of the joke, either in how they’re filmed or referred to. Backstrom even yells at the victim’s sister at the crime scene, “Why don’t you drop all of this Oriental mystical crap so we can find out who sliced and diced your brother.” There’s some very weird subject matter going on in this episode, but a deeply serious, inquisitive angle rather than just a broad, silly one feels like it’d have been a lot more effective.

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The episode manages to show off some pretty fluid camerawork, with the episode at least looking like one of their best efforts. The choreography of the camera during Niedermeier’s examination of the crime scene is particularly inspired, and a real virtuoso piece for both the camera and the actor. The only problem is that it almost feels out of place. It’s an impressive piece, but there’s no reason why it should stand out more than any other crime scene they’ve dealt with. This is certainly getting nitpicky, but it’s a real issue when simply a show operating with energy and purpose feels foreign and off kilter.

For all the accomplished camerawork, we also get scenes that just completely slow the episode down. There’s a grueling conversation between Niedermeier and Nadia where she explains to him what money laundering is (why!) as a weirdly romantic vibe underscores it all (why!). There’s a lot of wasted time in this episode and it only dilutes the average idea that’s being held up in the first place. A super-tight, high-tension approach to all of this could have done the material some favors at least.

Much of this episode is preoccupied with the idea of whether these fortunetellers are real or not, and if Backstrom and co should act off of their mystical “evidence” or what their detectives’ intuition tells them. This alone could be a fascinating concept for an episode, one that explores the idea of free will and fate, but it’s squandered here and quickly changes its direction. No one is going to be surprised when Backstrom reveals that he’s against all psychics. We’re expecting it, practically.

As more and more coincidences begin to happen (as well as a run in with “one of the super psychics from China”), it becomes very clear that the episode’s perspective here is that all of this psychic material is very real. Characters are repeatedly talking about their brief, positive encounters with fortunetelling, like a random tarot card experience, showing that swaying most of the SCU team (minus Backstrom) isn’t going to be very hard. Soon the leading theory becomes that the murderer is the spirit of the victim’s grandfather’s ghost, trying to pay vengeance upon his ancestors. There are legitimate parts of this episode where the police are discussing trying to catch a ghost.

So the real silliness kicks in when each of the SCU member’s fortunes proceed to be told throughout the episode, with this being treated deeply seriously and given a lot of weight to it. It also doesn’t help that the person seeking justice is the twin sister of the murdered fortuneteller, who also happens to be a fortuneteller. Uh huh. I understand the line that they’re trying to tow, but to progressively see these fortunes come to fruition just feels ridiculous and something out of another show. Even when these fortunes end up revealing pivotal backstory and character details, any goodwill is tarnished by the fact that this information was brought to you by a magical Chinese fortune.

We’re left with the crucial fortune of Backstrom himself at the end of the episode, which says that he “won’t see next Christmas” and by this point it all just feels too much. We know he’s not going to die. If anything, it’s some silly play on words, like we saw through the rest of the episode. He’ll be temporarily blinded, or in a country that doesn’t celebrate Christmas or something like that.

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There are some good enough last minute twists like the suspected murder weapon being an exact replica of the weapon, but not the actual weapon. We learn that it was actually just a normal man with a gambling problem who got in too deep that was the murderer, and all claims of fortunetelling are relatively dismissed and deemed as some kooky coincidences. It’s an easy, simple resolution that takes far too long to reveal itself.

Maybe next week it’ll be an angered ghost looking for revenge.


1.5 out of 5