This series, which I’ll be posting as translation duties allow, is intended as an ancillary to my earlier post, Difference and the Critical Possibility of Sherlock, in which I posit that our frustration with John by the end of “His Last Vow” is intentional and meant to put us in a position of desiring him to overcome his nearly willful inability to see the sentiment that’s practically bleeding from Sherlock by the end of series three. Here, I’d like to make the case for our deliberate estrangement from John, as an illustration of why I think (or hope, let’s be real - I never know where they’re going with something, though I think where they’ve been is very clear) we’re being asked to be well and truly frustrated with John as a means of positioning us - no matter our orientation (social, sexual, or otherwise) - to be anxious and eager for John to see the things that Sherlock has only barely kept hidden. I’m posting by episode, and in parts therein (probably two per episode).
"The Empty Hearse" has it’s work cut out for it, insofar as it must reintroduce an understandably angry and utterly devastated John to a Sherlock who is only just starting to figure out how much his ‘death’ hurt his friend. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, I think Sherlock has only learned what loneliness is during his time away from John, and that overriding everything is his eagerness to be back with John. Drawing (and, I think, expanding) from ACD canon, this is a Sherlock who could easily say, "I had no idea you would be so affected," and mean it, and Sherlock here does. This, in fact, is his modus operandi for the remainder of the series: he cannot believe that John could possibly care for him in the way it’s been clear to us since “A Study in Pink” he does. That John is also not prepared to go there, particularly following the fall, helps to reinforce this sense, as does John’s impending engagement and wedding.
Unlike the subsequent two episodes, in which Sherlock’s POV predominates, “The Empty Hearse” gives us equal parts John and Sherlock, and everything we see of them reinforces how very important they are to each other, yet always either out of sight of the other, or couched in plausible deniability so thick that we - the audience - are left feeling very nearly (or entirely) betrayed.
"Have you seen him?" (be cool, Sherly, be cool)
"It is just possible you won’t be welcome."
This entire scene is constructed around Sherlock’s desperate eagerness to see John, and his (unrealistic, though he doesn’t realize it) expectation that John will be just as enthusiastically eager to see him. Sherlock’s been lonely, but John’s been in mourning - something Sherlock characteristically fails to comprehend. But Mycroft here - as, it turns out, throughout series three - is something of a foil to Sherlock’s sentiment, planting the seeds of doubt as to his welcome in Sherlock’s mind, and Sherlock’s expression, which has been one of Bondian collectedness to this point, turns unsure and even childlike here, as only Mycroft can make it. His misstep is equally revealing; where Mycroft says "it is just possible you won't be welcome," Sherlock seems to hear "there's a possibility" - he's barely listening anymore, and one wonders, in retrospect, if he's perhaps gone into his own head at this point. [note 10/6/14: I've heard this two different ways, and haven't had a chance to go back to really look; in the PBS version, I think Sherlock says "It isn't," but I SWEAR I checked this on my BBC download and it was this. But, as I say, I haven't gone back. So. This could all be BS. FWIW.]
There aren’t enough superlatives to describe Martin Freeman’s performance in the reunion scene, to my mind, but there’s no moment so very telling as this one throwaway shot of John immediately after seeing Sherlock, looking at Mary though he doesn’t seem to see her, his expression embodying all the sadness and anger and even relief that he’s feeling in this moment. Take a good look: we’re not going to see John this unguarded again.
When he turns back to Sherlock, John is already slamming the door shut on softer emotions. John can barely look at him,
but when he finally does, hurt is quickly coalescing into the much more manageable anger that will punctuate the remainder of the sequence.
As it turns out, Sherlock has a tell, too; if John’s hand clenches when he’s feeling too much, Sherlock, it would seem, bites his lip.
When the moment is too much and Sherlock has no words, this clenched mouth stops what might come out, and here we return to Sherlock’s inability to fully accept the force of John’s feelings for him; he has no mechanism for understanding them, so he pushes them - and the vulnerability they arouse - away with humor. As we know, it won’t be the first time.
Of course, with John, actions will always speak louder than words.
He may have just assaulted Sherlock not once, but three times, but one flippant word from Sherlock about the mustache and it’s history. John is angry, but that doesn’t change how he feels about Sherlock; yet it’s telling that in this moment of revealed feelings, John himself deflects by proposing to Mary. Sherlock, then, hides his feelings behind humor, first, and then, when there’s nothing funny anymore, behind an impenetrable wall of solitude; John deflects them onto someone with whom he seems quite friendly, but with whom - as far as we (are allowed to) see - he hasn’t got nearly the chemistry he has with Sherlock (and in that sense, it’s rather fitting that the proposal itself is so very anti-climactic and undramatic).
If there’s one point at which the narrative POV - and our identification - begins to shift from John to Sherlock, it’s during the deduction scene with Mycroft. He’s already intellectually disadvantaged in contrast with Mycroft’s smug superiority, and his youth is foregrounded through both the things he misses in the deduction scene and his childish response to missing them. Moreover, throughout the scene Sherlock’s hair is loose and falls completely over his forehead, softening him. Lighting, as well, softens his often hawkish eyebrows, emphasizing his cheeks and the almost childlike fullness of his upper lip. Sherlock has assumed the essential difference that the hat signifies and declared himself comfortable with it, and with those who would accept it in him.
Mrs. Hudson - present throughout - is a foregone conclusion; the question of John remains. Sadly, John will never (in series three, anyway) see Sherlock this vulnerable, and so he’s never quite given the opportunity to see the changes that Sherlock’s time away have effected. In all, this is Sherlock as an emotional child; not childish - rather, his experiences over the past two years, and his fraught reunion with John, have left him open and in a position to change and evolve. He’s primed for the emotional upheaval he’ll undergo in “The Sign of Three,” and this invites our concern and care for him - our identification with what he’s going through.
And the fact that John, of all people, misses the clues - fails to see how much Sherlock is experiencing, and what kind of effect it’s having on him - sets us on the road to our final frustration with him. It’s not his fault; he’s literally not present for these early moments that reveal Sherlock’s inner state of mind - not here at the flat, not later when John’s voice is crowding out Sherlock’s during the deduction scene. Nor, it should be noted, has Sherlock ever been present for John’s vulnerability where he’s concerned. In particular, he was, of necessity, absent from John’s long period of mourning. He had no way of seeing John in Ella’s office, struggling to keep it all in. He was literally (and visually) distanced from John during the phone call at Bart’s, and then again at the cemetery, and how frustrating was that? There, we were angry with Sherlock for not understanding (anger tempered by Sherlock’s apparent upset over saying goodbye to John, although given his emotional detachment at the very end of Reichenbach Fall, I’m almost inclined to accept what Moffat says about Sherlock faking emotion on the rooftop; at the very least, he has plausible deniability). As such, this is where, I would argue, intentionality comes in, insofar as now it’s John who’s being kept from seeing Sherlock like this. He is distanced from Sherlock, both by Sherlock himself - fearing, I think, John’s rejection of his difference - but more specifically and deliberately by the storytellers - not only writer(s), but directors and cinematographers as well. The tables have turned; where before Sherlock was largely indifferent to John’s feelings for him (“I don’t have friends!”), now it’s John who cannot see what Sherlock will shortly be leaking all over the place.
Yet, we’re still invited - encouraged - to understand John and Sherlock as a unit. The following sequence is a tour de force of cross (or inter) cutting, driving home nothing so clearly as how emotionally entwined John and Sherlock are, despite their apparent estrangement. They are literally finishing each other’s sentences: “Fu- “/”Cough.” “…a course of”/”monkey glands.” “…a complete and utter”/”pisspot” (and note how the dialogue bounces back and forth between them; one serves, the other volleys).
Sherlock’s intense emotional vulnerability, and its clear connection to John, is foregrounded in the deduction sequence with Molly and Lestrade. Who knows what John’s voice in his head sounded like during the two years of their separation, but I’d be willing to guess - given Sherlock’s eagerness for their reunion - that it wasn’t this. But now, estranged, that voice has become Sherlock’s inner critic, but not just any critic. Where Mycroft is the voice of Sherlock’s intellectual critic, prodding and poking him to hone his analytical skills, John here criticizes Sherlock’s artifice. But Sherlock’s artifice is how he protects himself from the world - his emotional Belstaff, as it were: “Show off” “Jealous?” “Smart arse” “You forgot to put your collar up” - each is a dig at the ways that Sherlock protects himself by appearing to be larger than life, above mere sentiment and human ‘error’, at his vulnerability (I assume that “jealous” refers to Sherlock’s insecurity about his own forensic abilities? That one was a bit opaque to me). “John” is calling Sherlock out, seeing him not how Sherlock wants to be seen, but how he is, and again we get to the root of Sherlock’s own insecurity where John is concerned (and our identification with him is further solidified). He worries - to the bitter end, I think - what John will think of him if he sees Sherlock in all his flawed humanity, and thus he has a vested emotional interest in keeping John at arm’s length, no matter how difficult that is for him.
How telling, then, that the ultimate signifier of Sherlock’s humanity - his ordinary parents - are the one thing that Sherlock tries desperately to keep from John here.
I think there’s a method to their mundaneity in this scene, insofar as they both implicate Sherlock in a social context - he is a son, a child, he was once dependent on them - and they foreground his own ordinariness. Yet…
how John likes it. He’s always liked - loved - these little glimpses of the man behind the facade of indifference and callousness; they’re the thing that binds them closer, but Sherlock - seeing them only as weaknesses - cannot understand this.