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the dark virtue of John Watson

If you have even a passing familiarity with BBC Sherlock’s third series, you know it involved the introduction of Mary Morstan, John Watson’s wife in the Doyle canon and (now) on the show. She’s played charmingly by Martin Freeman’s real-life partner, Amanda Abbington, and most of the series three episodes revolved around hers and John’s relationship in some capacity or another.

Last night’s final episode involved a rather shocking revelation. Several of them actually, though as always they weren’t a complete shock for folks who’d been paying attention. Mary Morstan isn’t Mary Morstan at all; she’s an assassin trained by the CIA who eventually went freelance, and the name “Mary Morstan” is an assumed identity. The episode three uber-villain, Charles Augustus Magnussen, apparently had the goods on Mary, which he was using to pressure Mycroft through a chain extending from her through Sherlock to him.

Oh, and she tries to kill Sherlock because he walks in on her trying to kill Magnussen. Because she’s simply that extreme.

In one of the more touching scenes, Sherlock tricks her into revealing her true past in front of John, and in the ensuing fight John asks the obvious question. Think about it: if you went to war, came back to civilian life and immediately gravitated to live with sociopath #1 (Sherlock), and then when that link seemed severed forever you got married to sociopath #2 (Mary)… just what’s the common denominator here? What is it about you that draws all these people to you? Or you to them? And Sherlock gives John a very straightforward answer:

John: [to Mary] What have I ever done, my whole life, to deserve you?
Sherlock: Everything.
John: Sherlock, I’ve told you: shut up.
Sherlock: No, I mean it seriously. Everything, everything you’ve ever done is what you did.
John: Sherlock, one more word and you will not need morphine.
Sherlock: You were a doctor who went to war. You were a man who couldn’t stay in the suburbs for more than a month without storming a crack den, beating up a junkie. Your best friend is a sociopath who solves crimes as an alternative to getting high. That’s me, by the way; hello. Even the landlady used to run a drug cartel.
Mrs. Hudson: It was my husband’s cartel, I was just typing.
Sherlock: And exotic dancing.
Mrs. Hudson: Sherlock Holmes, if you’ve been youtubing –
Sherlock: John, you are addicted to a certain lifestyle. You’re abnormally attracted to dangerous situations and people, so is it truly such a surprise that the woman you’ve fallen in love with conforms to that pattern?
John: [nearly in tears] But she wasn’t supposed to be like that. Why is she like that?
Sherlock: Because you chose her.

These are heartfelt words – in my opinion, some of the best-acted in the series to date, with the possible exception of St. Bart’s. It’s also the catalyst necessary to get Sherlock and John back on solving cases in the BBC ‘verse, but what truly struck me about this exchange was Sherlock’s utter honesty. As it turns out is bleeding internally. He’s weak. He’s also intellectually weakened in this series as well; he’s not really doing cases, he doesn’t pick up on Mary’s rather obvious and shall we just say unique skill set for what it is, or else he isn’t conffidnet enough in himself to draw John’s attention to it. And as a result, John ends up married to a professional assassin who has lied about everything to him, up to and including her name. She seems to genuinely love him, but that doesn’t make this situation any easier.

While Mary felt she had to lie to keep John, Sherlock’s move here is to be brutally honest, but in a way that’s far from cruel, and he seems to hold a mirror up to John that I can’t imagine anyone would like. John is as addicted to the high of the chase as Sherlock is. While Sherlock uses it to keep his mind occupied and stay off drugs, I think John needs the thrill to quite literally stay alive. In the first episode he’s showing some extremely serious signs of depression, making me think he ran a real danger of being a vet who completed suicide. Casework probably saved John Watson’s life – but he’s in screaming denial if he thinks this need for that kind of excitement is a passing thing. In a way, this is probably the kindest thing Sherlock could have done for John at this moment: to show him that he simply wasn’t the kindly clinic doctor and that he never would be satisfied with that kind of life, and that the fact that he was drawn to an assassin continues that pattern.

This leaves me wondering what to make about John Watson. In the various reactions I see to series three, his character seems to be taking quite a lot of flack because he’s so willing to forgive everything. He forgives Sherlock for St. Bart’s, Mary for everything I’ve described including the attempt on Sherlock’s life. But the more I think about it, the more I see a different explanation for what’s going on in those moments. It’s not that John doesn’t care about what Mary and Sherlock have done; it’s that he’s waking up to the fact that he’s not so distant from them that he can really be able to “throw the first stone,” in the Christian metaphor. Like Sherlock, John is a danger junkie. Like Mary, he’s killed people both in service to his country and as a “freelance.” (It’s just such a shot that brings him and Sherlock so close together, and it’s worth remembering that this was getting Sherlock out of a situation that was largely his own making. This doesn’t stop John from being Sherlock’s conscience and anchoring him to the fact that some things aren’t allowed and some things are necessary. Being ready to hand over confidential missile plans to Moriarty falls into the former category; Sherlock’s willingness to go to battle with Magnussen to protect those two weak to protect themselves, in the latter. And I think Sherlock learns this fact and is anchored in it by John’s presence.

What I love is that John does all this while still being deeply broken himself. It’s the realization that he was never going to be anything but miserable in a “normal” life, and that any woman he would choose was unlikely to turn out to be the Mary he fantasized over, that really makes him heroic in my book. He is good not because he is nice but because he isn’t.

There are many things I worry about as we head into series four. The kid, getting Sherlock back to proper case work, how Sherlock, John, and Mary will balance their competing loyalties, and how Mycroft will balance the need to control his convicted-murderer of a brother with the need not to crush him, among others. But one thing I can’t make myself worry about is John Hamish Watson’s heart. It’s strong enough to carry Mary and Sherlock and the rest of his world, too. But I think he needed this moment of honesty, to see while he’d been manipulated and taken advantage of horrible, that didn’t change the fact that he was more like Mary and Sherlock than he might be comfortable admitting.

One Comment

  • Posted January 14, 2014 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    I like this. I wish, actually, that John had made some reference to his past also containing awful things during his heart-to-heart with Mary. That conversation felt a little too fairy-tale, not deep or real enough for what they were really dealing with.

    I am worried also that Mary will just continue to be a side character fulfilling “womanly” support roles despite her obvious James Bond-ness. They’ll blame it on pregnancy, I suppose, but I think it will not make sense for the character. John is constantly in danger, and Mary is an experienced CIA assassin. How could she not be regularly involved to the point that they become a trio?

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