(1) John's nightmare in "A Study in Pink"
John's having what can only be described as a traumatic nightmare here, and one of the things I've always found so interesting about it is how quickly he schools his expression, how hard he fights to keep it under control - even though there's no one around. In some ways this seems to be standard British Masculinity, or standard Western Masculinity generally. But whatever Mycroft goes on to say, I think John is traumatized by the war, that's at least the association we're supposed to draw until that warehouse scene. And our first introduction to him is as a man who is very tightly in control of himself. You see it again in the meeting with Mike Stamford in the park. Things happen to him that should be upsetting (Mike's normalcy in that case) but John buries it, he doesn't let it show. That's his MO before meeting Sherlock, I think.
(2) "The address is 221B Baker Street."
This is a longish scene but it seemed worth it to include the whole thing because it's such a crucial turning point for John. He enters into this moment the epitome of respectability - standing ramrod straight, shaking the hands of this near stranger, suitably put ill at ease by Sherlock's more than slightly unusual comments (the reason why he gets a special rate, for instance). But then there are the moments throughout where Sherlock teases him out of that shell, the genuine half smiles and more than that the willingness to go beyond that respectability; I'm thinking of his acknowledgment that in point of fact he would like to see some more. I think that moment at the end in the cab is the first moment we actually see him smile. But even with less positive emotions, he's being genuine in other ways. The look he gives Sherlock when discussing Sherlock's website (which if you read it really is ridiculous in more than one way) is genuine. This is not him being polite. He snaps at Mrs. Hudson when he feels like he's being left behind again - and apologizes, but this is more anger than I think we've seen from him even when faced with nightmares and therapists and insensitive old friends' remarks - all places you'd expect him to get angry. Sherlock seems to be giving him permission to be something other than "decent" here, and he's easing into it bit by bit.
(3) "Welcome to London."
I'm not sure there's anyone in this fandom who hasn't shared that simply joy-filled moment on the stairs after John and Sherlock chase the cab outside London. It's just so iconic. But what's more telling to me is the way John is smiling in his conversation with the cab-patron and Sherlock. The well-schooled mask just isn't there, and he's reacting authentically. I think the more bizarre Sherlock is, the more permission it seems to give John to really show his feelings - at least when Sherlock's the only one around.
(4) The Palace Scene
The Buckingham Palace scenes are probably some of my favorite "fluff" scenes in the whole series. Part of it's cinematography, all that light and gold and giggling. But part of it is also character driven, I think. Because it's one thing to laugh your head off when the endorphins are flowing after a ludicrous dash across London, in the stairwell to your own flat. I can see John convincing himself it's even okay to do that when they're alone or just with Mycroft, who is at this point more of "family" than the scary 007-type man he met in the warehouse. But then the stranger turns up, Mycroft becomes all business, and yet John is still... not giggling, certainly, but happy. Confident. Snarky, even. I looked it up, and according to IMDB the stranger is actually the Equerry. Which I also had to look up in turn (I'm an American, after all), and an equerry is a very high-ranking personal attendant to the royal family, something akin to Josh Lyman/Bradley Whitford's character from The West Wing. He's also military, drawn from the highest military ranks, so an ex-soldier like John might recommend the bearing if not the person. Certainly he seems to be operating as someone representing his "client" (the Queen, or at least a royal) in this scene, not someone John is personally acquainted with.
And yet, while there's a definite attitude recalibration when he comes on the scene, John doesn't quite retreat to his normal stoic mask. he glances knowingly at Sherlock when he figures out the Queen reads and enjoys his blog. He's enjoying himself. He's on somewhat equal footing. Not equal-equal certainly, there's a huge difference in rank, but he goes toe to toe with these people and seems sociable with them. I think John's probably at the height of his openness and being emotionally well-adjusted and confident that we see in this series. Because Baskerville's coming, when Sherlock is going to betray him horribly, in some ways less excusably even than Reichenbach, and he's going to move from thinking Sherlock is a bit of a rogue, an idiot or perhaps someone with Aspergers, into thinking of him as more sociopathic, someone who you only know you can trust because no one could be that much of a dick all the time. Yet in this moment, he's remarkably open, certainly with Sherlock and Mycroft and even with a high-ranking official connected to the "heart of the British Empire."
(5) Inside Baskerville
Now, it's one thing to be authentic and open with positive emotions. Joy, happiness, giggling - these are "safe" to share. But in Baskerville, John is quite legitimately terrified and for once he expresses it. In the nightmare we saw in ASIP he does some deep breathing before pulling himself together. He never really talks to his therapist, and when she tells him to blog about what's happening to him, said blog --while interesting-- is rarely introspective, and about something very far from what he's gone through or what he's doing to get past it. And this one time in Baskerville, he's visibly freaked out by what's happening to him. And when he works out that he's actually safe, he gets a bit violent. He doesn't suppress it, doesn't lock it all away right then. Even when they go see Mrs. Stapleton, at least when they enter he's still much more obviously upset than we saw. Possibly that's because this is a new trauma, but I like to imagine he's also not feeling so much pressure to be respectable because Sherlock has shown him it's okay not to be. It doesn't last that long, though; by the end of the clip you have that flash of the old John who's locked down under his mask not letting anyone else in.
Of course, there's respectable and then there's flat-out bad. One of the greatest tragedies of this episode (which IMO is highly underrated, sandwiched as it is between Belgravia and Reichenbach) is that John's about to work out (possibly is already starting to work out) that he's just had his trust betrayed again. I really hope that John is on his way not only to forgiving him but also working past the damage that action did, moving their friendship to a place that doesn't rest on Sherlock being fantastic or unassailable. And I think they're headed that way. But whatever I think about that, in this moment John is probably more open with Sherlock about what he's been through than you see pretty much anywhere else, certainly to this point. And you even get a glimpse of that openness with Stapleton. Not enough, but it's a big start.
(6) "One more miracle."
There's so much that could be said about the heartbreaking graveside scene, really. But what really jumps out at me most of all is how he all but lies to Mrs. Hudson ("I'm really not that angry"; of course he is) but then is finally, utterly honest when he and Sherlock are alone together. It takes stepping forward, caressing the gravestone. Even after all Sherlock has done to him, there's still a sense that here at least he can say the things he couldn't say with his therapist or alone or even with Mrs. Hudson.
And it's heartbreaking, and beautiful, but most of all very real.
(7) Donde Estas, Sherlock?
I'm trying very hard not to go full Johnlock Conspiracy here, because I don't think that's really the point. But it's hard not to compare the way John interacts with Mary and with Sherlock and see two very different relationships. Mary asks him if everything is okay, and he doesn't let her in. Of course it's not okay. In terms of narrative (the timeline we the audience are presented with; I'm not sure how close these events are chronologically), what are the last two things that we saw that would have impacted John? There was a news conference saying Sherlock was cleared of all causes (which, speaking as someone who's lost people I was close to by suicide, might well have been read as: Sherlock wasn't a fraud but he "left" John anyway) and he and Mary went to the grave together. He's also about to propose to her, entering Life Part II without his friend. Of course he's not okay, but he's putting on the brave face and doing what he thinks is expected of him to move on. That whole first part of the scene, the emotional dynamic strikes me as strained somehow, as if it's full with the silence of everything they're not saying. In retrospect, it actually is eerily reminiscent of how John's "prepared words" when he accepts Mary back (or claims to) in His Last Vow. Even here at the beginning, there are huge secrets between them, or if not secrets, at least huge somethings keeping them from really connecting.
Compare that to how he reacts to Sherlock. Mary gets a stately waltz; Sherlock, a Latin love song. I don't think that's an accident, it being a Latin song, which seems to have a connotation of intimacy and passion in a way Mary's music or the restaurant in general (aside from Sherlock's comic entrance) seems to lack. Even if you don't read Sherlock and John as romantic, they seem to be coded here as people who play hard and fight hard. Which is why I think Mary gets a pleasant non-answer that everything's fine whereas Sherlock gets knocked to the floor in front of all those respectable diners. Who's got time for decent, after the stunt he just pulled?
I tend to think the John Watson we met in ASIP would have pursed his lips and counted backwards from a hundred. Perhaps demanded they leave the restaurants and then punched him across the face. But here he lays into him in a way that shocks everyone. And remember, though I only included this one scene, in the actual episode this happens not once but three times, in increasingly dodgier restaurants. It's hilarious, but also honest. John loves Sherlock (in whatever way) enough to get really and truly pissed off at him.
This may be old news to everyone, but it struck me today and seemed worth going through because I think it's importance: just as Sherlock is on a trajectory to become more emotionally integrated, more than just a great brain, I think John is on a similar trajectory to become less emotionally suppressed, less stoic - and more honest with himself and those around you. Interestingly, it's precisely the fact that Sherlock is so transgressive that gives John permission to be more fully good in his own way. He doesn't have to be normal (which was poisoning him) but he also gets a front-row seat into seeing the true costs of going too far with that, and it's only when Sherlock learns how to balance that aspect of him that he can be a good.... whatever the two of them are, for John. And it's mostly with Sherlock, at least at first, that John finds the courage to be authentic, and most especially when it's just them -- again, we can only hope, in the beginning. But increasingly others seem to be let into that circle as well. That strikes me as important.