Character Studies - John Watson and the Destruction of A Secondary Character

Please don't sacrifice good characterisation of your secondary characters for the sole purpose of making your main character appear EVEN MORE AWESOME. It's incredibly frustrating. And it only serves to make your main character less interesting.

I've been struggling with Sherlock for a while for many reasons. Its treatment of women, its lack of compelling mysteries, its insistence on ramming its head straight up its own arse. But I think it all comes down to what the writers have done to John. Poor, poor John Watson. As enjoyable as it was to watch Sherlock solve crimes in series one and even series two, John was always the more engaging character for me because he was so much more realistic. His complexities, and a degree of his own intelligence, seem to have disappeared in favour of making Sherlock more spectacular. The more convoluted an episode is, the less John has to do or say that doesn't serve to reinforce Sherlock's talents.

And never has this been clearer than it was in The Lying Detective.

The rest of this post contains SPOILERS! Consider yourselves warned.

Here’s my problem: John is constantly manipulated by both Sherlock and Mary. The central plot revolved around Mary telling Sherlock he had to “save John Watson”. From who, you ask? Himself. Mary couldn't trust John to grieve in his own way, in his own time. Sherlock, she says, must put himself through hell for the sole purpose of ‘saving’ John. How noble, you might cry.

No. No, no and no again. This is ridiculously over the top writing, where a smaller, more character-focused plot would’ve been so much more emotionally satisfying. Ignoring the whole 'fridged woman' or 'disposable woman' aspects of Mary's death (must. resist. urge. to. scream), think how much more powerful The Lying Detective would’ve been as a tale of John and Sherlock coming to terms with grief in their own ways without the heavy hand of Mary the puppet master. Well, Mary and Sherlock are the puppet masters, because Sherlock colludes with her. Allow me to create a rough synopsis of an alternate take on The Lying Detective (which would need a different title, but go with me here):

Sherlock, swamped with guilt after Mary dies to save him, slips back into his self-destructive drug habit. He throws himself at any case that comes his way, with little regard for his own safety. John, consumed by grief, guilt and anger, cuts himself off from Sherlock, knowing he has to focus on raising his daughter. Weeks pass without the two seeing each other. Mrs Hudson, who is at her wits end with the drug taking going on in her home, begs John for help. John, despite his heartbreak, knows he can't abandon Sherlock. He seizes the opportunity to lose himself in a case and temporarily forget his loss. Supervising and supporting Sherlock through withdrawal, John works with him to prove that Culverton Smith is the serial killer Sherlock insists he is. In doing so, Sherlock and John are forced to confront the event that so nearly destroyed their friendship. Both men support the other through their grief and guilt, and their friendship is even stronger for it. 

Unfortunately, we were given a story where Mary plots how her husband will grieve for her. It didn't come off as kind and thoughtful, but monstrous and callous. Grief, and responses to it, are an intensely personal thing. You can't plot to jolt someone out of it. Except, in the Sherlock universe, you totally can! Because John, being less of a character and more of a narrative device, can't work through his emotions in his own way. Instead, Mary and Sherlock force him to respond to Sherlock's self-destruction which, rather than being a legitimate reaction to Mary's death, is a fabrication. You could argue that Sherlock willingly harmed himself after how awful he felt about Mary taking a bullet for him, but it doesn’t ring true because he still gets everything right despite being off his face on heroin. Even the drug use is played for laughs - Sherlock's been "off his tits" for weeks and John should've noticed. Sherlock has an answer for every argument John makes. John thinks he's being tricked (which he is), but Sherlock says it's not a trick, it's a plan, like that somehow makes this all okay. The story, regardless of how clever it might be on a very shallow level, falls flat emotionally because John doesn't make his own decisions. He can't. The writers don't allow him to. It's Mary and Sherlock's way, or no way at all. There's no room for John to say "I have a child. I have other priorities after the loss of my wife. If I explain this to Sherlock, he'll understand. He is a good man at heart."

And here's my other major problem with this episode. John has a baby daughter, but the writers obviously have no idea what to do with her, so she's written out. The audience is clearly supposed to accept John's total disregard for the child because of his grief. It makes no sense given John's previous characterisation! He is shown to be loyal to a fault. Even Moriarty commented on it!

John always stands by Sherlock. He didn't tell Mary to get lost after it's revealed she's been keeping huge secrets from him. But this loyalty doesn't extend to his daughter. Even the hallucinations of his dead wife are telling him to stay with Sherlock rather than be with his child. What? No, really, WHAT?!

The baby should radically change John's priorities, but the writers can't have that because John's world revolves around Sherlock, and they still want to have a show, sooooo...

John has been stripped of so much characterisation at this point, he no longer resembles the character the audience originally met. He hasn't grown, he's shrunk. John merely accepts Mary’s master plan and Sherlock's implementation of it. Even when he attacks Sherlock in the hospital morgue, it's not because he's snapping from realising he's being kept in the dark about everything, he's doing it out of anger at Sherlock who's too wrapped up in his 'game' of crime fighting. At times, John is shown to be self-aware enough to know that Sherlock hides things from him (like him questioning if he's being tricked into helping Sherlock), and yet he completely accepts the lack of control he has over his own life. It makes no sense to me because how can John both be totally self-aware about how Sherlock treats him and utterly oblivious at the same time?

Remember John in A Study in Pink? The man who overcame the trauma of war to make an expert shot to save Sherlock’s life? A shot absolutely no one else could’ve made? Who proved that he was Sherlock’s equal, even though he marvelled at the man's abilities? Who offered insights? Who used his medical training to support Sherlock? I guess that characterisation didn’t serve the writers’ 'isn't Sherlock amazing' plots, so they methodically, if carefully, undid John's strengths by making sure he still rolls his eyes at Sherlock's antics, or delivers punchy one liners that remind the audience he's a badass, without him actually doing much to back that up. Because no compelling character, and certainly not a character established with the intelligence of series one John, would allow himself to be controlled without realising it was happening, turning around and shouting No! NO THIS IS NOT OKAY!

I miss the show this used to be. I wish the writers did more with John rather than cliched one-liners that tell us he's a dangerous man to anger. I wish they'd let him be himself, rather than merely an object orbiting the all powerful Sherlock Holmes.

Stories are compelling when the characters are well-rounded and fleshed out with strengths and weaknesses, especially if those characters are going to be with us across a number of stories. When all of the secondary characters are demoted to plot tools there to serve the needs of the lead character's godlike gifts, they cease to read (or watch, in this case) like characters at all. Sherlock himself is no longer very interesting. He's too perfect. His drug taking and poor socialisation are not interesting flaws, because they're always framed as a kind of strength for him. And there's no sense he'll ever fail. It's boring.

*sigh* At least I'll always have the first series.


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