I love this episode, I really really do. I think it’s genius. Moffat manages to keep Sherlock completely ambiguous on the question of Irene, allowing us to interpret it as we like. Personally, I think you can make a watertight argument that Sherlock is certainly not in love with Irene, but if you’re of a mind to argue the opposite, it would be pretty solid as well. I think that’s some skillful narrative construction, and a really generous space to leave the viewer. How many writers allow you to define something so critical to a character on your own terms, without their obvious direction? Generosity on that level in storytelling is rare and wonderful.
The best thing about this episode (to me) is John. In this scene he shows us, once again, that his primary concern is Sherlock and his feelings in all this. This scene in particular seems to demonstrate his lingering questions about whether Sherlock has had his heart broken before, and whether it’s been broken by Irene. It seems like this is one of those moments when he’d really like to just ask, and to talk him through it and be a good friend, but he can’t quite bring himself to do it. Clearly he hasn’t ever brought himself to ask, because they’re still talking at cross-purposes about Irene.
John is clearly madly curious about Sherlock’s love life. But he never asks. Why doesn’t he?
I absolutely love how John looks away when Sherlock asks why he would want to see Irene again. He smiles and looks down, as if he’s shy about the question. Why would I want to see her again? Because you loved her, didn’t you? Because a person wants to be with the people they love, Sherlock.
John’s not going to answer Sherlock’s question, because it’s embarrassing, isn’t it. It’s certainly a revealing question, and John doesn’t want to admit his assumptions. He wants to ask but he doesn’t want to be too forward about it. Sherlock is demanding that he be forward about it or say nothing at all. They don’t talk about this kind of thing, apparently. John doesn’t ask, and Sherlock doesn’t tell him.
Is he looking away because John feels like there should be a buffer of privacy around Sherlock he’s trying to protect? I mean, look at him: Sherlock seems pretty willing to answer John’s questions just there. He did ask: why would I want to see her again? I think if John had said, Aren’t you in love with her? Sherlock would have answered honestly. But John won’t do it. It is that it’s created this lovely little hesitancy in John that I really admire. He’ll ask Mrs Hudson about Sherlock’s love life, but he won’t ask Sherlock directly. That’s private, and he doesn’t want to overstep. Sherlock is naive in this particular way, would it be cruel to push him on it? That’s respect, curiosity, and affection all rolled together.
And as John looks away he seems…relieved. Relieved because Sherlock doesn’t appear to be in pain? Or is it because his relationship with Sherlock isn’t in danger? Even if you don’t want to deal with the slashy reading of this, if Sherlock were interested in taking up with a very wealthy woman, he surely wouldn’t need a flatmate anymore, and John is, at this point, entirely dependent on his relationship with Sherlock, both emotionally and financially. So that’s a serious issue for John to contend with, I’d think. Though of course John believes Irene is dead, so she isn’t a threat to their shared life. But still, he looks relieved, a little. Is that, oh, you’re alright, or is it oh, we’re alright?
So many great questions. I often wonder how much direction they’re given for each scene and how much freedom they have in creating their character’s motivations.