It’s not an addiction as long as you can manage without it.
Sherlock is always able to go without, careful as he is not to fall into the pitfall of actual addiction.
John might consider Sherlock to be careless with his own health, but there are aspects of himself that Sherlock is constantly monitoring, watchful for signs that any of his little vices are getting out of hand.
That’s what it comes down to, after all. Control. It can hardly be called ‘vices’, and it’s most certainly not addiction; no, it’s simply carefully taken measures he uses in order to maintain control.
These days, Sherlock isn’t prone to unintentional emotional outbursts of any kind. It’s a weakness, and so he’s learnt how to prevent anything as pointless and human as moods to get the best of him.
This hasn’t always been the case. There had used to be…quite a temper. ‘Emotional lability’, Mycroft had once called it. For Sherlock, it had felt more like having his own brain overtaken by some malignant force of nature; clouds gathering up at the horizon, and before he knew it, the storm would break out and desolate everything in its vicinity.
Since then, Sherlock’s recreated himself, and now there’s a carefully constructed balance keeping all elements that are too volatile and too illogical from surfacing. It’s nothing but the simple truth; nothing has made him. He’s created a new self, a self that is devoid of such weakness, and he has no intention of letting all that work go to waste.
It’s a plate armor, and it’s heavy to carry around at times.
And so he allows himself a bit of leeway. A few small vices, just a safety measure in order to keep the plates from drifting apart.
There had used to be more on that list, but then there was that thing about… addiction. It had proven to be the opposite of helpful in terms of keeping the storms contained. After some unfortunate events, a few things on the initial list had had to go.
He can’t afford such foibles.
Therefore, the remaining… vices are under strict control. Too much of anything, and he’ll have to decrease it, instead allowing himself more of something else for the time being.
The sum of your vices is still constant.
A cigarette when you start to feel something trickling in your throat. A wank in order to distract from the tension that is slowly creeping up his spine. Coffee to make it possible to stay awake. Sleeping pills to enable him to finally collapse into bed when his own thoughts have turned into shapes that casts shadows on the walls. More coffee to wake himself up after the haze from the pills. Pain to ground himself when everything threatens to fall apart. And finally there’s what makes it all worthwhile: adrenaline.
Perhaps the most apt way of looking at it is to see it for what it is: it’s what’s holding the edges together. The frayed edges that want nothing more than to come apart.
In honor of the filming of Season 3 I’ve done a bit of character analysis for A Study in Pink. Character analysis is a favorite hobby you see, and I cannot handle Holmes and Watson. I can not. Admittedly I have watched all 8 episodes of Sherlock way more times than is considered healthy, but I’ve probably watched A Study in Pink more times than all the others combined. This is because I am absolutely fascinated by the way Sherlock and John come together, the way they start their relationship. After all, Sherlock Holmes doesn’t have friends, he just has the one. So how did that one make it through the gate?
My theory is that the Holmes brothers approach all things scientifically, people included. We know that Mycroft picked John up and intentionally stressed him out just to see how he’d react, so why wouldn’t Sherlock?
Sherlock does specific social experiments to test his hypotheses about other people and I think nearly all of his remarks to John in the first episode are calculated, except for the ones that betray his surprise at John’s unpredictable behavior. The following is a rundown of what I think is happening at the beginning of this relationship.
Sherlock Holmes needs a flatmate, but more than that, he needs an assistant. He states it explicitly, and my opening argument for this entire episode is that pretty much everything Sherlock does or says in ASIP is a test to see if John can fill the position.
From the minute they meet in the lab, Sherlock instantly knows why Mike has brought John in; John will be a potential flatmate. Okay. So what does that mean? John is someone that Sherlock will have to share his space with, so it’s going to be important that he’s someone Sherlock can be civil to.
We never learn much about Stamford, but I sortof wonder if he doesn’t regularly keep his phone in his coat because, if he does, Sherlock may have asked him if he could borrow it solely to see if John would offer his, especially considering that Sherlock never has problems with phone reception in the lab at any point after this. After all, a person’s attitude toward sharing their stuff is going to be the one of the first concerns for being flatmates. It could just be a coincidence that moves the plot along, but I’m just not sure when you’re dealing with Sherlock. He’s a brilliantly written character and he will often do and say things that turn out to have secondary motivations. It’s what makes the show so much fun to watch over and over. Okay, anyway…
When John meets him at 221B, Sherlock is very polite. He shakes his hand, requests a first name basis, waits for him at the top of the stairs, offers tea, doesn’t get rude or launch into a belittling run-down to prove him wrong when John doubts the claims on his webpage, and tells John to make himself at home. All of these are formalities that Sherlock is infamous for not participating in, and I don’t buy that he’s being nice just because there’s something special about John. I think he just needs a flatmate and knows that everything about his normal behavior drives people away, so instead of doing what comes natural to him he’s acting, putting up a “normal” front. He displays full competence of social etiquette in order to set up a standard, uninvolved, non-antagonistic flatshare relationship, and plans to leave John behind when Lestrade calls him. But then Sherlock hears John yelling about his leg.
I’m sure he already knows that John isn’t prone to random emotional outbursts, so if he’s shouting about his leg it must be because it’s preventing him, currently, from doing something he wants to do. It’s not stopping him from “making himself at home,” leaving, or doing any normal activity, so the only time-relevant factor left is Sherlock’s leaving. He’s not attached to Sherlock at this point, so why would he care if he left? Unless, of course, he wishes he were able to do something equally productive or…join him.
Okay then. If John is interested in coming along, and as Sherlock had just told Lestrade—he needs an assistant, why not try out John? But if John is going to be of any use at all, he’ll have to know how Sherlock works. He’ll have to explain his techniques to John and remember, Sherlock seemed to be avoiding doing this at the apartment. When John asked him how he knew the stuff that he did, Sherlock just smiled and stayed quiet because he knows how quickly it sucks the civility out of his relationships. But an assistant would be way more valuable than a flatmate and another flatmate will be easy to find, so given a choice between the two, of course he’s going to give it a shot. So from this point forward in the episode I don’t think he really stops testing John, except for when his attention is focused elsewhere.
First test, easiest test; can John endure being analyzed? (Just as a side note, my favorite line is, “The man sitting next to me wouldn’t treat his one luxury item like this,” because somehow, from a once-over glance, Sherlock inferred that John was someone who takes care of things that he values, and I think that’s adorable. Okay, anyway—) Once finished he has a kind of flippant, uncomfortable expression on his face because he’s already predicted that the response will be negative and is preemptively trying to suppress his reaction to the rejection that, obviously, doesn’t come. When he hears “amazing,” his expression quickly shifts to reflect confusion. Apparently no one’s ever passed the first test.
On to phase two then.
After they get out of the cab Sherlock asks, “Did I get anything wrong?” and, if you look closely, he’s fidgeting with his glove and shaking his hand. He’s got a lot of nervous energy. I think after John didn’t have the normal reaction of, “Piss off,” Sherlock wasn’t immediately sure how to proceed. With the notable exceptions of Ms. Hudson and Lestrade, the people Sherlock knows seem to fall into two categories; one type meets him with insecurity and hostility, and the other type meets him with idealization, a blind ‘he’s brilliant’ blanketing, the kind we see with Angelo who chooses to gloss over the fact that Sherlock sent him to jail. I think Sherlock is curious to see if he’s gotten anything wrong, but I think he’s more curious about how John might go about telling him if he was. John obviously hasn’t volunteered any information but, because Sherlock is nervous, he must be anticipating something worse than he gets. Probably one of those two responses. Instead John focuses on the points he was right about and omits the one he missed.
Because of this Sherlock then remarks, “I didn’t expect to be right about everything.” For the first two seasons Sherlock never admits fault to anyone else, and tells John not to admit it (on his blog) either. It’s is an admission of potential weakness. An admission of weakness. That in itself is a test. “If I admit that I don’t know everything, will you still be impressed?”
What he discovers though is that he already was wrong, John just didn’t think it was a big deal and, more importantly, he doesn’t think a mistake negates the brilliance of the rest of his observations. He doesn’t attack him, doesn’t question him, doesn’t lower his opinion of him, or reassess him. He’s just…fine.
Sherlock takes it in stride, but he’s probably surprised that John didn’t bother telling him that he’d made a mistake. I would expect that he’s used to people leaping at the chance to prove him wrong. It’s normal, polite behavior not to, of course, but no one treats Sherlock like he’s normal until John.
A friend, at least a good one, will usually not point out another friend’s mistakes if they aren’t important. Degrading a friend isn’t something people generally find pleasant, and it has a negative impact on the relationship. So even if they barely know each other, the implication that Sherlock probably gleans from John’s response is that John is interested in forming an amiable relationship, one where power dynamics are not the focus. And that is probably a very rare thing for Sherlock. When people quickly recognize how much power he potentially has over them, they either turn defensive or submissive, so a relationship where his mental strength isn’t the focal point is probably largely foreign to him.
Once inside Sherlock does his thing and John gets to see how much cooler it is when it’s not happening to you. John shows that he’s okay with not being as bright as Sherlock when he openly admits, “It’s not obvious to me,” so he’s not going to try and compete with him like, for example, Anderson. That’s good. But I think the real gem of this entire scene is the fact that John’s not afraid to praise Sherlock in public.
I think it would have been very different if John had waited to pull Sherlock aside later and say, “you’re brilliant.” When Sherlock is deducing Jennifer Wilson and John says, “That’s fantastic!” Sherlock asks him, “Do you know you do that out loud?” I think he is happy that John is okay acknowledging his brilliance, but I think he’s far more surprised, and markedly impressed, that John’s willing to do it in front of other people. Because everyone there has already made it crystal clear that the accepted behavior is to hold Sherlock in contempt and ostracize him whenever possible.
John is blatantly disregarding the social cues of the people around him and is acting on his own opinions. At the same time though, he won’t examine Jennifer Wilson without Lestrade’s permission, even though Sherlock obviously feels fine bullying him. This means that he’s making separate and conscious decisions, and it’s not just as part of a blanket “fuck the rules/other opinions” philosophy, which could be problematic.
John is someone who does not bow to popular opinion, which implies a rational and impartial ability to look at a situation for what it is, rather than what other people think it is, before drawing conclusions. That in itself is going to be indispensably valuable to someone like Sherlock, who already has all the information and just needs a different view point occasionally.
Naturally, he then abandons John at the crime scene.
At this point Sherlock wants to move quickly. He can’t be bothered to oblige John’s unnecessary limp and he’s used to doing things by himself. But this aside, even if John will work as an assistant, he’s going to get left behind a lot. I think this situation doubles nicely as a display of what comes naturally to Sherlock and an opportunity to gauge John’s reaction to being ditched, which will inevitably happen. After all, when he’s finished finding the case Sherlock calls John back. Yes he ditched him, but he wasn’t done with him.
So the conversation in the taxi was about determining John’s character, and the ones at the crime scene were about how he would work around others. From these interactions, Sherlock has learned that John is someone who can both tolerate him and whose opinions won’t be swayed by the general atmosphere of discord that follows Sherlock. So now it’s time for the third round of tests; will he be able to meet the mental and physical requirements for a good assistant and is he someone who can stand to be around Sherlock (and someone Sherlock can stand to be around) for an extended period of time?
Obviously he started this at the crime scene. While John is looking over Jennifer, Sherlock is watching him very intensely. He’s assessing John’s skill level and he seems to conclude that while he’s not a genius by any stretch, he’s not incompetent. He’s intelligent enough to hold his own and have a legitimate reason for being there (other than to simply stroke Sherlock’s ego, which would probably get tiresome really quick, even for Sherlock). He also voluntarily provided an alternative theory, “Maybe she checked into a hotel and left her case there.” This means that he’s 1) mentally participating even if it’s not terribly helpful, and 2) he’s not so intimidated by Sherlock that he’s afraid to toss out ideas that have probably already been considered, and will be quickly dismissed as wrong.
When John arrives back at 221B, Sherlock’s laying on his couch. He starts out ignoring John and, while Sherlock does get lost in thought and non-responsive, when he does talk he states that he called him for the menial purpose of using his mobile.
He’s intentionally goading John, trying to assess how far he can put him out before he genuinely starts to get pissed off. John offers Sherlock his phone and Sherlock doesn’t take it, he puts out his hand and waits. How much can Doctor Watson stand? That’s what he’s asking there, not “Will you pass me your phone?” Especially considering he doesn’t even want the phone, he hands it right back to him to make him send the text. He just wanted to see if he’d give it to him when he was intentionally being an ass. And the answer was yes. All through this scene he is pushy and rude, all of it testing how far he can push him. Can he insult him outright? Yep. John’s irritation is obvious, but what matters is that he passes the most important test of all;
Will he do what I tell him, if I don’t tell him why?
This is huge for Sherlock because he literally cannot always take the time to explain himself. He has to move fast and he has to do so frequently. Is John someone that he can trust to trust him? He already knows that John is impressed by his skill and is willing to publically acknowledge it. But does he have enough faith in him to assume that he’s doing the right thing? Because that’s going to be a vital trait of a useful assistant for Sherlock. In the casebook, in the post-its concerning the text, Sherlock says, “[it] shows how much I like you, I wouldn’t have let just anyone do it.” It does show how much he liked him. More accurately though, it showed that Sherlock had high expectations of John, and had deemed him reliable enough to give a shot.
When he pulls out the case John stares at him for a moment and he sighs, “I didn’t kill her.” When John says, “I never said you did,” he asks, “Why not?” It’s the logical assumption, it’s what everyone else but possibly Lestrade would assume. John doesn’t actually give him an answer, but Sherlock doesn’t need one. The point is that he didn’t make that assumption, no matter what his reasoning was. Sherlock gets kindof excited at this. He grins and hops up onto the back of his seat. But it’s not so much a celebration of, ‘he trusts me,’ as ‘yes! He didn’t jump at the obvious answer, he’s using his brain! Excellent!’
He then gets the follow-up to the ‘will you do what I say without knowing why?’ test; the ‘how will you react when you learn I’ve had you text a murderer?’ test. John’s answer is ‘nervously but still even-tempered.’ There’s no hysterics and he becomes even more impressed when the plan works out.
Sherlock leaps out of his chair. He’s just brimming with excitement. He was right about the murderer calling back, of course he was, but now everything is going his way. He’s excited about his success and he’s excited about John. He wants him to come along now, in-the-field so to speak. Before, when he went looking for her case, he left John behind. Now he wants to see him in action.
When they get into Angelo’s, Billy pulls a reserved sign off the table. Sherlock called ahead. That’s not really analysis I just think it’s hysterical. “Angelo, I need the window seat for a case.” “Anything for you.”
Sherlock notices everything everyone says about everything. When Ms. Hudson asks if they need two rooms, Sherlock has the briefest flash of confusion on his face, but when Angelo assumes John’s his date, he says nothing. He doesn’t even flinch, he just asks if John wants to eat. I think he realizes that this is an assumption that people are going to make about them and, since he’s used to people assuming wrongly, he’s not concerned. John is ruffled but not rude, so Sherlock drops it. But John keeps harping on it. He hasn’t pinned John for being gay, and obviously he thinks he can tell (Jim from IT), and Sherlock looks more annoyed the longer he he keeps pressing it. I don’t think it’s John’s possible come-on that bothers him. He doesn’t want romance, he doesn’t want that kind of messy relationship, but I think his concern isn’t about John’s potentially being attracted to him as much as the implications of the broader conversation topic; “People don’t have your kind of relationships in real life.”
In other words, “If you’re not into women, and you’re not into men, are really you into anything? Or are you weird?”
He probably doesn’t want John to think he’s weird. He likes John because he doesn’t treat him like he’s weird. John’s probably the best chance he’s had at a friend in a long time (if ever) and suddenly John’s going to throw it all in the gutter because he doesn’t do normal relationships? Sherlock looks annoyed but he also looks a little anxious. Of course, John is just making small talk and trying to figure Sherlock out in the way normal humans do, by asking questions. When John says, “It’s all fine,” Sherlock visibly relaxes.
“Good…” he says. “…thank you.”
John gives him an odd look for the thank you, like maybe he thinks he’s being indirectly insulted, but Sherlock is probably just genuinely grateful that John’s not looking down on him for not “being normal.”
Now, as for the car chase scene, again I think it doubles as work and a test for Sherlock. Can John ditch the ridiculous limp? Yes. Can he keep up? Yes. What about when he’s asking him to do things that make him nervous, like leaping from building to building? Yes? Excellent! He needs some polishing as he doesn’t always listen to orders the first time, but he’s quick to make up for it and, as a bonus, he’s apologizing to everyone that Sherlock shoves out of the way. That’s good. Less angry people with John there to smooth it out. In the end of it he’s even willing to play along as one of the police without Sherlock asking him to. “Any problems just let us know.”
THEN, amazingly, he doesn’t even harp on Sherlock’s mistake. Sherlock makes mistakes sometimes and it’s not a big deal to John. And, best of all, he laughs at Sherlock’s sense of humor. Sherlock looks so nervous when John starts laughing. Maybe he’s afraid that it will be followed up with a nasty remark about Sherlock’s pickpocketing or his mistake, but it’s just that John happened to think Sherlock was funny. Nothing more vicious to it.
In their hallway, away from the police, Sherlock looks so genuinely happy. It’s the first time you see him really happy, really laughing and not just sniggering. He’s just…he’s thrilled that this man has appeared. He’s not afraid of Sherlock, not intimidated or threatened, doesn’t care that he makes mistakes, doesn’t take Sherlock’s irritability and snippiness personally, doesn’t care that he’s not normal, has a similar appreciation for action and adventure, shares his dissatisfaction with everyday tedium, and has a similar sense of humor. There’s just one more thing.
“Ms. Hudson, Doctor Watson will take the room upstairs.” “Says who?” “Says the man at the door.”
When Angelo knocks on the door and John goes to answer it, there’s a shot of Sherlock breathing deeply and looking down at the floor. It’s very brief, but he looks like he’s stealing himself, as if he’s about to be punched in the face. I think this is his final test for John as an ally.
If there’s one thing in the world someone is going to get pissed off about, it’s having their deep-rooted psychological issues being dismissed as being all in their head and, moreover, having that fact handed to them by a total stranger.
Angelo is literally laughing at John. “He said you forgot this.”
If John was going to be touchy about any of his issues, it’s that one. In his early blog entries he repeatedly complains that no one says anything about his limp. John’s identity had become very focused on being a wounded soldier and you’d better believe John could have interpreted this as Sherlock saying, “the fact that you’re still dwelling on your traumatic, life-threatening injury is totally ridiculous.” It was a real possibility that John would’ve taken that badly. He might have easily gotten embarrassed and defensive and have made up some line about how it was just adrenaline and Sherlock does NOT know everything about him and he’s WRONG. I mean…this is a psychological condition to John and what Sherlock is doing is basically equivalent to telling someone with chronic depression that they could have solved everything all along by smiling more. It could have gone very differently.
John smiles though. He doesn’t do any of those things and when he looks back in Sherlock is absolutely beaming. He’s thrilled. If John’s not going to get angry about having that thrown in his face then there’s probably nothing that Sherlock’s unique abilities—the part of him that he knows drives people away—can do that will ruin things. He finally has his shot at a normal friendship. A real one.
Once upstairs things are pretty self-explanatory. John has decided that Sherlock is awesome and readily defends him even though he has no information about his drug use history. I think John feels that the detectives were wrong in their other assessments of him and therefore are probably wrong about all of them. He goes ahead and defends Sherlock even if he doesn’t know if he’s right or not and Sherlock, in turn, bounces ideas off of John and asks specifically for John’s assistance.
When he realizes he’s said something socially inappropriate he runs it by John in a peculiarly childlike way. “Bit not good?” “Bit not good, yeah.” It’s an odd question really, but it’s interesting that John responds in kind. He uses the exact same language back with him, which reflects a willingness to meet Sherlock on whatever level he’s at.
As for the next part with the taxi driver, this is about the only part of the episode I don’t think was part of his test. I think at this point Sherlock already has a solid opinion of John formed, and he probably isn’t worried about testing him further. I think, instead, that old habits die hard. Even though I’m sure John would have helped him, Sherlock runs off on his own, doesn’t attempt to involve him, and doesn’t spare him another thought once his attention is elsewhere.
In the final scene when Sherlock confronts John, he doesn’t say much about his opinions on the fact that John saved him. I think Sherlock is surprised, not only that John was the one who saved him, but by the fact that, without any formality or a hinted request, John was already acting as his assistant. It was a job that he was going to do naturally. John was perfectly on-the-ball, got there in time, and acted acceptably (for Sherlock) without any instruction at all. He’d persisted where the police had left off, and I don’t think John shooting the cabbie was an act of friendship or loyalty, and I don’t think Sherlock thought this either. John was just acting in accordance with his moral compass, and this is probably what finalized it for Sherlock. John was someone who could be trusted to act intelligently with or without Sherlock’s instructions.
He’s not going to be Sherlock’s assistant. He’s going to be his (business) partner.
This last conversation is my favorite in the whole series. It’s so easy to see what makes John and Sherlock different, but what makes the friendship so delightful is what they have in common.
When discussing it John says, “He wasn’t a very nice man,” and Sherlock’s micro-expression is a smirk. John killed someone and he didn’t feel bad because the person wasn’t very nice. This is right on the same level with Sherlock’s, “not good,” —a childish but widely understandable description of the situation. Moreover, John follows it up with a joke. John just killed someone and then he makes a joke about it. Let’s just flash back to one of the first things Sherlock said to John. “You stopped her husband being executed?” “Oh no, I ensured it.” He tells John that he ensured a man’s death and as he says it…he smiles. Proudly. This is not something that most people would consider normal or “good,” but, “He wasn’t a very nice man,” is something Sherlock can hear, understand and appreciate. Really, it’s indicative of the fact that they are actually very similar people, despite the numerous and obvious differences. They view life and death and morality from a relatively similar position, and can appreciate that there is an awful lot of grey area that can’t be dealt with by always following rules.
Sherlock then makes a follow up joke and John gets nervous. “We can’t giggle, it’s a crime scene.” Sherlock’s reply? “You’re the one who shot him, don’t blame me.” You’re the one that made it a crime scene, he teases. And that’s Sherlock’s sense of humor. It’s very dark. But John doesn’t care. John’s not judging him for it. It’s all fine. The exchanges of, “You risk your life to prove you’re clever.” “Why would I do that?” “Because you’re an idiot,” and “I never guess,” “Yes you do,” are perfect summaries of the fact that John views Sherlock as an equal. He knows that Sherlock is smarter than he is, but he doesn’t feel devalued because of it, and that’s obviously something very comforting to Sherlock. In a world stuffed full of people who are frightened or intimidated by him, he’s never been able to find someone who would treat him like a perfectly normal bloke. He would never want to be normal, of course, but it’s hard to stand alone in the world forever.
Anyway, you can always tell a friendship is real when you can tell your friend, “you’re so full of shit,” and have them know that it’s true and it’s okay. It doesn’t change anything.
At the very end of the episode John asks him, “What are you so happy about?” His answer is, “Moriarty,” and I’m sure that’s true. He’ll be a fun new mystery and an enjoyable new distraction. But Sherlock is not just smiling about Moriarty. He’s smiling because Sherlock Holmes has finally found himself a friend.
Can we all just talk about Mike Stamford for a brief minute?
Who in the hell is this guy? I mean how does he think of a person like John and a person like Sherlock and think, ‘Oh yeah, I need to bring these two together.’
Luckily he did or we wouldn’t have this show but still, he clearly hadn’t seen John in YEARS. Yet within a few minutes, he established that John and Sherlock would get on.
Also, Mike Stamford actually seems to be… Sherlock’s friend in a way. Sherlock seems substantially familiar with him, asking to use his mobile as soon as he enters the room and being on a first-name basis with the guy. And Mike definitely seems to like Sherlock. Practically everyone hates Sherlock, but not Mike. I mean, you don’t try to hook up a person you dislike with a flatmate with whom you know would they would get on. When Sherlock casually drops knowledge of John when they first meet, Mike just hangs out there with a little smile. AND when Sherlock leaves the lab in the scene, Mike just says, “Yeah, he’s always like that,” but not at all in that exasperated, annoyed manner with which everyone speaks of Sherlock.
This guy seems like he should be a more prominent character in the show, if only for the reason that he is one of the few characters that doesn’t loathe Sherlock, he even seems to like him. That makes him pretty damn interesting to me. And without him, Sherlock and John would have never even met!
Like why the hell doesn’t this guy show up more often?!
Time to Choose a Side, Dr. Watson: ASiP and John’s Core Conflict
I’m currently rewatching the whole show, writing metas whenever I notice something worth analyzing. This time around, I am paying special attention to John because I believe his character development is now more important to the plot than Sherlock’s, but is also less obvious than Sherlock’s.
I rewatched A Study in Pink recently and this line caught my attention. Mycroft says it to John at the very end of their first meeting in the abandoned warehouse:
Mycroft (Examining John’s left hand): Remarkable.
John: What is? (Pulls his hand away.)
M: Most people blunder around this city and all they see are streets and shops and cars. When you walk with Sherlock Holmes, you see the battlefield. You’ve seen it already, haven’t you?
J: What’s wrong with my hand?
M: You have an intermittent tremor in your left hand. Your therapist thinks its posttraumatic stress disorder. She thinks you’re haunted by memories of your military service.
J: Who the hell are you? How do you know that?
M: Fire her. She’s got it the wrong way around. You’re under stress right now and your hand is perfectly steady. You’re not haunted by the war, Dr. Watson; you miss it. (Whispering) Welcome back.
(Mycroft walks away, swinging his umbrella.)
M: Time to choose a side, Dr. Watson.
Now, I believe this line sums up John’s character and the journey he will have to take throughout the series, the parallel to what Lestrade says about Sherlock later in the episode. (“Sherlock Holmes is a great man. And I think one day, if we’re very, very lucky, he might even be a good one.”) However, while it’s fairly obvious how Lestrade’s quote applies to Sherlock, it’s less obvious how Mycroft’s quote applies to John.
What are the “sides” that Mycroft refers to? At first glance, it may seem like he’s talking about “good vs. evil,” but that can’t be right. One of John’s defining characteristics is his “strong moral compass.” He wouldn’t be tempted to act immorally let alone evilly; that’s Sherlock’s conflict, not John’s. Or does Mycroft mean more in the sense of “us (Mycroft/Sherlock) vs. them (criminals/Moriarty)”? That would align with the war metaphor, but this still doesn’t make much sense when applied to John, as being tempted to join the criminal class is also antithetical to John’s character (again, that’s more Sherlock’s problem).
Or perhaps, Mycroft is referring to choosing between being a “civilian” or a “soldier.” One “blunders around” and sees only the surface “streets and shops and cars,” the other sees the “battleground” underneath it all. One follows conventional expectations and is interested in living a comfortable life; the other (ideally) sees what’s actually worth protecting and is willing to sacrifice himself for it. One behaves according to social norms, while the other knows adhering to true morality often entails breaking those norms.
This last interpretation seems much more likely what Mycroft meant. The struggle between being a “civilian” vs. a “soldier” is the one that John faces the most consistently on the show. Furthermore, when he chooses the wrong side (civilian) things go poorly for him (and Sherlock), and when he chooses the right side (soldier) things go well, often turning the tide in crucial moments. This conflict for John is analogous to Sherlock’s core struggle between his head and his heart, his “sociopath” and his humanity.