A short disclaimer, I have not seen yet the pilot. I own it, but I haven’t seen it yet because I’m saving it for when I really need new Sherlock material. But that means I can’t compare this episode to the original version, I can only draw comparisons between what we see here and what happens in later episodes. But I think that’s more than enough to be getting on with, so, without further ado, let’s get down to business.
In the original Sherlock Holmes stories, John Watson is our narrator (for most of the stories) and thus he is the first person we meet, originally by being told he was recently sent home from war in Afghanistan. The show begins similarly, though this time through what seems to be a PTSD induced nightmare. But of course we quickly find out that Dr Watson is not haunted by the war, he misses it. This is not the only nightmare we see John have, and in both the beginning of this episode and HLV his nightmares are a symptom of an emptiness. Something is missing in John’s life, and we are given the chance to see it very early on.
The empty space here is overpowering. We see John isolated and alone, and all the while his theme plays (which we hear a lot less in later series). His room is sparse, it almost looks like he’s expecting this to be temporary. Even the place he’s living at during Many Happy Returns is homier than this.
Then there’s this shot in the morning after when he pulls out his laptop and just under is his gun
This does more than just establish the fact that he has a weapon so that the audience won’t be confused later. He is keeping his weapon nearby, somewhere easily accessible. He can’t leave that part of his life behind him, the part that wants to face dangerous situations. So he leaves this reminder of what his life was, and his preparation for what it could be again right below his laptop. And seeing as how as soon as he opens his laptop we are immediately shown his empty blog, and then cut to a scene of therapy which clearly isn’t working, the laptop is tied with that failed attempt of normalcy. So right from the first few minutes we are introduced, albeit inadvertently, to John’s main conflict throughout the series: his internal struggle between what he knows he wants and what society says is healthy.
And we already see how approaching things the “normal” way is never going to make John happy.
"Nothing ever happens to me"
Fortunately, when we next see John, he’s limping his way into the best thing that could possibly happen to him, in the form of an old friend Mike Stamford. He goes through the motions, calmly replies to Mike’s inquiries why he isn’t abroad getting shot at by calmly answering “I got shot”, laughs halfheartedly at Mike’s weak attempts at humour, scoffs at the idea of going to his sister for help, and snaps a bit when Mike says he’s not the John Watson he know, because he’s not anymore. He doesn’t let on how lost he is, because that’s not something John Watson would ever purposefully do. Despite being a nice(ish) fellow, and a doctor and a war veteran, he honestly cannot imagine anyone wanting to live with him. He’s so desperate that he’s instantly interested in the first mention of a potential flatmate.
"Who was the first?"
This handsome lad right here. John Hamish Watson, it is your lucky day.
What does he read in that first glance of John Watson? Whatever it is, it’s enough to make him immediately start showing off, first by asking for Mike’s mobile, no doubt knowing he does’t have it with him, so that he can get more information about him
and so he can stand next to him and almost touch hands. And then he’s extremely polite. For Sherlock. A small “Oh, thank you” is like most people greeting someone with a hug and a puppy. He’s never this polite to a stranger again, and it’s not because he desperately needs a flatmate. People, after all, are idiots. But not this particular one it seems.
For his part John seems much as he has been for the last ten minutes: polite but definitely disengaged. That is until Sherlock says three fateful words:
Afganistan or Iraq?
John’s reaction is dubious at first, but as soon as he processes a bit, he is visibly shaken.
He stays in this state throughout the rest of their conversation. He assumes that Sherlock must have been told about him prior to meeting him, but Mike assures John that he didn’t say a thing. Sherlock explains just a bit of his logic, and then buzzes off to get his riding crop, or attempts to. John recovers a bit here, and questions him, "We’ve only just met and we’re going to look at a flat". In response to Sherlocks calm reply of “Problem?" we get John’s first genuine smile of the show.
Something is definitely happening, and it’s definitely not ordinary, and may not be safe, and John is thrilled, though he quickly suppresses the smile for annoyance, a combination of emotions that resurfaces throughout the series. And then Sherlock deduces John, still trying to impress him, and the amusement is gone, and he’s back to shock.
As if all that didn’t make enough of an impression on him, Sherlock leans back into the room to give his name and address and then winks at John.
"Shall I smile and wink? I do that sometimes, no idea why. People seem to like that. Humanizes me."
So John, being a fairly sane and practical fellow does what any of us would do when confronted with an arrogant and otherworldly good-looking man with stunning cheekbones who wanted us move in with him: search his tumblr tag.