I feel like we’re all pretty pissed at John this season, and justifiably. This season we saw Sherlock sacrifice everything for John AGAIN, lose the only companion he has just realized he needs so much to a marriage he fights to make perfect because he knows it will make him happy, and generally be in pretty intense unrequited love.
We also saw John choose to stay with Mary, who nearly killed Sherlock. We saw him treat his and Sherlock’s goodbye with the cavalier attitude of acquaintance, not someone who was essentially dying for him for the second time. And small things too, like John not seeing Sherlock for a month after the wedding or (and this one bugged me) not ordering Sherlock to sit down or immediately calling the paramedics when Sherlock was showing signs of pain and dizziness, having LEFT THE HOSPITAL WHERE HE WAS BEING TREATED FOR A GUNSHOT WOUND TO THE CHEST in order to make sure John was safe and, once he was, do some marriage counseling.
But after some thought, I’m not mad at John, and here’s why.
One of the very first thing we learn about John is that he has trust issues. (“You just wrote ‘still has trust issues.’” “And you read my writing upside down. See what I mean?”) Sherlock Holmes is a man who has broken John’s trust. The first two seasons were full of John being in pretty obvious unrequited love with Sherlock, even if neither of them realized it. “You’ll do anything for him,” said one of his girlfriends, and she was right. We repeatedly see John making Sherlock his first priority. Whereas Sherlock regularly brushes John off.
I don’t think John even notices he’s in love with Sherlock until Sherlock dies. Then it becomes too obvious to ignore. Everyone acts like John is a spouse left behind, not just a friend. John is depressed (it’s obvious from his blog, his dialogue - “I let a lot of things slip, it just got harder and harder to pick up the phone”) for nearly two years after Sherlock’s death. That’s more than mourning a friend. You don’t move on from a friend’s death by falling in love again. John dating Mary and John moving on are not treated as separate events - he was moving on because he was dating, essentially, again. Mary was normal. And that was good. He was still in pain (he and Mary visit the grave in the first part of the first episode) but he was determined to move forward.
And then Sherlock does the one thing he could have done to betray John more than just dying. He comes back.
John was pretty fucked up by Sherlock dying, and now he finds out that it was all a lie. The person he used to care about the most is now the person who has hurt him more than anyone else in the world. (“One word. That is all I would have needed.”) So what if Sherlock did it to protect John? Once the snipers laid down the guns, Sherlock could have sent John a message explaining the situation. But Sherlock didn’t (“I was worried you’d say something indiscreet”) because he didn’t trust John and didn’t care enough not to save John the pain, at least apparently.
It’s obvious to us that Sherlock just didn’t expect John to be in so much pain, because he never expected to be loved. But John’s trust in Sherlock has been shattered. And he distances himself.
We see John gradually forgive Sherlock, but he’s still not entirely the loyal-without-question, awed counterpart to Sherlock that he once was. His priority is now Mary. For a while, John’s even happy - he can still be friends with Sherlock, have him stand there at his wedding, and leave the bulk of his emotional weight with Mary, where it’s safer.
The moment John realizes that Sherlock isn’t necessarily happy with this arrangement is at the end of The Sign of Three. For the first time in arguably the whole series (“You look sad when you don’t think he can see you”) Sherlock lets John see him in genuine sadness. Watch how Sherlock looks at John right after he says “You’ll hardly be needing me around”, right after he realizes the implications of his joke. His face is so hurt. Will you be needing me around? And John sees this. He looks uncomfortable, shuffles, and starts to pull Mary away. This is the moment where John understands that he might not actually be able to have both Mary and Sherlock in his life, that Sherlock still needs him, and in panic, he draws back. Of course he does. Trust issues. The further he stays away from Sherlock, the less likely he’ll have to go through that again.
The reason this especially sucks is that this is the season where Sherlock finally comprehends how much he loves and needs John, only to have John essentially abandon him.
He doesn’t see Sherlock for a month. When he finally does reunite with him, what does Sherlock do? Gets shot. Nearly dies all over again.
Of course John stays with Mary. Because there are only two options: stay with Mary, or move back in (metaphorically getting back together) with Sherlock. We see that when Sherlock puts John’s chair back the moment he thinks John will leave Mary. Both of them know what that means. John does not want that. Mary and Sherlock have both betrayed and hurt him, but Mary has done so much less damage. She lied about her past and injured his best friend (ostensibly to save him.) Sherlock left John devastated for two years of his life, all because he couldn’t be bothered to send a letter. (From John’s perspective.) John stays with Mary because his only other choice is to go back to Sherlock, which, to him, is much more dangerous.
During their goodbye scene, John doesn’t know Sherlock is going to his death. Only Sherlock knows that. I’m sure John thinks that Sherlock will be back when he’s done with his mission (he came back before, this ‘never see you again’ is just him being a drama queen) and maybe he convinces himself this will be good. Some time to remind himself why he cares about Mary and not Sherlock. And when Sherlock comes back, they can return to being what suited John the best: friends, nothing more.
John lets Sherlock down this season, for sure. But we have to remember that it’s a reaction to Sherlock letting John down in the biggest way possible. For everything John did (or didn’t do) this season, at least he didn’t fake his own death. Imagine how the Sherlock of season 3 would have handled John’s death. That’s what John went through.
THESE GODDAMN WRITERS.