Written by Xistential Angst after Season 03.02 “The Sign of Three”
As a writer of both commercial m/m romance fiction, and some serious johnlock fan fiction works, including the novel length “Great Sex Olympics of 221B”, I have always, since episode #1, been interested in the romantic and sexual aspect of John and Sherlock’s relationship in BBC Sherlock.
From that very first episode, fans were given two great-looking, compelling actors who had major chemistry together—not to mention the ‘eye sex’, winks, sexual orientation convo in the first diner scene, everyone assuming they’re a couple, and other leading, slash-inducing moments. And I’ve enjoyed all the creative johnlock fan work that’s come out of that.
However, it was always my assumption that it would always be subtext, but never ever text. Some call it “queer-baiting” to write in so much subtext without any intention of ever resolving it, but as a writer, I would say it’s merely a way of making their bromance compelling, to have that sexual tension there, even though it is never acted upon. Isn’t that what a whole lot of shows do these days? The networks write innuendo and the fans fulfill it. It’s SAFER that way because to have a show with actual gayness in the leads is risky.
SO I never expected we might one day see johnlock (and by that I mean a sexual romantic relationship) become canon on BBC Sherlock. And most viewers don’t expect it either. What are the arguments against?
- Sherlock is asexual in the show’s canon.
- John is not gay in the show’s canon.
- It would be the end of the road. This is a long running series. Everyone knows once characters actually consummate their relationship, the energy of the show diminishes (Moonlighting, anyone?). Hence, odds were it would never be resolved.
- It would take balls of steel. This is a major show on a major network and they’re the leads—and it would be gay. It’s fine these days to hint at gayness, titillate the female audience into writing reams of slash. But would the BBC really dare to actually have Watson and Holmes kiss? Wouldn’t that cause huge public outrage from a large portion of the public?
- The creators and actors have both adamantly denied it. Yes, to the point of making it sound like a ‘ludicrous’ idea, which pisses off fans because the show has put in such obvious chemistry between the two characters it feels like disingenuous ‘queer baiting’ to deny it.
- It’s not ACD canon. That’s just not how the story goes, folks. Sorry.
After seeing TSoT, and reading many of the brilliant meta analysis on the episode (I reference them in this post), I have changed my mind. I think johnlock is going to be canon. And I cannot express how delighted and impressed I am with this realization. To take each point above.
Obstacle #1 SHEROCK is Asexual
The biggest obstacle to me, as a writer writing Sherock/John romance stories—that is to say, the biggest impediment in terms of story (ignoring politics, sales, etc) to John and Sherlock getting together in a full sexual/romantic way has always been Sherlock. And this is one reason why many people deny it could ever happen.
- Sherlock is all about ‘the work’.
- Sherlock is asexual—his body is ‘transport’, he doesn’t have those kinds of needs or feelings.
- The one time Sherlock did show any sexual spark was with Irene Adler, a woman.
I would have agreed with this prior to season 3, sadly. Though there are certainly hints in S1 and S2 that this is not entirely accurate. But let’s look at each point in the context of S1-3.
- Sherlock is all about the work. Yes, in S1 and 2. But in S3, he is not. Even in S03.01 (TEH) he is no longer the laser-focused, brilliant detective from the past. He misses things, he is distracted, he’s not himself. He can’t solve cases. He is more focused on John than on work. And in S03.02 he has gone completely over to that side. He ignores his ‘overflowing inbox’ in order to make seating arrangements for the wedding and fold serviettes. He is essentially saying John is now more important to me than work. It is shocking, really, and seemingly OOC. That’s one reason why I think people feel Sherlock is ‘not the same show’.
- Sherlock is asexual. We have seen in BBC Sherlock a mirror of this with the ‘sociopath’ label. We all know Sherlock is NOT a sociopath. A sociopath has no real feelings for other people and Sherlock does. And by the end of TSoT he not only has feelings, he admits them in public. In his wedding speech he says that John is “sitting between the two people who love you most in all the world”. And he means it. I.E. Sherlock not only admits that he loves John, he admits it to the world out loud. Hence, not a sociopath. Similarly, in TSoT we see that he is also not asexual, or at least not anymore. In TSoT there is a brilliant meta about Sherlock coming to terms with his sexuality via the Mayfly Man case and the mind palace courtroom scene. He comes to term with a) being sexual, b) being gay and c) being in romantic love/lust with John. I won’t repeat it all here, but it is critical to understanding what’s going on. (SEE the metapost by 221beemine and my response). To me, this is the most shocking and unexpected twist in the series yet and the major signpost for Johnlock. Because, as I have said above, it is SHERLOCK, and his lack of sexuality, who was the major obstacle to a physical relationship in the first place, not John. And that has now been resolved.
- The one time Sherlock did show any sexual spark was with Irene Adler, a woman. Yes, this is true. After watching ASiB, one would take away the idea that Sherlock pushes away his sexuality, but the only time he is really tempted is by Irene Adler, which would indicate that he is straight. YET there were signposts in ASiB that indicate that, while Irene is a trigger which sparks Sherlock’s recognition of sexuality, it is not she that he ultimately wants. When he awakes and finds himself with Irene in ASiB he asks ‘Where’s John’. And Irene herself tells John that he and Sherlock are a couple. Ultimately, Sherlock does not go with Irene; he remains with John. And furthermore, any confusion Sherlock has in that regard is resolved in TSoT via meta. See this metapost by loudest-subtext-intelevision.
LINKS TO OTHER GREAT JOHNLOCK SIGNPOSTS on TSoT:
- Operation Johnlock is a Go by loudest-subtext-in-television
- Sherlock ‘dancing’ with John in the mirror at the reception.
- The nurse telling her story to John/Sherlock and their reactions
- Mary as a good/bad influence (horns, thumbs up/down shirt, lighting).
- How Sherlock is equated to the bride in TSoT
CONCLUSION: By the End of Season 3, Sherlock is proven not to be asexual and is, in fact, romantically, physically in love with John Watson—and he knows it. THIS IS NOW CANON.
Obstacle #2 John is not gay
To me, John’s ‘straightness’ was always the least problematic obstacle. Here’s why:
- John from the start is amazed by/fascinated with Holmes. Let’s review: he moves in with the clearly oddball Holmes at once, praises him at the first crime scene, and by the end of the day shoots a man to save his life. He has an immediately and serious ‘mancrush’ at the very least. John so admires Sherlock he is willing to put up with all his bullshit and takes care of him domestically, etc. John admires Sherlock’s intellectual skills enormously. (Brainy is the new sexy). And for Sherlock Holmes to be interested in John Watson would be tremendously flattering to John if nothing else. We’ve seen in numerous episode that John wants and needs to hear that Sherlock values him.
- John never says no to Sherlock. Ever. If Sherlock needs something, or wants John to do something, he always capitulates in the end. Part of this is just John naturally following Sherlock’s lead, part of it is John wanting to take care of Sherlock, and part of it is Sherlock’s great ability to manipulate John. So if there was no woman in the picture, and Sherlock put the force of his will on getting John into his bed, what would be the result? Unless John had a very, very strong aversion to gay sex he would likely capitulate in the end. The attraction he shows around Sherlock suggests that’s not the case, and even the way John readily gets into Sherlcok’s space in the drunk scene in TSoT “I don’t mind”. Of course, it’s not so simple because Mary is in the picture.
- John is a very sexual and romantic being. From episode #1 on, John is constantly seeking a liason, with just about any decent-looking female that crosses his path. Furthermore, we know that he fell for Mary very quickly as in TEH he says it is a ‘bit soon’ to be proposing. The truth is, John could be with dozens of potential romantic partners. He is not ‘picky’. For Sherlock, there is likely only John, but for John it could be Sue, Jane, Mary, or Alice. (And by this I don’t mean to imply Mary isn’t a specifically good match for John, but this is the truth). So why not Sherlock, whom he adores? It’s a stretch to switch teams, yes, but for a man with this much craving for sex and affection, and this much flexibility in his partners, it’s not an impossible stretch.
- We have hints from the start that John is attracted to Sherlock. While it’s certainly open to interpretations, entire flotillas have sailed based on the chemistry in the first episode alone. In the conversation at the first meal, John asks Sherlock if he has a girlfriend or boyfriend. Sherlock shuts him down, and John then denies he was ever interested, but it’s not all that convincing. We know that John comes on to people he’s attracted to immediately. He did that with Anthea in the car that first episode. So it isn’t surprising he would try to suss out any potential with someone as attractive and magnetic as Holmes is very quickly, at their first meal, even if John himself is not ready to consciously admit he was sexually interested in ‘a bloke’.
- We know that John loves Sherlock very deeply. His devastation at the end of TRF is much greater than you would expect from someone who has merely lost a friend. He has things ‘he never said’ to Sherlock. And he tells Sherlock straight-up in TSoT that he loves him the most next to Mary (meaning platonically at this point). So if he were ever to be open to a relationship with any man, it would be with Sherlock.
- John may be being set up as bisexual in any case. Read this lovely meta about the colors in the pub crawl by Sherlock Meta. Also, I explain the possible other meanings of ‘Hamish’ in this post.
For all of these reasons I would suggest that were there NOT a woman not in the picture, and Sherlock revealed he was sexually interested in John, it would not take much for John to fall.
For that reason, the writers have put new obstacles in the path of this romance to stretch it out. Those obstacles are MARY and the BABY.
So What Happens Next?
If you accept the above evolution of Sherlock as a character, that by the end of TSoT he has become consciously aware of his romantic/sexual attraction to John, then the outstanding question is which path the writer’s will take.
Option 1: Sherlock pines for his straight best friend ad infinitum.
In this scenario either John remains ignorant of Sherlock’s interest, perhaps in part due to a forced separation on Sherlock’s end, or he does come to know it but rejects Sherlock as a potential partner (due to Mary or just his own nature).
- This would be a fairly safe place to go for the show’s creators. People might accept Sherlock pining for John as long as it never resulting in anything physical like a kiss. They might be able to justify that as ‘he just misses his friend’ or bromance or whatever. Pining is open to interpretation and DENIAL is not just a river in Egypt.
- It could keep the show going a long time – more crime focused, but with that constant piney/tension undercurrent.
- It’s not very original. We know from interviews that Mark Gatiss’s favorite Sherlock interpretation is “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes’, a film which depicts Sherlock as a gay man secretly in love with a clueless, straight, upright John Watson. So it’s been done.
- It’s not particularly modern. This scenario is much more believable in the original ACD canon timeframe, but in 2013? Would Sherlock pine silently forever? Would he maybe try to date someone other man? Wouldn’t he at least admit his feelings to John? After all, they are no longer considered ‘perverted’ or ‘shameful’. And such a relationship is no longer ‘the love that dare not speak it’s name’. The reality is, they could be a couple if they both wanted to be one.
- You can only stretch this kind of unresolved tension out so long. Eventually Sherlock and/or the audience would tire of it and he’d have to let it go, or see someone else, or confront it, go back to disassociating himself from feelings, etc.
OPTION 2: John returns Sherlock’s interest and eventually they hook up.
Assuming my argument on why it is even possible for John, as a character, to get into a gay relationship, then we still have the obstacle of Mary and the baby and the current dynamic.
I was actually disappointed that in TEH and TSoT we really don’t see John conflicted about marrying Mary whatsoever. He shows no signs of being ‘torn’ now that Sherlock is back, of wanting to live at 221B. No, he is completely comfortable with his new life. Sherlock is his friend, Mary is his love interest, the end. There is no conflict in John. So how can he have any sexual feelings for Sherlock?
I think John has put the idea of Sherlock as a potential romantic partner from his mind. Perhaps he has always been somewhat in denial about the nature of his obsessive feelings for Sherlock, because Sherlock is a man. But more importantly, Sherlock was never interested. Before he was always very clearly NOT a sexual being. So John, not being the boorish sort who would press himself on an uninterested party, had every reason to shut the lid on any feelings of his own and throw away the key. Up until the end of TSoT, John has no reason to think that has changed.
But if John did become aware of it, and he did return the interest (eventually), what would that look like?
Predictions on the Progression of Johnlock if it happens (from a romance writer’s POV)
- So at the end of Season 3 we have the following scenario: Sherlock has realized that he is romantically, sexually in love with John. John is ignorant of this fact, and he is recently married to a woman he loves (and thinks he is straight). And she is pregnant. Cue the drama train.
- At some point in HLV or S4, John realizes that Sherlock is interested in him that way. And John knows Sherlock, so he would recognize how rare this is and that it is not a whim. I imagine this will be quite a shock to John having assumed all this time that Sherlock was ‘above all that’. And caring about Sherlock, John would also recognize the pain in Sherlock’s position. This pain may even put Sherlock in danger (from drugs or self-harm).
- I imagine something will happen in John/Mary’s relationship to take off John’s rose-colored glasses. Perhaps Mary is involved with Magnusun in some way. I doubt she is entirely evil, because that would be too simple, but whatever occurs, it does affect John’s feelings for her to some degree and their relationship becomes strained. Not ended, strained. Again, this is more complex than just ditching Mary as ‘evil’.
- John then struggles with this knowledge of Sherlock’s feelings and his own less-than-ideal marriage. At this point, John will have to have his own episode like TSoT, that is, his own ‘epiphany’ where he finally ends his internal denial about the nature of his relationship with Sherlock. But John is a good man—even if he decides he returns Sherlock’s feelings, he would not want to hurt Mary nor end a marriage lightly. And there is a baby on the way which makes it even more complicated. To me, this validates the entire ‘why are they adding Mary’ in the first place. Because it gives a new angsty obstacle to the romance and one they can milk for quite awhile.
- At this point we have unhappily-married-John who wants Sherlock but is committed to staying in his marriage, and a pining Sherlock who wants John, yet they cannot be together. Angst and UST. AND STILL TO THIS POINT THE BBC HAS NOT CRUSHED ANY MAJOR HOMOPHOBIC TOES.
- Eventually though, John will have to decide. Either he wants Sherlock (including that way) more than he wants to be with Mary or he does not. Loudest-subtext-in-television does a great analysis here in which she makes the valid point that it would be much stronger writing if John has to decide to leave a healthy wife and baby to be with Sherlock. Killing Mary off and having John go back to Sherlock by default would be taking the coward’s way out. I completely agree.
- And then there’s the baby to consider. Again, loudest-subtext-in-television in the post referenced above makes some good points on this. I personally am not a fan of parentlock or kids in general in this sort of dynamic, yet it could be interesting. There seemed to be some set-up in TSoT that pointed that direction—Sherlock relating to Archie, the boy. Sherlock committing his vow to the baby as well as to John and Mary. It could be quite amusing to see Sherlock trying to deal with a baby. So let’s say John does leave Mary and Sherlock and John end up co-parenting with her. Of course, alternatively the baby could be lost and this is just about Sherlock/John/Mary.
- The above could well take all of seasons 4 and 5 (or even more, honestly). Assuming eventually we have a resolution where John and Sherlock do become an actual couple, where would the show go from there? Again, I tend to agree with Loudest-subtext-in-television’s analysis that the show might become one-offs at that point. Both actors are hugely popular and hard to schedule. However, I think they could also get a few strong seasons out of the John-Sherlock dynamic(with or without a child in the mix) and people reacting to that. God knows there are a zillion plotlines you could devise for laughs or chills with that pairing. So I think the future would be open.
Other Arguments Against:
To address the remaining arguments against johnlock:
- It would be the end of the road. Not necessarily and/or that could be the plan. See my above points on the progression of the series. But one thing I ADMIRE about British TV is that some great shows had a limited run – Queer as Folk, The Office, etc. They don’t need to draw things on forever. This allows the writer’s to do a REAL ARC with a REAL RESOLUTION as opposed to something like LOST which just got ridiculous. I hope that’s the case here.
- It would take balls of steel. Yes. It would. Are we ready for it as a society? I think we might be, and I think BBC Sherlock could be a huge turning point. It certainly would be modern and original. Frankly, I really hope they have the nerve to go there.
- The creators and actors have all adamantly denied it. Yes, they certainly had me convinced it would NEVER be canon. Until TSoT in which Gatiss shows his hand in an undeniable way. Why have Sherlock have his sex/love epiphany it if will never be resolved? Here’s a good post on why we should not take their denials too seriously.
- It’s not ACD canon; it never happened that way. BBC Sherlock is about bringing ACD to the modern age. There was always a strong bromance/slash component to ACD only in that era it could not have gone anywhere. Today there is no such stigma so it would be a brilliant updating of their relationship IMHO.
Will johnlock happen for real? Before TSoT I would have said no. Now I say ‘yes’. Sherlock’s side of the equation has already been established so it must at this point EITHER be ‘pining Sherlock’ or johnlock. Personally, I think johnlock is by far the more sophisticated, braver choice.