When is a gay joke not a joke? When it’s metafictional commentary.
This is one of the most layered and hardest to parse moments in The Abominable Bride - which is really saying something, given that the episode’s a drug-fueled metafictional masterpiece. To understand this scene, I think it’s important to place this particular line in context. I’d like to draw your attention to three observations:
First: this is the first time that any Moriarty - living or mind palace - clearly sexualizes or romanticizes John and Sherlock’s relationship. Sure, Moriarty recognizes their bond and shapes many of his attacks around it, but he tends to desexualize and denigrate it, for instance calling John Sherlock’s “pet”. Given how frequently other characters directly or indirectly call them queer, it’s noteworthy that Moriarty waits until now.
Second: there’s another first here - this is the first time that Sherlock has replied directly to an insinuation that he is queer, or that he and John are or ought to be together. Again, given how frequently other characters make these remarks, it’s noteworthy that Sherlock doesn’t respond until now.
Third observation: the number of these remarks decreases drastically in Series 3/TAB. We get several of them an episode in Series 1 and 2. The beginning of Series 3 continues this pattern, with comments from Mrs. Hudson before Sherlock’s return and from Mary before Sherlock and John’s reconciliation, but after about halfway through TEH, it’s hard to come up with any more examples - especially ones as clear as “If you’ll be needing two” or “You jealous?” or “You and John Watson, just platonic?”
What does it mean, that the writers are tapering down? In-universe, one can say that John’s marriage makes people less likely to assume he and Sherlock are queer. But I think there’s a metafictional reason.
I’ve heard TJLCers use the phrase ‘gay or trash’ to summarize the view that the queer content in BBC Sherlock’s first ten episodes is queerbaiting if the show never becomes explicitly gay. Nowhere is this sentiment more applicable than when it comes to the gay jokes. I call them ‘jokes’ because Gatiss does: “The idea of them possibly being a couple is inspired by the joke in the Billy Wilder film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, our favorite version. And we thought that was a good idea to run with that.“
Yet it’s not really a joke in TPLoSH - it’s a plot point, sure, but it’s a “fantastically melancholy” one. There’s nothing funny about TPLoSH’s Sherlock’s secret, unrequited heartbreak. Nor are they really jokes in BBC Sherlock - they are reflections of Sherlock and John’s actual queerness and feelings for each other. They just appear as jokes to heteronormative viewers.
But Moriarty’s comment is clearly meant to be read a joke. It’s cliched in its phrasing, and delivered in Moriarty’s typical over-the-top manner. And after three-ish episodes without an obvious gay joke, it stands out as one.
And what does Sherlock respond with? He calls it ‘offensive’.
The writers have taken us on a long journey over the course of six years and ten episodes. The queer content has become more obvious, the heteronormative reading less tenable, with each season. These ‘gay jokes’ no longer have a place on the show, not as jokes. To make those kinds of references again, to have someone make an assumption of queerness and to have Sherlock ignore them, or to have John say “I’m not gay”?
That would be offensive.