BBC SHERLOCK IS GAAAAAAAY: Or At Least I Really Really Hope So
Anybody who has spoken to me in the last five years or so knows that I have a bit of a Sherlock Holmes obsession. I want to try and explain why these fictional characters are so important to me, especially in their incarnation by Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman on BBC Sherlock.
I first watched the show in about 2012, when the first two seasons are on Netflix. Matt had already watched it, and I had slept through it. He was in the habit of staying up all night with Netflix going while I slept. He watched it and he thought I should watch it. I was Luke warm. My only experience with Sherlock Holmes was Laurie King's wonderful feminist reimagining about Mary Russell. The rest of it seemed sort of, I dunno. Stodgy. Ridiculously masculine. But I agreed, and watched it all in one sitting more or less. As we often do now in this age of Netflix binge-watching, over two or three days I got to the end of the Reichenbach fall, the sixth episode and final episode. It ends with Sherlock leaping from the roof of Saint Barts hospital apparently to his death. He leaves poor Dr. Watson bereft and in terrible pain, and unable to express the last important thoughts with his mad flatmate.
I wanted more. Only six episodes? How is this possible? And not just more action and mystery, or clever British banter and high speed rooftop chases or technologically dazzling deduction scenes. Because actually, it's a terrible action show. The mysteries are ridiculous (there was a giant Hungarian living in the sewers, an enormous glowing hound, and a killer Chinese circus, and the biggest baddy of all flashed his undies. I'M NOT MAKING THIS UP.) The effects border on silly (the flashing screen at a bank heist "Hacked.") And the dialogue continually elevates your expectations and then pooh-poohs them. It's like a Monty Python skit where it'll say look at the beautiful distant shining Camelot! Nope it's only a model, full of self aware parodies and metatextual injokes. There's something about that rug pulling give-and-take dialogue that gives the show the same kind of otherworldly absurdist poignancy of Doctor Who or Torchwood. Make sense, since it's shares some of the same creators. One of my favorite examples of this is the way that Sherlock and Mycroft appear to be playing Chess but actually it's Operation. This isn't some highbrow intellectual show, it's a bit of silliness about a cartoonishly broken heart.
So I wanted more. But there was one thing specifically that I desperately needed after watching those first six episodes. I felt like the relationship between John and Sherlock needed more. To see poor John slouched in grief and unable to speak his feelings, standing at Sherlocks grave, and to see Sherlock heading out on his post fall adventures without John… No. It was all wrong. I needed them together.
I'll admit it. I needed specifically for them to kiss each other.
I'm not sure where this need came from. I've never been a shipper, I've never been in a fandom. But after watching those six episodes, I needed to see their relationship become romantic. I think there were cues built into the text of the film that made my desire to see their relationship become romantic the natural outcome of what I was seeing. The dialogue about whether or not Sherlock has a boyfriend or a girlfriend, the dialogue about Watson being "a very good boyfriend" to Sherlock Holmes, the dialogue with Irene Adler about how John and Sherlock are a couple whether or not John admits it, and how Irene, although she is a lesbian, still finds herself attracted to Sherlock because attraction and sexuality are sometimes unexpectedly complex.
These all suggested to me that the real question that is left unanswered by those six episodes isn't whether or not Moriarty really died, or how Sherlock faked his death. The real question is how are these two damaged humans going to be able to connect romantically and, as John says, find fulfillment as a human being through romantic entanglement.
The obstacles to the connection aren't external. They're internal. They are Sherlock's bizarre claim that he's a high functioning sociopath. It's John's adamant claim that he's not gay (as if you have to be gay to fall in love with a man: #bisexuality is a thing John!) It's John's concern about how other people perceive them, and when the press insinuates they might be in a relationship ("confirmed bachelor John Watson") he says they have to "be more careful." It's Sherlock's internalized lesson from Mycroft that sentiment is "the fly in the ointment, the crack in the lens," and that "alone protects me." They have terrible obstacles to overcome in order to be good for each other, and to be together romantically.
I made a terrible-- or wonderful--decision, depending on how you read what happened next. I googled: John and Sherlock kiss. Imagine the heavens parting! Google served me well! It turned out that there were beautifully done photoshopped images of John and Sherlock kissing and there were entire novel length stories written about how their relationship could progress forward, could survive the separation and betrayal of the fall from Saint Bart's, how John could overcome whatever resistance he had to gay love, and Sherlock could overcome whatever beliefs he had about himself being inhuman. I fell hard into the world of fanfiction. And wow, what a world. The writing in some of these works is so astounding it takes my breath away. It was staggering, the amount of creative energy that existed around this show.
My new obsession wasn't something that I felt like I could tell other people. There is such stigma against fan girls, against gay pairings, against fanfiction, and against the whole world and culture of shipping. For the uninitiated, shipping is when you imagine that two fictional characters should be in a relation"ship". Hence the ship. Most of the time, these ships are fun and based on actorly aesthetics. For example in supernatural, many people ship the angel Castiel and the demon hunter Dean. There's certainly some on-screen sexual tension between the characters but the show runners emphasize repeatedly with plot lines and in world characterization that no, they are not going to have a romantic relationship. And although they have adventures together and share a "special bond", shipping those two characters is more an exercise in creative fun--more about the giddy silliness of taking two pretty people and making them kiss. And there's nothing wrong with that kind of shipping. I enjoy all kinds of ships that really have nothing to do with their text of origin.
Shipping is a great game. You take characters with her own sets of personalities and emotions and motivations and back stories, and see how you could change their paths and put new obstacles in their way and clear others, and or in order to pair them with another character.
But Sherlock and John never felt like that to me. Their relationship seemed much more imperative. My viewing of that pairing was way more than just an aesthetic appreciation of Benedict Cumberbatch's cheekbones or Martin Freeman is adorable little run and compelling assholery. In fact I don't want anything to do with the celebrities themselves, and although I think they are admirable actors, I don't need to follow all of their other work. It's just those characters. Just John and Sherlock. I needed to see them together, healed, and united.
So for years I read tons of fanfiction. Pretty soon I had favorite authors who I would follow, and favorite online communities where I could find recommendations in conversation about the show. Sometimes these are squee filled insanity posts, fueled by the horrendously long time between the release of new episodes. This in the world of the fandom is affectionately known as hiatus hell. Hiatus -- often YEARS between seasons, and only three episodes per season-- tends to generate marvelous but ridiculous content, like reimagining Sherlock as a giant tuna. I don't know and I don't understand tuna!lock. But it's funny. Theres a lot of absurdity.
There's also incredibly articulate and in-depth textual and meta-textual analysis, compiled by brilliant viewers and readers of the original text and of the films and the movies. The online communities fed my obsession. I found works of art that hundreds of thousands of other people have read. I found fic that made me weep, like Alone on the Water by Madlori, imagining Sherlock's death by cancer, and the terrible unspoken things that live in Watson after his chance is gone. I've read mind bending time travel ultimate reality science fiction fic like Chrys's A River Without Banks. I've read novel length hard-core military gay erotica, "221 Bravo Baker" by abundantlyqueer, and thoughtful crossovers between the world of Sherlock and the Harry Potter universe like "You Are A Paradigm" by 1electricpirate. And I've gained a shared language, with thousands of other people who've read and loved the same things. And it's not just online.
I have gone to Watsons Tin Box meetings in Maryland, and been inducted. They said if you go once it could be an honest mistake but if you go twice then they figure you're there on purpose and you become a member. I teared up when they said that. I went to an astounding Sherlock Holmes film conference in Indiana and got to watch vintage Sherlock Holmes films and hear speeches from producers of the BBC Sherlock Homes radio show and the Granada Sherlock Holmes television series starring Jeremy Brett, David Hardwick and David Burke as Holmes and Watson and Watson.I went to the astounding Scintillation of Scions meeting in Maryland, where I heard brilliantly comical and ludicrous and insightful speeches about Sherlock Holmes in the ACD Canon, Sherlock Holmes and Star Trek and Watson's unreliability about Homes' musical taste. I was so overwhelmed and thrilled to meet these people all coming together to celebrate Sherlock Holmes. It felt like coming home to meet them in person and since then they've been a real source of love and support to me, and I feel like they are friends, even if I've only met them once or twice. I know about one's abusive ex-husband. They are real people to me.
One of my favorite artifacts of this fandom has been the Three Patch Podcast. It's a wonderfully well executed podcast focusing on the BBC Sherlock fandom, with segments interviewing fan artists and video creators and writers, a book club section where they read and discuss interesting fic with a panel, fascinating segments about sexuality and film studies and The Sherlock Holmes Canon… These episodes come out about once a month and they are long-- about three hours each. And I relish every single soundbite.
In the last few months I've discovered an astounding YouTube series by Rebekah TJLC, and it has reignited my passion for this John/Sherlock aka Johnlock ship. In over 50 videos, often an hour each, she goes into detail examining the soundtrack, the character arches, the cinematography, the subtext, the tropes, the writer's motivations and back stories… And she presents a wonderful case that Sherlock and John are indeed destined to become a romantic couple. In spite of the societal pressure that says that a mainstream action TV show can't be gay, in spite of the writers' protestations that that's not the story they're telling, in spite of late night talk show host mocking the fandom and their dirty little shipping, and the essentially misogynist anti-fan girl rhetoric that pops up anywhere you mention the wish for this ship to become canon-- for their romantic relationship to be a part of the show. I'm glad for these videos, because they are so well done, and they are just a really beautiful example of the level of love and care and thoughtful analysis that fans bring to create their experience with the show. But I think what these videos do, and all of the other detailed meta-textual analysis produced by fans, is just break down why I had that initial feeling that I needed to see John and Sherlock in this romantic relationship.
It seems that these creators have intentionally, softly, softly, created a drama that inevitably brings these two characters together in this way. Not as brothers in arms, not as platonic roommates, but as two men in love with each other, completely devoted to each other, sharing their lives in every way. I am intensely invested in this outcome. I feel like my heart is absolutely on the chopping block. So far two episodes of the new season have come out, and only one remains. In the two so far, we've seen them pushed together and torn more apart. Their own issues are becoming apparent, and the obstacles between them are still terrifyingly hazardous. But I still feel like they are destined to be together. Not in some kind of wish fulfillment "I just want to see them kiss" kind of way. I want to see them overcome those painful emotional hurdles that form the real conflicts in these episodes. As John says to Sherlock, "you're not a puzzle solver, you're a drama queen!"
If this show is not about their relationship, then it's Dadaist nonsense. I feel that it's vitally important that the show actually produce a mainstream action hero who is gay. And not just any mainstream action hero, Sherlock Holmes. From the moment of his publication, Sherlock Holmes and John Watson have been coded as queer characters. But they never in their 150 year history I have been able to be romantically involved. To be married. It's so overdue.
I'm so invested in this, especially at this particular moment in time, because the level of vitriol and hatred against people under that large queer rainbow umbrella of gay-bi-lesbian-trans-intersex-asexual-etc. Right now everyone under that umbrella is threatened. The world is taking an alarming turn to the fascist. For a little while with the legalization of gay marriage across the world in many countries, it seemed as though we were seeing a break in the historical phalanx of anti-homosexual relationships. Sure, as my grandmother said, everybody always knew that there were same-sex couples who are deeply in love and build their lives together, just the way that everyone always knew that Sherlock Holmes had his Watson and Watson had his Holmes, but there was just no need to say it out loud.
Why do we need to bring it out into the open? This is a question that I know many people who are even fans of the show ask. And it's so difficult for me to put into words why I so desperately want and need to see these characters be openly gay on television. I guess the simplest tiniest answer is that representation matters. In this era where hate crimes mean that trans youth are likely to be murdered, bisexuality is a high suicide risk, where gay couples can legally lose their jobs or their apartments based on their the sex of their partner, where gay youth have to look at subtext rather than text in order to see a mirror of themselves, it's just too important. They have to show these characters being gay. They just have to. I know, I know-- artist don't have a duty to tell "very special episode" stories that go in trying to push a particular political or cultural agenda. But this show is so so close, and they could really change history if they dared to be the first to tell this story in this way.
So I hope I'm right. It's such a little scrap, to hope that there will be some kind of fulfillment, some kind of confirmation of this deep feeling that I've had for years and years that Sherlock and John indeed are destined to be together. Not his housemates, not as partners solving crimes, but as husbands. I desperately hope that in twodays time, my five-year-old wish to see them kiss will finally be granted. If it is, it's a fist pumping moment for anyone who is desperate to see themselves reflected in characters on screen. Anyone who is broken and needs love. Anyone who is straight but maybe with a question mark about who it's OK for them to love. Anyone who has such a stuck idea about who gets to be gay and who gets to be straight but they can't even imagine the characters that they love could be anything other than straight. This would be an incredible victory for representation. I'll go into this weekend with all of my fingers and toes crossed that the makers of this beautiful show won't let me down, and that Holmes and Watson can be together at last.