The Johnlock Conspiracy — Romance and Holmesian Deduction in the Sherlock Fandom
Even within the world of geekdom, few fans are more controversial than the slash shipper (someone who perceives and/or hopes for romance between two characters of the same gender). Often stereotyped as unrealistic and immature for "reading between the lines," there always seems to be a significant discord between their musings and the more socially-acceptable form of rabid obsession from fans who accept the universe as-written. Johnlock (aka John/Sherlock) fans are well aware of this fact, and often complain that at conventions and other Sherlock-related press events, questions about Sherlock Holmes' relationship with female characters are given thoughtful answers, but those regarding his potential relationship best friend/life partner John Watson are met with annoyance and dismissed. Frustrating perhaps, but if anything this has made shippers even more determined to prove their point.
Following the show's incredibly successful third season earlier this year, #tjlc became a trending hashtag on tumblr, signifying The Johnlock Conspiracy: the belief that the frankly astounding amount of homoerotic subtext on the show is intentional, and that the writers have been setting up the detective and his blogger as a couple from the start. Not as absurd as it sounds, considering that creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat have a history of lying to protect plot lines (they previously rolled their eyes and made fun of fans who speculated that Moriarty was still alive). The mischief and trickery of the show runners is by now well established, so the question becomes: if we can't trust what they tell us, what exactly do we have to go on? Johnlock shippers have taken a tip from their favorite detective and turned to their own powers of observation.
Since its conception the #tjlc tag has been filled with filmography breakdowns, literary analyses, historical parallels, character studies, and allegorical interpretations that all point to one thing: Johnlock as endgame. And these are not your stereotypical teenage slash shippers; he tag's contributors consist of graphic designers, professional cinematographers, English professors, gender studies majors, psychologists, actors and writers of varying ages and sexual orientations. Are they reading too much into the show? Perhaps. But whether or not they overestimate the writers, one thing is clear: the writers should not underestimate them.
The following observations are only a few of the many deductions fans have made to support The Johnlock Conspiracy - some stretching and some truly brilliant - all of it a fascinating venture into what fuels the mind palaces of one of televisions biggest and most diverse fandoms today.
1. Platonic staring
This is probably the most obvious. If there's one way to upgrade the ever-popular "bromance," into something more, it's with eyesex. In a Zimbio article examining the romantic tropes used on the show, Hayley Igarashi asked, "Does anyone on television gaze into each other's eyes as much as Watson and Holmes?" They gaze into each others' eyes. They glance at each others' lips. Each also spends a lot of time watching the other when they're not looking, something Jim and Pam spent years doing on The Office; it's the tried and true way to imply longing.
On a related note, check out these promo pictures (yup, these are the pictures they chose to publicize their show with). More intense looks.
Heteronormative relationship standards have come under fire recently from both feminists and LGBT advocates, with many making the point that while it is embarrassingly easy to make an audience accept a straight couple, it is difficult to get mainstream viewers to even consider a gay couple.
One Sherlock fan pointed out that, "People do not question men and women meeting, having an argument, and immediately falling into bed together, sometimes all in the same scene. It doesn’t even have to have anything to do with the story [...] But if it’s two men, suddenly they can spend years dancing around each other and batting their eyelashes at each other and missing signals and pining over each other, and the relationship can’t even be considered slightly plausible without a 200-page dissertation on why it’s absolutely integral to the plot."
Some have said the same thing about pictures like the one above; if one of them was a woman no one would question the romantic/sexual undertones present.
What's unclear is whether or not the show's creators have realized that this actually puts them at a significant advantage in an industry where you can usually see the romantic arc coming a mile away - that is if they ever decide to follow through with the subtext.
2. "I'm not his date!"
If the writers didn't want people to ship John and Sherlock, this scene was their first mistake. Simply having John say, "I'm not his date," doesn't dissuade people from perceiving an attraction; in fact, it does just the opposite (see the entry on the common TV trope "She's not my girlfriend!" for more). It doesn't help that the ensuing conversation goes as follows:
JOHN: You don't have a girlfriend, then?
SHERLOCK: Girlfriend? No, not really my area.
JOHN: Oh. Oh? Right. [pause] Do you have boyfriend? Which is fine by the way.
SHERLOCK: I know it's fine.
JOHN: So you've got a boyfriend?
JOHN: Right. Okay. [licks lips] So you're unattached. Like me. Fine. Good.
It's okay, Angelo - it's an easy mistake. This is the first of many times that people assume the two are romantically involved/attracted to each other; it has been perceived by Angelo (the restaurant owner), Mrs. Hudson, Mycroft, Moriarty, Irene Adler, Sally Donovan, John's girlfriend, the Baskerville Innkeeper, Kitty Riley, most of the general public, and Sherlock himself after the interaction above.
According to the creators, this is purely comic relief that fans shouldn't take seriously. In reality, it shouldn't surprise people that this encourages shipping since this is a strategy that has been around since the greek chorus: the ensemble sets the tone and helps the audience form opinions about characters and situations. If the writers truly didn't want audiences to ship the two characters, they made a mistake here... and continued making it in subsequent seasons.
For two people who aren't romantically interested in each other, Sherlock and John do not react exceptionally well to the other being in a relationship. Sherlock crashes John's dates and is rude to his girlfriends, leading to John's inability throughout the first two seasons to be involved with anyone. But when Irene Adler actively, and mildly successfully, starts flirting with Sherlock in A Scandal in Belgravia, John is not even subtle about his jealousy: interrupting their conversations, making passive aggressive comments, and counting the number of times she texts him (57 times), just by listening for the text alert noise. What would cause ladies' man John Watson to become hostile and dismissive of the most attractive woman in the show? (besides her unsettling ability to read him like a book - see #11)
4. Sonnet 57 is the one that made everyone think Shakespeare was gay
Doctor Who, which Steven Moffat writes for/acts as show runner for, also referenced this in The Shakespearian Code:
THE DOCTOR: Come on! We can have a good flirt later!
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE: Is that a promise, Doctor?
THE DOCTOR: Oh, 57 academics just punched the air. Come on.
5. An abnormal attraction
In His Last Vow, everyone's favorite super sleuth tells us flat out that John Watson has a type. "You are abnormally attracted to dangerous situations and people, so is it truly such a surprise that the woman you fall in love with conforms to that pattern?" No, but it is surprising that Sherlock is comparing John's attraction to his wife to the same drives that made the two flatmates compatible. And it's not just Mary; the women Joh has shown interest over the course of the show have grown subtly more... Sherlockian.
Sarah Sawyer, whom John met in The Blind Banker, is basically his female equivalent: light hair, steady, gentle personality, etc. But Sarah is soon followed by Jeanette: tall, dark and sarcastic; Louise Mortimer: tall, dark and intelligent; and Kate (who was sent to Sherlock by Irene "I know what he likes" Adler): cool, mysterious, and dressed in flowing black clothing. When we meet Mary Morstan John seems to have broken his pattern, but of course we eventually learn that she is a stronger dose of psychopath than even Sherlock.
6. People might talk
It would be difficult to make a list of every gay comment Sherlock and John have made toward/about each other. But they include:
"I prefer my doctors clean-shaven"
"I don't shave for Sherlock Holmes"
"I'm glad no one saw that. You ripping my clothes off in a darkened swimming pool. People might talk."
"Oh god yes"
"Only a fool argues with his doctor"
"Am I... pretty?"
"You being all mysterious with your... cheekbones, and turning your coat collar up so you look cool"
"All the nice girls like a soldier"
"(A date) is where two people who like each other go out and have fun" "That's what I was suggesting"
"Am I a pretty lady"
"Whatever shakes your... boat... I'll shut up now"
"The thrill of the chase, the blood piping through your veins - just the two of us against the rest of the world"
(There are more, but we'll get to them later)
7. The melancholy wedding
By the third season it seems that Sherlock has gotten over driving off John's girlfriends and just wants him to be happy, but he doesn't look particularly happy about it. He goes above and beyond being the best best man he can be, and seems genuinely happy when he and John are smiling at each other at the reception, but his smile fades as John turns away to dance with Mary, and he leaves alone looking heartbroken.
In the next episode we learn that after not seeing each other for a month, Sherlock is back on drugs and John is not so happy in married life; appearing bored and agitated and even dreaming about Sherlock while his newlywed wife sleeps next to him.
8. Sherlock Teaching John to dance
Hey look at that fan art! Oh no, wait, that's something that actually happened on the show. They wisely decided that actually depicting it would lead to far to much sexual tension, and when they did reference it, it was so referenced casually so casually it was like they hoped no one would notice.
SHERLOCK: Don't worry, Mary... I have been tutoring him.
JOHN: He did, you know. Bakers Street behind closed curtains. Mrs. Hudson walked in on us once - don't know how those rumors got started!
This little exchange did go unnoticed by many when it first aired, which is understandable as it was happened very quickly and was masked my loud music. Still, the show runners must have felt it was necessary to include it. The reason why is not particularly clear, but it has inspired some really lovely fan art.
9. The wedding dress imagery
This is Sherlock's reimagining of an event: they could have dressed her in anything, but they dressed her in something with romantic implications. Mary, in a wedding dress, shooting Sherlock. Symbolism perhaps?
10. The Show's Origins
Mark Gatiss has admitted that this particular adaptation of Sherlock is based on his favorite film, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, of which he says:
"The relationship between Sherlock and Watson is treated beautifully; Sherlock effectively falls in love with him in the film, but it's so desperately unspoken."
It's important to remember that Gatiss interpreted that incarnation of Sherlock Holmes as gay, and that he and Steven Moffat used it as the template for their version. Of course this doesn't mean it will end happily...
11. The "Battersea Scene"
Named for its location (Battersea Power Station), this interaction between John and Irene has been analyzed like no other. Among all the "Johnlocky scenes," that could pass as merely gay jokes, sexual orientation is not played for laughs in this scene. Irene Adler, who has already told us a million times she knows what people like, accuses John of being jealous, to which he responds defensively "We're not a couple" ("Yes you are") The key moment goes as follows:
JOHN: Who the hell knows about Sherlock Holmes, but if anyone out there still cares, I'm not actually gay.
IRENE: Well, I am. Look at us both.
John looks a little taken aback, and gives a rueful laugh, but does not deny her implication. This isn't even subtext; the message is clear, "We both like women, but we've also both fallen for Sherlock." Quite possibly the most blunt the show has ever been regarding the matter.
John is even compared to Irene through the soundtrack - their respective "themes" are audibly similar, and in the third series are even used interchangeably.
12. "I'm not gay!"
It's worth noting that this is all John ever says on the subject. It says absolutely nothing about whether or not he has feelings for Sherlock, as you technically don't have to be gay to fall in love with someone of the same gender, according to most modern theories on sexual orientation.
13. Dr. John Hamish Watson
John is very secretive about his middle name - he refuses to tell anyone about it, leaving Sherlock to figure it out on his own. He only brings in a moment of jealousy while Sherlock and Irene are flirting. "Hamish."
"Dr. Hamish Scott Henderson was a well-known Scottish writer, poet, and former soldier.
He lived for a time in London with another man, loved storytelling, and wrote poetry about his experiences in WWII's Desert War.
He was openly bisexual and hated the word 'gay.'
In 1993, he performed at an event with Nelson Mandela at the University of Glasgow, alma mater of writer/co-creator Steven Moffat." ()
14. This entire scene is lit like the bisexual pride flag
An exact match, actually (albeit upside-down). This could be a joke played by the lighting designer, or maybe they honestly aren't aware. Or maybe they know exactly what they're doing.
They also cut a "lengthy" gay club scene from the stag night, presumably because they thought that would be too obvious.
15. Music cues (part one)
This is the end of the John/Sherlock era. The music playing at the end of this scene is, "We Found Love in a Hopeless Place," by Rihanna. The beginning goes:
It's like you're screaming, and no one can hear
You almost feel ashamed
That someone could be that important
That without them, you feel like nothing
No one will ever understand how much it hurts
You feel hopeless; like nothing can save you
And when it's over, and it's gone
You almost wish that you could have all that bad stuff back
So that you could have the good
16. "I don't mind"
Here we have the opposite of John's usual "not gay" catchphrase, accompanied by what has been christened the Knee Touch Heard 'Round The World. The sequence goes as follows:
JOHN: [touches Sherlock's knee, looks at Sherlock, looks at hand, shrugs] I don't mind.
SHERLOCK: (quietly) Me too.
Again, this one's not really open to interpretation; it's pretty blunt, and one writer or another made the conscious decision to write that line into the show. The entire scene is pretty flirtatious, actually (full analysis of framing + body language here), with one reviewer writing of its resolution: "Faced with either confronting the sexual tension in the room or drunken investigation, we’re treated to Sherlock’s somewhat dulled deductive skills..." A sign that it's no longer just the shippers that are taking notice.
17. Hidden hearts
There are two hearts "hidden" in the scene where John is climbing the stairs to (unbeknownst to him) meet Sherlock for the first time since his wedding. One is formed by the lighting and the two columns in the background, and the other is on the staircase.
There was also a heart wreath directly between them in The Hounds of Baskerville which went unnoticed until a fan digitally enhanced a screenshot of the scene. But yes, someone put (or chose to not remove) a heart between them during the sitting-in-front-of-the-fireplace dialogue.
18. Speaking of Hearts, Sherlock literally restarted his and came back to life for John Watson after he flatlined in the hospital...
19. The Mind Palace
The architecture in both these shots, taken during the mind palace sequence in His Last Vow, is based on locations from A Study In Pink, the first case he ever solved with John. So John Watson basically restructured Sherlock's whole (imaginary) world.
20. John + Sherlock = Mr. + Mrs. Holmes
Again, we're not sure if the Johnlock-denying writers are aware of this or if it was the wardrobe people having a laugh, but either way, it's in the show. When we first meet Sherlock's mum and dad, they are dressed in the exact same clothes as Sherlock and John, respectively. The comparison continues in His Last Vow, with Mr. Holmes describing his wife as the genius and himself as the "sane" one.
You know, they say you look for one of your parents in the person you fall in love with...
21. Music cues (part 2)
They chose a romantic, and very applicable, song for John and Sherlock's reunion: "Dónde Estás, Yolanda." The lyrics in English are:
Where are you, where are you, Yolanda?
What happened, What happened, Yolanda?
I looked for you, I looked for you, Yolanda,
And you're not there, you're not there, Yolanda.
The sparkle in your eye
the fire of your lips
conquered my heart and I fell in love with you.
If someday I was to find you
I wouldn't know what to do
and I think I will go crazy
if I never see you again.
22. Drunk Reactions
Let's be honest: the only point of the nurse telling the story of her date with the Mayfly Man was to show Sherlock and John's drunk reactions to it. Those reactions are pretty interesting; they include John smiling at Sherlock when she says, "We had one night. Dinner, such interesting conversation, it was lovely," And Sherlock awkwardly removing his hand from behind John's back when she says, "To be honest, I'd love to have gone further."
Important to remember: John had called Sherlock "nurse" earlier in the episode, and the Mayfly Man's real name is Jon.
23. Whatever He Is
JANINE: I wish you weren't...
[John Watson walks into frame]
...whatever you are.
SHERLOCK: I know.
24. The revelation
Earlier in that scene Sherlock was happily dancing around the room and confided to Janine, "I love dancing... I was waiting for the right case."
Well, Sherlock had solved a case that afternoon that began with him pointing at women in a courtroom and saying, "Not you, not you, not you not you..." and ended with him pointing at John and saying, "You. It's always you. John Watson, you keep me right." Hmm.
Many fans have interpreted the case in The Sign Of Three, as a metaphor for Sherlock consciously realizing his feelings for John, making the melancholic end of the wedding all the more tragic ("Why'd it take so long to see the light?" taunts Franky Valli in the background)
25. The ideal man
But heartbreaking love triangles aside, what you're really wondering is: Did Sherlock paste John's head onto a drawing of the Vitruvian Man? Why, yes. Yes he did.
Leonardo daVinci's famous Vitruvian man was drawn to have perfect proportions and is widely accepted as an example of "the ideal man." Well now we know who Sherlock's is... *wink wink*
26. John's PIN
Just to remind y'all that the feeling is mutual (but still a dang secret), we get a pretty good shot of John's entering his PIN number in one scene, which is 7437.
7437 is the keypad equivalent of SHER, Irene Adler's passcode that we are given as proof of her feelings for Sherlock.
27. Hey look, it's Cupid...
In His Last Vow, we get a nice shot of Sherlock and John walking past a statue of Cupid. (As tumblr user skulls-and-tea said upon noticing it, "Fancy meeting you in a show about a totally platonic blokeship.")
Yes L’Enfant Guerrier, Warrior of Love, is depicted riding an ostrich, an animal famous for sticking its head in the sand. Sherlock too is going into battle, as we see during the ensuing showdown with Magnussen, motivated by a love that dare not speak its name. A love that sticks its head in the sand and leaves millions of viewers crying and yelling at the television and writing in-depth analyses of it online.
This may seem like a good example of fans reading too much into something, but it is indeed worth considering what many call the "Arwel Wyn Jones" Law: If it's on the screen, it's meant to be looked at meaningfully. (Arwel Wyn Jones, Sherlock's production designer, is famous for his excruciating attention to details that subconsciously support the plot; next to the cupid-ostrich sculpture, there was a magnifying glass advertised online as the "Smith and Watson Desktop Magnifying Glass" and he earlier tweeted that the background artwork in the reunion scene was of a phoenix rising from the ashes).
28. The Sacrifice
His Last Vow culminates in Sherlock shooting Charles Augustus Magnussen, a move that shocked audiences around the world. It made Sherlock Holmes a murderer and stripped him of his career, his reputation, his liberty, and quite possibly, his life. Why the hell would he choose that? Was he just pissed he had been outwitted?
No: we are given the answer in A Study in Pink, when Sherlock himself explains, "Bitterness is a paralytic. Love is a much more vicious motivator."
Love. The episode is called His Last Vow for a reason; in it Sherlock fulfills his last vow, to ensure John and Mary's safety, giving up everything in the process. This is driven home by a beautiful shot (above), which makes use of several romantic tropes: the wind in their faces, the hero's steady gaze, the tears in his eyes. The moment he decides.
29. The Casablanca Allegory
The writers proceed to (accidentally?) compare Johnlock to the most famous romance in cinema: Casablanca, creating visual parallels between the two goodbye scenes. Funnily enough, it turns out that the rest of the two stories match up pretty well too! For those that haven't seen the movie:
Rick Blaine (Sherlock) and Ilsa Lund (John) were once in love but they get separated for a long time and in each other’s absence Ilsa falls in love with somebody else. They reconnect after a long while, and Rick discovers he is still madly in love with her though she is with another man. Ilsa's new man (Mary) has gotten himself into trouble with the Third Reich and needs to escape, and Rick does a bunch of illegal stuff for them. In the final scene, he sends the the love of his life and her new lover on the plane to fly off to freedom and be together, sacrificing his own love and freedom for hers. (Paraphrased from tumblr user martinfreeman, not to be confused with actor Martin Freeman)
Okay, so it was Sherlock that was flying off in this case, but other than that, you've gotta admit this is either a really weird coincidence, or some strong ammunition for the supposedly "deluded" shippers. Unfortunately, it may also mean that this is all they're ever gonna get, as Rick and Ilsa do not end up together in the end. Still, Casablanca is given an ending; Sherlock is given a cliffhanger. In the final moments of the season Sherlock tells Dr. Watson that, "The game is never over," and it's pretty safe to say that as long as Sherlock Holmes and John Watson are on the hunt for clues, the Johnlock fans will be as well.
Complete list of ALL the romantic tropes used in Sherlock (there are 157)
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