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TFC Guide to shipping: JOHNLOCK

Sherlock/John is the relationship between Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson from the BBC TV show Sherlock.  This is the most popular ship of the golden era of fandoms. It inspired a great number of fanworks and controversies. Here we will tell you the story behind Johnlock.

 

Peculiarities

The Sherlock/John tag in Ao3 has more works in it than all the other ships combined and has been in the top 5 of the most popular ships on Ao3 since 2013.  A group of Johnlock shippers was convinced they were going to become canon. Together they put what is going to be known as The Johnlock Conspiracy.

 

How did it all start?

The Sherlock Holmes fandom is one of the oldest out there. People have been speculating about the doctor and the detective relationship for decades but the interest in these two increased after the Sherlock Holmes 2009 film and the BBC’s 2010 TV series. The latter became an instant hit on Tumblr and turned into one of the most prominent fandoms on the platform alongside Supernatural, Doctor Who and Teen Wolf.

From the get-go, the BBC series pointed towards the ambiguous relationship between John and Sherlock. In the first episode and having just met each other they were mistaken for a couple! and so the shipping started.

Fandom Beginnings

The fandom was there before the BBC aired the first episode. Not only traditional Sherlock fans were waiting for the show but the 2009 film adaptation brought new and younger members to the fandom putting all things sherlock in the spotlight.  The fact that Doctor Who writers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss created the show made Whovians ready to board the Sherlock boat as well. According to fanlore.org the first LJ community for BBC Sherlock was created a week and a half before the first episode aired. Sherlock was popular among fandom members from the get-go. Johnlock fic was posted on various sites hours after the first episode was aired so why were these two characters so shippable?

 

Why are they shipped?

At the time there were two types of Johnock shippers: your usual kind of shippers and TJLC supporters. They overlapped but in general, the TJLC supporters strongly believed that Johnlock was going to be canon at the end of the shows.

The reason so many people shipped and ship Johnlock is that there was a lot of romantic subtext between the characters. If you add the fact that these characters had been shipped for decades it made the perfect combo. Sherlock mentioned several times that women weren’t his area but never said that about men. Most characters that knew Sherlock for the longest time assumed he was gay.  John and Sherlock had jealous behaviour towards each other romantic interests: John counting Irene Adler’s texts to Sherlock and Sherlock being a brat towards John’s girlfriends. All these were obvious hits made by the writers but it was all played as a joke.

 

Johnlock shipping survey

Here you can find an interesting survey about Johnlock shippers. The survey got over 800 responses and had very interesting categories. it shows that some of the most common reasons for shipping sherlock were that the characters fit together and they had great chemistry. The heavy romantic and homoerotic subject within the show. Most participants stated that they shipped Johnlock but significantly fewer people said to support TLC.

 

Popularity

The ship is the most popular in the fandom. It has currently (17/01/2022) 65472 fanfics on ao3. Johnlock ranked into the top 5 most popular ships of Ao3 for 8 years straight (2013 – 2021) It made it to the 1st position during the first Ao3 ship stats in 2013.

2013 – 1st place on the Ao3 ship stats.

2014 – 1st place on the Ao3 ship stats.

2015- 2nd place on the Ao3 ship stats.

2016- 2nd place on the Ao3 ship stats.

2017- 2nd place on the Ao3 ship stats.

2018- no data

2019 – 2nd place on the Ao3 ship stats.

2020 – 2nd place on the Ao3 ship stats.

2021- 2nd place on the Ao3 ship stats.

 

The Johnlock conspiracy

The Johnlock conspiracy or TJLC is a fan theory that proposed that Sherlock’s writers intended to make Johnlock canon and that they had been hinting at that during the series. At its peak, TJLC (2014-2015) was treated as a real outcome by a big part of the fandom but towards the arrival of season 4, it was clear that it was all fan speculation and the writers had been toying with the fandom the whole time. Even though the majority of TJLCers were just analysing the show and engaging in harmless debates this part of the fandom had a bad reputation and it was notorious for the drama it stirred and its toxicity.

The Beginnings

The TJLC conspiracy had its inception in 2014, the golden age of Sherlock’s fandom. At the end of season 2, Sherlock faked his suicide followed by a two-year hiatus. This long period between seasons made the ideal environment for fans to generate countless theories about how Sherlock faked his death. That was the mystery everyone wanted to solve and the writers encouraged them to do so. Fans got used to analysing every second of media available to them to solve the puzzle but when season 3 was aired the mystery was unresolved.

During the first episode of the 3rd season, a Sherlock fan group called The Empty Hearse was introduced. It was clearly a parody of the actual fandom and it was treated as the buut of all jokes. This group gather together to theorise about Sherlock faking his death making outlandish theories that included shipping. At the end of the episode, Sherlock explained how he had faked his death but he implied that he could be lying. In that way, the mystery was not only never solved but it turned out to be unimportant for the series. One would think that this creative choice would disencurafe fan speculation but nothing is quite as simple with Sherlock fandom. When the writers decided that the mysteries in this mystery show didn’t matter fand turned to another biggest clue to solve: JOHNLOCK. So a few days after John got canonically married to Mary Morstan the TJLC started.  To summarise, TJLC was an argument against the critics that said that all the jokes and insinuations about Sherlock and John being a couple weren’t queerbaitin but were rather clues that pointed to Johnlock being endgame. At the time TJLC was often compared to a cult. Their believers were convinced they were right and often clash with fans that found their arguments to be weak.

Multifandom-madness points towards users Jollibee and grace books for the creation of the acronym TJLC after Season 4 Episode 2 was aired.  On January 7th, the loudest-subtext-in-television posted “Trust in Gatiss: Operation Johnlock is Go” [2], which put into words what many Johnlock shippers were feeling – that the romance between Sherlock and John is real. In this post, multifandom-madness explains the main reasons behind TLC. Here we created a summary with the most important ones.

 

TJLC’ main arguments

Sherlock is not interested in women: During the show, Sherlock said again and again that he wasn’t interested in women but didn’t state the same about men.

Sherlock being heteronormative: Sherlock made a deduction about John’s sister falling from an heterormative point of view. For TJLC supporters this hinted how the audience was going to react to Sherlock and John to later be being proven wrong just like how happened with Sherlock.

Everyone in the show assumes  John and Sherlock are a thing: this was played for laughs but for TJLCers the writers weren’t queerbaiting or mocking the LGBT+ community but playing the long game and trying to send fand off the Johnlock track.

Shaftesbury Avenue and Anteros: During the pilot episode a statue of Anteros the god of unrequited love appeared in the title card. TJLC fans took this as a sign of Johnlock being a thing and that the episode shows the character believing to have an unrequited crush for each other.

John’s PIN: The pin was 7437 with translates to SHER in a phone keypad. It is the same password used by Irene Adler, a character that admitted to being attracted to Sherlock. Hers formed the iconic phrase: “I AM SHERLOCKED” thus implying that John was Sherlocked too. Also, Irene stated that she liked women but had fallen for Sherlock anyways so John could fall for him too.

The Elephant in the Room: There were elephants hidden all over set during season 3 episode 1 The Empty Hearse. TJLC believe that it was all a metaphor alluding to the elephant in the room that was Johnlock being in love. Later the set designer would admit that the elephants didn’t mean anything that she just like how the animal looked.

Sherlock leaves the wedding early: The detective left John’s wedding early clearly distraught about something. TJLCers believe that that is something eas the fact he believed to have lost his chance with John.

Bisexual lights: this one was an actual way of film analysis. There were a lot of scenes that were illuminated with the colours of the bisexual flag: pink, blue and purple. All these details are often carefully played so it wasn0t outlandish that fans believed that to be an intentional clue.

Aborted love confession: At the end of season 3 Sherlock is said to have something important to tell John crating the typical love confession moment only to end up telling a joke. It was up to the viewer to think about what Sherlock wanted to confess and it was easy to believe it was about having feelings for John Watson.

 

THE END OF THE TJLC

In the August 2016 season, 4 promotions started. Even though the cast and creators stated that Johnlock wasn’t going to happen they still said that the show last season was going to be groundbreaking and that it was going to show something never seen before… which a lot of fans read as a Johnlock confirmation. Everyone was waiting to see if the TJLCers were correct or if everything was a big queerbait from the start. Here is when the trainwreck happens. Sherlock’s fourth and last season aired and it was so bad. Mary was shot dead because why no, sherlock had a secret sister with superpowers and Redbeard the dog was a dead child and ofcouse Johnlock didn’t happen.

 

The Russian leak

Before the last episode was air. A Russian channel accidentally leaks the episode throwing the fandom into a frenzy. Some people claimed that watching the leak episode was immoral and ruined the long wait the fandom had to endure but many (like the person writing this article) watched part of the episode anyways even without subtitles. The ones that knew someone fluent in Russian were lucky. Obituary Tumblr and Twitter were flooded with this spoiler and a lot of fans knew beforehand that Johnlock wasn’t going to be a thing and were waiting to see the meltdown. Some were worried because the expectation was too high and the disappointment was promised to be HUGE.

 

Johnlock didn’t happen

A lot of fans were genuinely distraught, some claimed that all the queerbaiting traumatised them and others were furious. By the end of season 4, everyone was disappointed. The queerbating became apparent and the fandom started to decline. The community stop being as active as it used to be and it lost its prevalence on Tumblr. Remember that TJLC was called a cult? well, like they were prohetaising an apocalypse that didn’t happen they started to postpone the moment when Johnlock finally would become canon. They called this theory the lost special.

 

The lost special

There were two versions of this theory one that said the last episode was fake and the real one was going to be aired as a Christmas special and the other that stated that the last episode was indeed true but a secret special was going to be aired and make Johnlock canon. How that was going to happen? Apple Tree yard was a TV show that filled the gap left by Sherlock. Before its premiere, the TLJC supporters said that the show wasn’t real and it was just a cover for the sherlock special. The fandom would have to wait a week to see Johnlock become canon! Of course, that didn’t happen. Apple Tree Yard was an actual show. Even though TLJCers flooded the BBC with complaints Johnlock never become canon. CLosing the long journey of one of the most influential fandoms in history.

 

The Aftermath

After the disappointing last season, Sherlock fandom crumbed like the Roman Empire. Many fans are still sore about the wueerbainting and the way the show started for the path it started with a solid first season. It was a sad ending to oneJohnlock of the big three fandoms of the 2010s and it marked the end of the golden age of Tumblr. The ship is still popular as the Ao3 ship stats show but not as the collective it used to be.

 

Some great videos about Johnlock and TJLC

What do you remember about this time in fandom history? Share your stories with us!

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Hamlet is our Editor-In-Chief and co-founder of The Fanfic Collective. She has a degree in Communication Studies. Hamlet is currently an English teacher and part-time dancer. She landed on the world of fanfiction after reading a Jonas Brothers fic when she was 12. Her main fandoms are Sherlock, The MCU, Good Omens and Buzzfeed Unsolved. You can catch her on AO3 as Igraine_Smiley.

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