Decoder Ring: The Johnlock Conspiracy

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Podcast Episode
Decoder Ring
Episode Title: Decoder Ring: The Johnlock Conspiracy
Length: 52:26
Featured: Willa Paskin
Date: June 4, 2018
Focus: TJLC
Fandom: BBC Sherlock, Sherlock Holmes
External Links: Slate episode page, Wayback capture

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"The Johnlock Conspiracy" is an episode of the Slate podcast Decoder Ring. In the episode, host Willa Paskin discusses TJLC in the context of Sherlock Holmes fandom over the years, in addition to addressing this history of shipping and other practices of transformative fandom. The episode is primarily presented as a primer for those who are unfamiliar with TJLC and BBC Sherlock fandom history.

Today: Who gets to decide if Sherlock Holmes is gay? For more than a century, fans of Sherlock Holmes have been analyzing, debating, and creating new texts using Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters. Decoder Ring explores the Johnlock conspiracy, a fan theory about the BBC TV show Sherlock, which posits the inevitability of a gay romance between Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. With interviews from historians, journalists, and fans at the heart of this controversial idea, this episode explores the theory, how it played out in the real world, and whether this kind of fandom is a meaningful way of interacting with fiction.[1]

Some Topics Discussed


Note: these excerpts are from the lightly edited partial transcript of the episode published at Slate.[2]

This discrepancy between what the people making the show and the people watching the show think could happen on the show is normal. This gap—between what the creators put on screen and the ways fans interpret it and expand on it and argue with it—that’s the elemental stuff of fandom, the space fandom needs to exist. Fans sometimes come up with dynamics and events and conversations and interpretations and, yes, sexual arrangements, that no show ever would or could. And most of the time, this isn’t just fine, it’s the fun.

But then in 2014, just after Season 3 of the show aired, a user posted a very elaborate fan theory online.[3] When I say very elaborate, I mean it was tens of thousands of words of high-minded literary analysis that began by interpreting a BBC report on queer representation and then went on to closely read every episode of Sherlock, the shot composition, the score, the colors, the lighting, the dialogue, the references, the letters in the character’s names, all with a helping of string theory.

The idea all this analysis led to was that John Watson and Sherlock Holmes were not only characters with gay subtext who should be together, they were gay characters who were going to get together in the show. Johnlock was going to happen, for real, most likely in the then-upcoming Season 4.

This became known as the Johnlock conspiracy: TJLC for short. Much of the theory is based on close textual analysis, the kind an English teacher would love. But TJLC wasn’t based only on close readings of the show. You have to understand, Sherlock and John could only be getting together if the creators were lying to viewers—because the creators said, over and over, no way, it’s not going to happen. Now, to be fair, the creators did often lie. Steven Moffat, who was also the showrunner for Doctor Who, is especially well-known for misleading fans and the press about specific plot points in the shows he makes, both in interviews and at panels at fan conventions. But when it came to questions about Johnlock as a romantic pairing, the showrunners became particularly unequivocal.

Whether or not Moffat and Gatiss are lying is one of the fundamental question of TJLC. And it’s one we can’t really know the answer to. It’s not possible to prove that someone is lying about something that hasn’t happened yet—until it doesn’t happen, which we won’t know until Sherlock is over forever. And as long as there is potentially more Sherlock, it always could. TJLC became, for some people, irrefutable. I want to be clear that there were people who were into Johnlock or TJLC in different ways, who thought of it primarily as a great hope or a fun idea or a worthy cause, a huge leap forward for gay representation. But for some TJLCers it became an eventuality, not an opinion or a possibility. Shipping other pairs or doubting the theory, even thinking it was really clever but probably not going to happen, was denying that truth, not just one ship among many. For some fans, TJLC became too important to doubt—so they started to attack the doubters, who then attacked back.

Fan Participation in the Podcast

Various fans (including TJLCers and others), as well as fandom journalists, acafans, and Holmes experts were interviewed and/or consulted for the episode, both on TJLC specifically and fandom more generally. Aja Romano and Emma Grant were both thanked for "getting us into this world" during the credits of the episode. Anne Jamison was also interviewed for the episode, and her book Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World is cited as further reading.[4]

Elizabeth Minkel spoke about her role in the episode on her own podcast Fansplaining:

If anyone missed it there’s an I thought really well done episode of the Slate podcast Decoder Ring which does a kind of one off deep dive into a cultural topic once a month. Willa Paskin was the journalist and I spoke to her for this episode though not about Sherlock or Johnlock, I talked to her before she came to that specific focus. But I talked to her about shipping and I really think she did her research cause you can tell she listened to me and a few other shipping experts really, you know.[5]

graceebooks, one of the creators/coiners of TJLC, was also interviewed for the episode.

TJLCers React on Tumblr

The podcast episode was met with criticism on Tumblr by some TLJCers. Some fans attributed the perceived misinterpretation of TJLC in the podcast episode (and by the media more generally) to misogyny and homophobia,[6] and others rebutted the characterization of TJLC as a toxic community rife with doxxing and other forms of harassment.[7] In a meta post entitled In Defense of TJLC, Tumblr user sherlock-overflow-error addressed "four of the most common arguments against TJLC through the lens of the argument presented by Willa Paskin," while also taking issue with Paskin's assessment of TJLC as a practice of transformative fandom, positing that TJLC is not a generative creative practice, but something more akin to literary criticism.[8]

Graceebooks, who was also interviewed for the podcast, posted a commentary on the episode on June 4, 2018:

1. on one hand, although obviously she was introduced to this whole concept by way of a perspective on it that i find deeply unfair and fundamentally skewed and incomplete, and that isn’t something i think was even functionally possible to overcome within the bounds of reasonable time and resources, she at least successfully convinced me that she really was coming to the topic in good faith and genuinely engaged in a search for the truth, as elusive as that may ultimately have been.

2. on the other hand, here are a few things i think were unfair enough to warrant mention...[9]


  1. ^ Decoder Ring: The Johnlock Conspiracy by Willa Paskin. Slate. Published on June 4, 2018. Accessed on July 8, 2018.
  2. ^ The Case of the Fractured Fandom by Willa Paskin. Slate. Published on June 4, 2018. Accessed on July 8, 2018.
  3. ^ While this meta isn't mentioned by name, it is likely M-theory, originally posted by Tumblr user loudest-subtext-in-television on March 9, 2014.
  4. ^ Decoder Ring: The Johnlock Conspiracy by Willa Paskin. Slate. Published on June 4, 2018. Accessed on July 8, 2018.
  5. ^ Transcript: Episode 77: The Truth About Toxic Fandom, Fansplaining: The Truth About Toxic Fandom. Posted on June 30, 2018. Accessed on July 8, 2018.
  6. ^ Tumblr post by shinka. Posted on June 5, 2018. Accessed on July 7, 2018. Archived November 20, 2020.
  7. ^ Tumblr post by one-thousand-splendid-stars. Posted on June 2018. Accessed on July 8, 2018. Archived November 28, 2020.
  8. ^ Wayback machine capture of the original Tumblr post by sherlock-overflow-error. Posted on June 14, 2018. Accessed on July 8, 2018.
  9. ^ Tumblr post by graceebooks. Published on June 4, 2018. Accessed on July 7, 2018. Archived here on March 3, 2019.