It’s Not Okay: Normalized Emotional and Physical Abuse in BBC’s ‘Sherlock’

Your favorite Sherlock critic is back!


You can read my thoughts on last year’s Sherlock Christmas special, “The Abominable Bride,” here. I had lot of strong feelings about Moffat’s usual misogyny, and since the disaster that was Series 3, I’d kind of just shut my mind off to Sherlock by the time Series 4 rolled around this month. For a little while, anyway.

As much as I’d like to, we aren’t going to cover the blatant mistreatment of Mary Watson’s character, the lazy case-writing, or the deus ex machina deductive characteristics Sherlock Holmes has miraculously developed, though it’s important to note that they all contribute to my main subject. (Those are posts for another time.)

We are going to talk about the principal reason I fell in love with the show––why and so many people have invested so much of their time and energy into it over the course of 6 years: Sherlock Holmes and John Watson’s relationship. Where it started, and the awful place the writers have taken it now.

Let’s Recap.

In Series 1, John Watson, a war vet suffering from PTSD, becomes the flatmate of drug-addled consulting detective Sherlock Holmes. In the span of the first episode, John loses his psychosomatic limp chasing adventures with Sherlock and finds a reason to get up in the morning; and Sherlock finds in his new companion both distraction and mental stimulation to keep him away from drugs. Somewhere between their two personalities, they find a balance. And it works. They argue; they constantly challenge each other, but they trust each other. They are their best with each other.

Series 2 moves forward in this pattern as their dynamic becomes stronger. The audience begins to see as the episodes unfold that Sherlock, while appearing unfeeling and inconsiderate, actually does have the capacity to care at least a little bit. He’ll leave John in utter panic with a gun to his chest to get more information, sure. He’ll put John in all sorts of terrifying positions when necessary (including drugging his coffee). But he cares in subtle ways he arguably wouldn’t have showcased at the start of the show. He admits, as a form of an apology, in “The Hounds of Baskerville” how critical John is to his deductive feats:

Sherlock: You’ve never been the most luminous of people, but as a conductor of light, you are unbeatable.
John: Cheers…What?
Sherlock: Some people who aren’t geniuses have an amazing ability to stimulate it in others.
John: Hang on, you were saying sorry a minute ago. Don’t spoil it.

John has, in essence, opened up Sherlock’s humanity and brought it out in him. This is character development. It doesn’t excuse how insufferable and manipulative Sherlock can be, but it shows that he recognizes room for improvement, and if anyone can kickstart Sherlock actually understanding human feelings and gaining some empathy, it’s his one true friend, John Watson.

The emotional ending of Series 2 paints a clear picture of John’s agony in losing Sherlock. But, of course, Sherlock jumping off that rooftop did not signify the end for him. And I, like many fans, waited in bated breath for the next series to start, for John to find out that his best friend is alive, that his “death” was a ruse to keep Moriarty’s enduring influence away from those he cared about. The last shot is of Sherlock watching John from afar in a graveyard as the latter mourns his best friend. Sherlock’s expression has something behind it–sadness? Regret? Something beyond logic. Something very human.

Flash Forward…

Enter Series 3, two years later. Long story short, Sherlock makes his grand return, and John promptly punches him in the face. It’s all well and good until Sherlock and John are stuck in a subway car that’s about to explode, and we’re all at the edge of our seats, waiting. Even just a quick, I’m sorry, John, a small acknowledgement of the pain and emotional turmoil Sherlock has caused John to suffer would be enough. And sure enough:

Sherlock (bringing his hands up into a praying position): Please, John, forgive me … for all the hurt that I caused you.
John (waving a finger at him): No, no, no, no, no, no. This is a trick. […] You’re just trying to make me say something nice […] It’s just to make you look good even though you behaved like […] I wanted you not to be dead.
Sherlock: Yeah, well, be careful what you wish for. If I hadn’t come back, you wouldn’t be standing there and you’d still have a future … with Mary.
John (turning and pointing at him): Yeah. I know.
(He grimaces and turns away again. Sherlock clenches his fist against his mouth, then wipes his nose, his face full of despair. Finally John turns back.)
John (his voice low and tight): Look, I find it difficult…I find it difficult, this sort of stuff.
Sherlock (looking up at him): I know.
John (his voice not much more than a whisper): You were the best and the wisest man … (he sniffs) … that I have ever known.
(Sherlock looks at him, his eyes wide and tear-filled. John sighs, lowering his head again before raising it once more.)
John: Yes, of course I forgive you.
(Sherlock gazes at him. John meets his eyes for a moment, then he takes in a deep breath through his nose, closes his eyes, raises his head and braces himself for death.)*

Powerful, isn’t it? Until, as they brace for impact…the bomb doesn’t go off. And Sherlock goes from apparent tears of pain to tears of laughter.

Sherlock (laughing): Your face! Oh, your face! I totally had you! […] Terrorists can get into all sorts of problems unless there’s an off switch.
John (tightly): So why did you let me go through all that?
Sherlock: I didn’t lie altogether. I’ve absolutely no idea how to turn any of these silly little lights off.*

That’s it. After laying all his emotions out on the table, John has been duped by Sherlock Holmes, again.

No emotional payoff. None. And the show carries on, witty and clever as always, but something is different. Something’s changed. The development we’ve seen in Sherlock since Series 1 after he meets John––that which culminated in a deed motivated at least slightly by his concern for John and Mrs. Hudson and Molly and others––has completely reversed itself. Sherlock frankly doesn’t care––John’s life and his pain are all one big joke. And it provokes the question as to whether Sherlock actually meant any of the regret he expressed to John in that moment, or if he simply used John’s emotional vulnerability to get the forgiveness he––and the audience––required to move on. John is exactly right: the whole scene is a ruse to make Sherlock look good. This is emotional abuse at its finest.

And it’s trivialized. Sherlock Holmes is never held accountable for his actions. He never was before, but the glimmer of hope that he might be is gone with the end of “The Empty Hearse.” John calls Sherlock an asshole, and life goes on; that scene in the train, because it is entirely fabricated, completely devalues Sherlock’s apology. And that becomes a theme as we move into Series 4: fabrication and distrust between the two principal leads.

From One-Sided Abuse to Sheer Toxicity

Independent of the fact that it opens with Sherlock being let entirely off the hook for shooting and killing Charles Magnussen, Series 4 does nothing to call back to the character that Sherlock was slowly becoming because of John’s positive influence. In fact, he seems to be entirely bereft of any semblance of humanity he once displayed at this juncture. In “The Six Thatchers,” the running joke is John’s apparent uselessness––at one point, he’s replaced by a red balloon in his usual chair at Baker Street and Sherlock doesn’t notice.

“Har har,” laughs the audience, “John is irrelevant.” But sadly, at this point, he is. Sherlock has moved away from being a show about two people whose minds and hearts are greater together than they could ever be alone. They operate separately. And that’s not great, but it’s not horrible––it’s realistic, even. Relationships ebb and flow that way, and theirs is no exception especially in light of John’s loss of his wife.

But in order to get John back in his life again, what does Sherlock do in “The Lying Detective”? He plunges into a quasi-fake, life-threatening addiction to get his attention. The characters within the show support, even instigate this unhealthy narrative: “To save John Watson,” narrates Mary in her tropey in-case-I’m-dead video message to Sherlock, “you have to make him save you.” And when John bursts into Sherlock’s hospital room to find Sherlock has tricked him again to get a confession from Culverton? It’s still all fine in the end. They both chalk it up to Sherlock being “a cock” and life goes on. Sherlock quite literally threw himself into suicidal behavior to get his friend back, and it worked. Here the show blurs the line between healthy trust between two people and toxic codependence, and the characters barely bat an eye at the fact.

No, Sherlock isn’t held accountable for his actions…and we’re beginning to see that John isn’t, either. And while he’s never been written as perfect (he shouldn’t be!), he’s always had ingrained in him the morals that combat Sherlock’s apparent lack thereof. I’m not sure if this was the writers’ intention, but it appears to me that John Watson has had enough. The emotional abuse he’s faced, what he’s lost because of Sherlock with nothing so much as a real apology, has taken its toll. He’s become a bitter, judgmental version of himself––practically the person we met at the beginning of the show before he met Sherlock. In “The Six Thatchers,” we discover he’s cheated on his wife Mary (which is evidently justified in the next episode by the fact that it was “just texting”), an out-of-character choice in and of itself. When she dies, he subsequently cuts Sherlock out of his life, blaming him for her death. Finally, in “The Lying Detective,” his anger and betrayal come to a head when he beats Sherlock to a pulp when trying to stop him from killing Culverton. What’s disturbing about this scene is that it’s not an expression of frustration like in “The Empty Hearse,” but a melodramatic expression of relentless, pent-up anger…suggesting, I’d argue, that he almost enjoys it. Does this look like a healthy relationship?


It’s not. The audience knows it’s not, and Moffat and Gatiss know it’s not. They just like the drama. So what do they do?

They get the characters to hug it out at the end of the episode.


It is a beautiful, tender moment. It gave me chills upon first viewing. However, like much of Sherlock after Series 2, it functions as a distraction from what’s really going on. Sherlock and John have lied to each other, cut each other out of one another’s lives on-and-off, physically and mentally abused each other, and for what? To lead up to this moment? The tenderness is incongruent with where their relationship stands, and from what I’ve seen in terms of fan reactions, it’s served exactly the purpose Moffat and Gatiss wanted it to. They do what they’ve always done––give the fans just enough before pulling away. And the fans, so wrapped up in this beautiful scene, are too excited to notice that the embrace between Sherlock and John in this moment is based in anger and resentment.

It shows that despite Sherlock faking a deadly drug addiction to get John’s attention, despite manipulating John over the last two seasons and diminishing his worth and shutting him out, John will always go back to Sherlock. Always. And neither of them will acknowledge what they’ve done to each other. And it will be fine.

The difference is, these are no longer two people who respect each other despite their different backgrounds, upbringings, perspectives, and opinions. These are no longer two characters that complete each other in subtle ways––John providing the doctoral and the human perspective for Sherlock’s cold, calculating analyses. John simply exists now to orbit Sherlock, and while Sherlock has always had this magnetic control of others, John was different because he helped Sherlock achieve what he couldn’t have alone. He never just lurked in the background. He served not only as Sherlock’s board off which to bounce ideas, but his conscience, his opportunity for a new perspective, and simply an ally through Sherlock’s toughest cases both personal and public. Reciprocally, Sherlock, while not the most emotionally aware or altruistic of humans, did recognize John’s contributions in small ways, and he broadened John’s perspective.

Not anymore. Sherlock and John are no longer dynamic characters that benefit from each other’s friendship. They’re pawns in the writers’ game, and nothing else.

A Vicious Cycle

There is no guarantee what will happen in the Series 4 finale. In fact, we don’t know if any more Sherlock will ever be made due to actors’ scheduling conflicts. And perhaps within the 2-hour finale next week, Sherlock and John will have time to hash out the wrongs they’ve done each other. Maybe, like a good portion of fans are fantasizing, they’ll quite literally kiss and make up.

But none of that will happen. And even if it does, it won’t resonate the way it would have a few years ago. The show lacks the substance to sustain that dynamic, for Sherlock has become Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ outlet for constant mindf*cks, arbitrary trickery, and luring their audience into supporting a toxic friendship. Oh, and explosions.

The most realistic hope I can have is that, in a typical twist of events, Moffat and Gatiss have been playing us all along and either Sherlock or John has been imagining much of this whole season so far. It would be a cheap way out of an awful, out-of-character storyline, but it’s exactly something they would do.

But at this point, for me, it still wouldn’t repair the damage sewn two years ago in that subway car scene.

Sherlock Holmes is historically a logical, analytical “machine.” In its first two seasons, BBC Sherlock attempted to present a faithful, yet expanded interpretation of the character brought to life not only by the cases he brilliantly solved, but by the ways in which the man by his side helped shaped his ability to grow as a person and vice versa. But in the end, none of that seems to matter. Two seasons later, the twisted, codependent dynamic between them has drained the last bit of humanity from the show. All these characters bring out in each other now, it seems, is pain with no consequences. It’s hard to watch.

So, “Moftiss”: Pull the plug. It’s time. Your weird soap-opera-esque fantasies do not constitute an honorable tribute to a classic 19th-century literary duo.
“It’s okay,” Sherlock whispers to John at the end of “The Lying Detective,” putting his arms around him.

“It’s not okay,” says John through his sobs.

“No,” replies Sherlock, “but it is what it is.”

An apt summary of the last two seasons. Little about the de-evolution of their relationship is okay, but at this point, the writers have dug themselves into a hole, and, well. It is what it is.

My point is it didn’t have to be.

*Transcript copied from here

9 thoughts on “It’s Not Okay: Normalized Emotional and Physical Abuse in BBC’s ‘Sherlock’

  1. This is simply the best analysis of Sherlock out there. I agree with every word. There are so many out of character exchanges between Holmes and Watson and I agree about the underground train being a shift in the dynamic. Watson exposes his soul only to be ridiculed for doing so. Holmes might subtly tease Watson but he would NEVER hurt him.

    My expectations for tonight’s episode? I don’t know where it is going. I am confused, the ultimate detective, even whilst “off his t*ts” on crystal meth WOULD recognise his own sister. Please God, don’t let there be twins. We have already had flashback, dream and drug fueled delusion.

    I can only hope for the return of a semblance of humanity and respect, even if grudgingly given. I am so disappointed by the ‘Emperor’s new clothes’ attitude that many folk seem to have of this series. Take a step back.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agreed on all counts. The ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ comparison is particularly apt.

      I’m apprehensive for the finale as well. And frankly, I hope this last episode is the true nail in the coffin. The show’s lost sight of what it used to be and it would be a shame if it continued in this manner.

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting!


  2. Dear God, THANK YOU. And the Mary Sue-fication of Sherlock could not be more thunderingly obvious when you realise that Sherlock’s deceit, manipulation and selfishness are never, ever, not once, called to book or will ever receive material consequences. It can’t be wrong, silly, it’s Sherlock! The Empty Hearse reached the apotheosis of it, for me. Sherlock has put John through the wringer, fucked off for two years, and returned expecting John to drop everything for him. Then finally he wrings forgiveness from John at bomb-point….only to pull the rug out from under us. Now, it is one thing for Sherlock to do this. But for the show to present the whole thing as hilarious hi-jinks? For John to not even be allowed the space, televisual or otherwise, to tear Sherlock multiple new orifices? To not even acknowledge John’s right to his feelings? Fuck. You. Mofftiss.

    PS: come rant with me here, if you fancy!


  3. Hmm well I think it would be fairly obvious that the people in this series are as unhealthy as it gets. That’s why they’re made for each other.


  4. This is exactly why I couldn’t like Sherlock or John in series 4. As someone who was abused I was sickened by how they normalized abuse and made everything completely forgivable. Sherlock was tortured in Serbia, then almost killed by Mary, and then John’s beating; he should’ve been suffering PTSD from all that. Also John and Sherlock were absolute jerks to Mycroft. They could’ve just asked him, but instead they pulled off a scheme that’s lucky to not have ended in at least one dead person.


  5. This is a bit of a late reply. Just wanted to say that you’ve nailed it.
    The moment with the bomb was the exact moment I stopped watching the show.
    Glorifiying emotional abuse was not cool.


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