Saw Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows tonight, and had much great fun. Is it just me, or have we seen a tendency in the last 5-10 years for sequels to actually be better than the first movie of a series? If so, I attribute it to these being planned as series from the start, rather than the sequel being tacked on after the first one does well, and also on the way a second movie doesn’t have to spend all that tedious time setting up the characters and situation, but can just jump right into the story.
Anyway. That actually isn’t what I want to talk about here. Instead, I want to talk about slash, and how utterly inadequate I find that word for describing the situation with Holmes and Watson in this movie.
(I’ll try to keep this relatively spoiler-free, but I can’t promise about the comments.)
See, here’s the thing. To me — and I know people use the term in different ways, so this is just my own usage — slash is the process of taking the homoerotic subtext of a story and treating it as text. And one of the reasons I can’t call AGoS slashy is because it isn’t subtext. You simply cannot look at the interactions between Holmes and Watson in that film and think the story is not deliberately presenting you with two men who love each other very deeply, even if they can’t quite unbend enough to express that affection in direct terms.
The other reason I don’t want to call the film slashy is because, although you can find abundant bait there for imagining Holmes and Watson in a sexual relationship, I don’t read them that way. Partly this is because I get frustrated sometimes at how the slash lens tends to filter out all other possibilities for male emotional intimacy; we can’t let guys be friends or enemies even brothers without also sexualizing the relationship. That actually frustrates me sometimes, on par with my frustration over TV shows that like to use slashy subtext to engage the fans, but will never actually deliver on those wink-wink-nudge-nudge promises. (We can have slash, but almost never The Actual Gay.) Anyway, getting back to Holmes and Watson — sure, there’s certainly space there for reading it in that light. But I’m more interested in the story of two friends, because it’s a kind of friendship I feel I don’t see very often these days, where it isn’t all macho fellow-soldier camaraderie, but something with real vulnerability on both sides.
I don’t have a good term for what I see between them, in the first movie and especially the second. The closest I can come is a term my friends and I have used sometimes, “hetero lifemates,” for two straight people of the same sex whose friendship is of the lifelong kind. But it doesn’t quite hit the target I’m aiming at, maybe just because it’s unwieldy. Neither Holmes nor Watson would ever say it openly — let’s face it; they’re both late nineteenth-century men, and one of them is a rampaging narcissist — but they care as deeply about each other as either of them (okay, Watson) is capable of caring about anyone of the opposite sex. I feel like I need to resort to Greek here, except I don’t actually know which word I want. Agape? Philia? Eros? (Wikipedia claims that one doesn’t have to be sexual. Actual Hellenists, please weigh in.)
Whatever you call it, I’m fascinated by the way the movie embraces it, and does so without totally sidelining Mary Morstan. She doesn’t play a terribly prominent role, but they do make it clear that Watson isn’t marrying her just because it’s the sort of thing he’s expected to do. She and Watson have their thing, and he and Holmes have their thing, and it’s my sincere hope for all three characters that they manage to settle down into a dynamic that doesn’t force Watson to choose between them. Mary’s willingness to roll with various events suggests it may be possible.
I can’t refer to the guys as Holmes/Watson, though. They need new punctuation, something other than a slash. Any suggestions? 🙂 And, more to the point — what should we call this kind of thing, if it isn’t slash?