The Sexual Tension Between Sherlock Holmes and John Watson

There’s a long tradition of trying to crack the famously celibate Sherlock Holmes. In Arthur Conan Doyle’s short stories, the adventuress Irene Adler wins a spot in his pantheon as “The Woman,” but she matches wits with him rather than trying to seduce him. Laurie R. King, in her Mary Russell books, married off Holmes. And while Holmes’ companion, Dr. John Watson, does eventually marry a woman, but that hasn’t prevented generations of readers and analysts from wondering if the flatmates at 221B Baker Street are something more than heterosexual bachelors.

Sherlock, the recent BBC adaptation of the classic story, updated the events, making Watson a veteran of America’s most recent misadventure in Afghanistan—and foregrounding the sexual tension between the two. While Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) is more open about his essential asexuality, the show makes a joke of the assumption that Holmes and Watson are a couple. Whether they’re out at a restaurant or on an investigation, waiters and acquaintances of the pair keep assuming they’re on dates or an established couple. But the joke’s on them—and us—for assuming. The show isn’t actually going there, though it does have Sherlock’s nemesis, Moriarty, introduce himself in the guise of a gay man hitting on our hero, whose obliviousness keeps him from recognizing vital clues.

But the next riff on the show promises a new take on the dynamic. I don’t particularly feel we urgently need another modern update on Sherlock Holmes, but we’re getting one in the form of Elementary, which will star Jonny Lee Miller as Holmes, and in a nice twist, Lucy Liu as Watson. It wouldn’t be the first time that a woman’s played one of the roles that Conan Doyle created as a man—Watson’s granddaughter thawed out a frozen Holmes, once, and Inspector Lestrade’s been a woman. But this is the first time, as far as I know, that the original pairing’s been a man and a woman.

That means the show can do one of two things, either of which would be interesting. It can have Miller and Liu get along purely as friends, which given the dominance of slow-burn will-they-or-won’t-they cops-and-their-partners shows on television, which would be refreshing and different. We could use more solid friendships between men and women in pop culture. And if they don’t do that, Holmes and Watson can finally get it on. Bones appears to have finally broken the Moonlighting curse, proving that a will-they-or-won’t-they couple can get together without blowing up a show. So maybe we can see Holmes and Watson’s partnership go through some growth, evolving beyond its—admittedly entertaining—stasis.