Okay, but seriously.  This is a good question, and there’s a lot broiling under its surface.

…Okay, this got long-ass, even for me, so here’s a short summary of the contents you’ll find below:

Sherlock is not a very good man and there’s a whole hell of a lot to blame him for, including some violations of John Watson.  John Watson is a better man but isn’t pristinely innocent either, and more often than not, fairly carries some portion of the blame himself.  He actually has an unsavory character trait, to go along with Sherlock’s colossal dickery, of being willing to dodge some portion of his fair share of the blame by letting Sherlock absorb it for him—a thing Sherlock willingly does (and not out of selflessness, but as part of his enablement of John’s worse traits, either because they give John pleasure or because they keep John at his side).  Also, it turns out that following the appropriate laying of blame through the show is a really useful way of tracking the plot arcs and evolution of relationships.

And now if you want to read all 3600 words of this monster, help yourself to the details.

The first point is that there is a danger in personifying fictional characters to much.  In real life, blame is not cute or funny.  It’s a vicious thing, and when you don’t apply it with fairness and compassion, it can be savagely damaging.

But we aren’t talking about real people.  We’re talking about characters, and in a narrative, blame is a commodity to be manipulated for the needs and purposes of the story that’s being told.  As consumers of the story, it’s easy to lose sight of that; after all, part of the point of a story is for us to step into the characters’ shoes and identify with them.  When we’re in the story, it’s being told about US, in a way—some corner of our minds that we have given over into its keeping to let it whisk us away.

So, that said, point : (spoilers under the cut)


In THIS story, the story of Sherlock the show, nobody is completely innocent   We had a very powerful scene where the three characters at the center of this season’s narrative cleared that up for us.  Two of them are (self-labeled) psychopaths (though realistically they are probably not so much psychopaths as simply very bad people; at this point, the narrative material we’ve been given has reached a stage where it smears real-life psychopathy and fictional psychopathy together like fingerpaints), and the third of them tries his hardest to be a good and moral man but possesses an addiction that, as addictions often do, leads him to take sometimes immoral actions.

If you want a really good, possibly innocent person, at this point you need to reach into the secondary characters.  Maybe the hard-bitten but still idealistic cop Lestrade, or the great-hearted and ferociously caring Molly (who did nevertheless stab her boyfriend with a plastic fork), or Sherlock’s gentle and blissfully unaware parents.

Point #3: It’s important to note that narratively, season 3 is a disaster area.  They went for the high-powered drama and the near soap-operatic interpersonal scenes, and were willing to sacrifice the logic of how the plot actually hung together to do it.  So while we can do our best to ground our arguments in the text, there is a limit to how effective that’ll be, because the text itself (not just the narrators, but the text) is unreliable.

Point #4: Now all THAT said, on Sherlock’s culpability vs. John’s.

First, let’s get that last scene out of the way.  

Lots of people are feeling wounded because they felt that John was too cold.  Sherlock recently shot a man in the head for him, and John is basically just giving him a wave as he goes off to this death.  But things to keep in mind about all this:

1: This does not happen moments after CAM’s execution.  They’ve had time.  Sherlock’s been processed (though god knows how; Mycroft calls him a murderer, but not a felon.  Did he have a trial?  I suspect not.  I suspect they slammed Official Secrets down on top of the whole mess and rolled him up into MI6, so he never so much as saw the inside of a court room).  But the point is, we can’t assume that this is the first time that Sherlock and John have talked since CAM died.  In fact, we can figure it isn’t, because John at least knows enough to ask “How long?”

2: Sherlock is being as undemonstrative as John.  Their body language is almost identical, both of them harshly restrained in expression.  It’s hard to say whether one of them is following the other’s lead in doing their best not to emote, or if both of them are being hyper-repressed bastards here.  Sherlock offers John nothing but a handshake.  John stares at it like a viper, and as Professorfangirl noted in a post, does that little hand wiggle he does when when he’s feeling threatened or indecisive.  Sherlock is the one who cracks a joke rather than saying something honest.  Which of them is the one refusing to emote here?

3: John’s already done this before.  He said his final goodbye to Sherlock at the end of last season—and beyond all odds, Sherlock heard him.  So truly, what do they have to say to each other?  Do they need to say anything?  They have shown each other what lies beneath the masks, and they both know it’s beyond anything they could sum up in words.  ”I’ve got nothing” is NOT an empty comment, and it isn’t dismissive.  Look at them!  They’re both fighting to find some words to sum it up, and then they both give up—and tell each other so.

4: We most recently saw—in the complete and total honesty of two men who’ve chemically destroyed all their inhibitions—what lies under those masks in TSOT, when they spent an evening sprawled drunkenly all over each other and gazing at each other with little hearts in their eyes.  Do you think that was just thrown in there as fanservice?  In light of the end of this episode, I think it was more than that.  THIS is what is under there, and if you’ve ever loved someone like that, you know that there are no words that can sufficiently sum up that expression they had on their faces.

5: SHERLOCK SHOT A MAN FOR JOHN.  IN FRONT OF THE POLICE.  Is John supposed to be unmitigatedly grateful for that?  Should he have no mixed feelings about a man being MURDERED for him, and his best friend—one of the two people he loves most in all the world—throwing his life away for John AGAIN, before his very eyes?  If that were me standing in John’s place, hell yes I would be grateful, but I would also be seethingly furious.  It’s not FUN to have somebody basically destroy themselves for you.  TWICE.

6: In fact Sherlock did not necessarily ONLY do it for John.  In Sherlock’s head, Mary and the baby count as part of John (and the fact that he was doing it for them is probably what lets John be as accepting of this as he is).  But do you think Sherlock wasn’t also thinking of Mycroft?  He put Mycroft’s life and freedom (not to mention the country’s) on the line for this gamble, and if you watch the scene again, when CAM is handling the laptop, that does weigh on him.

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, #7:  The entire rest of the series.  Does one goodbye outweigh an entire show’s worth of rabid, almost unhealthy devotion between two men who adore each other so much that even when they had barely met yet, the PRESS was crowing about the interpersonal tension between them?

So for anybody having a gutwrenching kneejerk reaction to that goodbye, think again.  The love and the mutuality and the context are all there.  There’s no blame to be laid on that.

Now, as far as Sherlock the character, morality, and blame in the big picture: 

(Dear god, this has gotten long enough that I need sub-headers.)

It’s important to remember that Sherlock is faaaar from innocent.  He insists, over and over, to everybody, that he is not a hero; that he doesn’t do this stuff out of a selfless desire to help others; that all he knows about ‘altruism’ is what he read in the dictionary.

And in the past, we have done our best not to believe him.  Surely it’s a matter of self-deprecation?  Surely the story is the story of his evolution into a better man?  Well, maybe.  But he sure as hell hasn’t gotten there yet.  He’s telling us the truth.

Sherlock still doesn’t do altruism.  He fucks over anybody he has to in order to get what he wants, including the people who are important to him.  It’s all a matter of value proposition to him; what can he stand to lose?  Not John Watson.  What is required to keep from losing John Watson?  Is he willing to pay that price?  If yes, then he does it.  (Perhaps also ‘the security of the UK’ is a thing he can’t stand to lose.  Perhaps also ‘Mycroft.’)

And he is again, not making these decisions based on some innocent, idealistic concept of what’s necessary to ~save the people he loves.~  He is well aware of the value others place on human life.  He is well aware of the value others place on marriage, engagement, social etiquette, reputation.  He just doesn’t care about any of those things as much as they do, and certainly not in any abstract sense.  They matter when they are tools that are of use to him, or of personal value to him.  Otherwise, they are nothing more than interesting cultural artifacts to him.

When it comes to the value of human life, he seems to rank people in some hierarchy of worthwhileness; he places some value on the life of someone who’s never done anything significant to hurt anybody; a child molester on the other hand, “who cares.”  And that might sound like a good and natural thing to many of us, till we think about it a bit more; if everybody went around with a private ranking in their head of who deserves to live or die, with a willingness to act on anybody who fell below the cut-off point…that would be a very scary world.

What’s more, he also understands that in a pure ranking of who is the best human being, John Watson is probably not at the top.  He sees John as an extremely good man, but he also clearly recognizes John’s flaws.  But he places John at the top anyway, because he loves John best.  (And if we add Mycroft to that list, then Sherlock KNOWS Mycroft is far from a stellar human being, but he’d still probably kill to protect him.)

All of which is to say that yes, Sherlock does some really, really terrible things in this show, and he is aware of them, and thus he bears full accountability for them.  Janine might have gotten her own back in good and clever fashion, but she really did like him, and that was a FUCK of a thing to do to a woman.  And in TEH, the story goes out of its way to lay out the fullness of the jackassery he pulled on John and does some heavy implying of just how badly it damaged John, but it never addresses that imbalance.  It can’t.  There is no way to make up for doing something like that to a person.  John forgives him anyway, and we are shown enough to understand the monumental scale of that.

That’s a theme of this season: sometimes people do things that are beyond all rational forgiveness, and it’s an act of pure love to forgive them anyway.

So…blame him?  Yes, I blame him for a lot.  I blame him for what he did to John with the Hiatus.  I blame him for fucking with Janine.  I blame him for all the petty, nasty, sometimes traumatic hurts he delivers on a daily basis to people he doesn’t know and doesn’t care about.

I don’t blame him for getting shot.  (I blame the writers, because seriously that whole thing was a sloppy setup.)

I do blame him for shooting CAM.  I UNDERSTAND why he shot CAM, and the context justifies him (legally it would be considered murder, but in the context we understand it was defense of him and his and, you know, the country).  But also he summarily took a man’s life and had no regrets about it, and there is a thing about life that, sometimes, you only get to choose between bad and worse, but when you choose bad, that doesn’t mean that you get to do it without consequences.

You know who else we’ve seen take a life with ambiguous justification and not regret it?  Why hello there, John Watson.

The blame dance and people besides Sherlock:

Which is to say, just because there’s a lot to blame Sherlock for doesn’t mean he’s the only person who carries culpability in this series.  John executed a man.  John has assaulted people.  John enables Sherlock in a lot of his sometimes-immoral, sometimes-illegal hijinks (sometimes John also yells at him about it, but still).

Sherlock and John, in fact, are MELDED in their blame.  When it comes to most things in the show, Sherlock may carry the lead, but John is an accomplice.  Legally and psychologically, there’s some bad mojo going on there.  Narratively, that’s part of their bond.  They’re in it together, even when neither of them should be in it at all.

In fact, one of the tricks the narrative does to divide them is split that blame.  When it is only Sherlock doing something he shouldn’t be doing (usually because he’s doing it to John), then it creates interpersonal tension and friction between them.

And now there’s Mary, who DID shoot Sherlock.  At least Sherlock and John shot ‘bad guys,’ but she shot the protagonist of the show, which is harder for viewers to handle, especially if they don’t question the usual narrative structure of protagonist = good guy (although pat of the point of this whole essay of mine is that you probably should question that here).  And Mary lied, to both John and Sherlock (successfully, too, though I wonder whether it’s because she’s that good or because, as part-of-John, Sherlock had extended her the same courtesy of not looking too hard without permission).

Actually, let’s follow this thread for a minute. When Mary is lying to both Sherlock and John, it narratively binds Sherlock and John together.  When Sherlock finds out the truth, Mary asks him not to tell, thus threatening that unity.  Sherlock resists the threat and chooses to narratively and morally (in a sense) stay united to John by revealing the truth to him as well.  And then we end up with the configuration of the two of them together and her the client.

And then later, John accepts her back into the circle (Sherlock leaves that decision up to him), and we have all three of them now on equal footing, bound together via secrets and culpability (well, John doesn’t actually read about her past, but he knows enough and accepts her anyway).

Blame, blame, blame, enough blame to go around for everybody.

Wow, no wonder we’re reading this show as so dark and unhealthy lately.  This thing is looking like a spy novel.  And I don’t think that’s accidental, by the way, because at the end of the season, we have one ex-CIA maybe-ex-assassin, and one consulting detective who is, at least for the moment, employed by MI6.  And one military veteran who’s probably about to descend into counterintelligence hijinks with his favorite psychopaths.

So.  Let’s bring it back down to the blame at the intimate level.

Blame and Sherlock and John’s relationship:

Fundamentally, of the small circle currently occupying the role of main characters, I do read John as the relative innocent.  Note that’s RELATIVE innocent.  He is innocent in comparison because of the three of them, he chooses to believe the better of people rather than the worst.  He is plenty aware of the badness of some people but does not see into the sewage-depths of society the way the other two can.  He is not privy to the level of ugly secrets and intrigue that Sherlock and Mary are.  He has lived on the edges of that world, but he has not waded through the middle of the swamp.

And thus, Sherlock (and probably Mary, in the future) possesses a certain amount of additional culpability (although mitigated by the fact that John’s kinda-sorta aware that this happens and follows anyway—but then again expanded because he knows that this is an addiction for John and Sherlock deliberately plays on that to lure John into these things) because he not only invites but repeatedly seduces John into following him into this stuff (not that John makes him work too hard at it, usually).  He also deliberately, systematically, routinely keeps John in the dark, even when it isn’t necessary (because it feeds his ego when he can drop it all on John in a single impressive lump and John ooohs and aaaahs at him), thus limiting John’s ability to brace for things and defend himself.

And yet, John consents to all this.  He knows it’s happening, and he lets Sherlock do it to him.  The fact that Sherlock is playing on John’s addiction as part of the process makes that consent dubious—how helpless is John to say no?  How much do his own needs affect what he’s willing to agree to?  The answer to that question dictates what portion of the blame falls on which one of them.

Here is the process, boiled down, and you may note that it is also the fundamental pattern of the show.  This is the game they play:

Sherlock uses John’s weaknesses to lure him in, reinforcing John’s addiction to danger by continuing to encourage and enable John to repeat that pattern.  He takes John into his hands, says, “Trust me,” strips John of his own ability to protect himself, and replaces it with Sherlock’s protections.  Sherlock is typically unable to entirely live up to this responsibility he’s taken on his shoulders for another human being, and John is kidnapped or menaced.  However, most of the time Sherlock manages to regain control.  Now and then, however, he doesn’t manage to, and it’s by sheer luck that one or both of them isn’t killed.

This consensual agreement is violated with the Fall, thus shifting the blame from lying between them to lying solely on Sherlock.  The agreement is then reinstated in TEH, when John accepts Sherlock’s apology.  Sherlock reaffirms it in TSOT, with his vow.  In HLV, they’re both in it together up till the very last moment.

And then it is all Sherlock again.  In fact, this time he is DELIBERATELY making sure that the blame cannot be shared, by making sure that everybody sees John had nothing to do with his action.  And this time, John allows him to take the blame—possibly less for his own sake than for his wife, child, and maybe the country.

But again, John has killed people like CAM before.  If Sherlock hadn’t kept reassuring him in the scene when CAM was flicking his face, we don’t know that John wouldn’t have hauled out the gun and taken the shot himself. Either one of them could have and would have done it, and so you can scroll back up and read the opening part on their goodbye for how the personal accounting of blame between them lies.

To sum up: Sherlock is not a very good man and there’s a whole hell of a lot to blame him for, including some violations of John Watson.  John Watson is a better man but isn’t pristinely innocent either, and more often than not, fairly carries some portion of the blame himself.

In fact, now that I think of it, tracing the path of culpability between characters for various stunts and arcs may be the clearest method of navigating the plot and interpersonal relationships of this show.

Addendum: John and blame:

One thing about John, though, that I’m beginning to notice—and this might be his great character flaw, the match to Sherlock’s massive general dickery—is how uncomfortable he sometimes seems with the possibility of being considered fully equal to Sherlock in culpability.  For example, how relieved he was when Sherlock pulled a gun on him in Fall, framing him as a victim rather than an accomplice.  He’ll do stuff, and help Sherlock do stuff, but he’s more uncomfortable about the idea of being caught at it.  (Granted it would probably cost him more; Sherlock’s threshold of tolerance for having his life fucked up or inconvenienced is pretty high.  Not a lot touches him.)

Since Sherlock generally doesn’t CARE if it’s his fault—when he does something, he knows why he’s done it and he knows the consequences—I think John tends to let Sherlock cushion him from the worst of the blame and the consequences.  This plays into their whole dynamic, with Sherlock as the leader and John the follower, Sherlock taking away John’s self-defenses to replace them with the ones Sherlock provides him, Sherlock letting John get into all kinds of hair-raising trouble without having to fear the worst of the consequences.

And Sherlock uses this, I think, as another element to coax John into their games.  He offers John an abrogation of personal responsibility for the things they get up to.  And this is uncomfortably close to a drug addiction, where there can be a dangerously freeing element of “It’s not me talking, it’s the alcohol” or “I couldn’t help myself, it’s not my fault.”

And here, again, their blame is split and shared.  John indulges in a sort of cowardice by letting Sherlock do this, and Sherlock goes beyond being an enabler to being his pusher, actively pulling John further into his addiction by making himself into a component of it.

And, now that you probably regret ever asking me that question, that is my word on Sherlock and blame.


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