To be clear, we'll also be talking about the latest story I want to recommend: Schism, by tweedisgood, and we'll get there. But first I want to talk about religion and the way the BBC Sherlock fandom handles it, or often as not doesn't handle it.
There's a tendency as an American in particular to associate religion with something negative and old-fashioned, with anti-intellectualism and with prejudices like homophobia, and at its most benign with pat, almost naïve answers. And so if you're writing modern, praiseworthy characters, particularly ones as thorough defined by their rationality, it's easy to just act like religion isn't relevant to the story it isn't. Religion often is all these things, too much of the time, but the trouble is it's also a bit ubiquitous in how it impacts us. Even if you're not religious yourself, in many Western cultures it's hard not to be exposed to the basic ideas, to hear the old creeds and absorb them at some level, even if it's rejecting (and reacting against) them rather than some other ideology. And there's a huge difference in the way someone who's religious (or someone who rejects a certain kind of theism) reacts to major traumatic life events like those John faces in the S2/S3 hiatus, than the way someone never that impacted by religion would react.
That's what first caught my attention about this story, and the element I think I'm most fond of. This version of John Watson is very much a Presbyterian, or at least his personal history is shaped around Presbyterianism in the same way a Boston Irish man today who'd not set foot in a church in years but whose grandmum was devoutly Catholic would still be heavily influenced by that church. The Presbyterian creeds and beliefs have become his natural dialect, it is mother's milk in its way. When John "loses" Sherlock, he parses it (in part) through a rather creative rendition of Presbyterian teaching, in a way that feels organic if not devout. I'd love to see more of this in "Sherlock" fanfic. In fact, I would have loved to have seen a more substantive exploration of how these half-formed beliefs help John (or not) address that first grief and betrayal, but I suspect that would be a very different story.
And make no mistake, John is no choirboy here. There is explicit (if brief snapshots of) sex of the Molly/John variety, and some morally questionable sex at that. Not noncon or anything along those lines but definitely not the stuff of romantic comedies. This fic is visceral and does a very good job of showing the dazed quality of John's life after Sherlock's "death." (And in a different but still very interesting way, Molly's as well.) The sense of betrayal when he learns the truth is palpable and seemed to echo (in my mind at least) the sense of betrayal that many (not all, but many) of the once-faithful feel when they lose that religious faith. The use of military jargon and philosophy was also really well done, as it gave us a glimpse of grief that felt like it was coming from a soldier, even a Stoic in the classic sense. I can't speak for the British armed services, but Stoicism is very much a part of American military culture, and the wisps of that approach to suffering felt very authentic to me. John's response here felt exactly like I'd expect from someone with his canon background, but also reflected a vaguely Presbyterian/Reformed kind of cultural Christianity quite nicely. There is acceptance and inevitability, but also perseverance through it all. It's really quite beautiful, and one of the better characterizations I've seen of John in a long, long while.
As a side-note: It's worth remembering that I was reading this as an American, and as an American who grew up in both a religious (Christian, specifically UMC Methodist) family and in an area of the country where most people were at least raised with regular religious observance. There were also quite a few people of Scottish descent, Americans descended from Scotch immigrants. Perhaps because most people were religious, the Scotch-Americans I knew had a strong connection to the Presbyterian church, in much the same way many culturally religious Catholics or Jews in New York (where I currently live) often relate to their faith. All that means I may have been seeing a very different way of relating to religion among the Scotch-descended Americans I knew, than you'd see from people who actually grew up in Scotland.
I mention this because when we were discussing this story, Tweed reminded me that Britain is much more secularized than America, and that there's no real reason to assume a Scottish man of John's generation would have to have any real connection, even exposure, to the Presbyterian church. Still, even in a highly secularized society I think there will be some people influenced by religion, so I found this version of John's childhood both plausible and interesting. It also makes sense of his particular brand of profanity on the show. I'm not saying you have to portray John as religious for the characterization to make sense, but in this story that choice made for a very interesting study in how religion can influence our reactions to situations like this. It also seems plausible that, even if a society is generally secular, there will still be some people whose lives are shaped by it in some way.
Tweed was kind enough to give me several links about religion in Scotland, which I found very much worth reading. If you're interested in this topic, I hope you'll enjoy these.
Returning to the story, I also loved the fact that this story seems to give John a real sense of agency about the whole situation. He is clearly burdened by Sherlock's death, to the point of being almost gasping for breath, no mistake. I almost called it being overwhelmed, which it emphatically is not, but somehow "burdened" doesn't do the weight he's struggling under justice. Regardless, he's burdened but not broken by it, not so overwhelmed he can't act on his own, and everything about this story speaks to a very visceral choice he makes: to be used and be used in return, perhaps, but also to know the limits of that situation and to be the one deciding how his grief will steer him. The choices he makes with Molly here seem so much more active, more guided by his will, than the relationship with Mary we see on the show. Molly is a second choice, but it's a second choice he seems to have actively chosen rather than it being the best he could possibly have hoped for given what he's lost. It's a subtle distinction and not one I'm convinced I'm really getting across that well, but it does seem to matter.
Which leads to the other point at which I think even Sherlock would agree (were he around to see it) that this fic is hardly boring: the way John names Molly. At more than one point he labels her as "Margaret Mary Morstan Hooper," and that just fascinated me, the way he connects Molly and Mary. This story was written back in May 2012, long before we knew anything about series three, so of course Tweed isn't connecting Molly with Mary as she shaped up in the BBC universe, but it's still a rather brilliant way to approach Molly's character here. Even in the Doyle version, Mary presents a kind fork in the road between Holmes and Watson, though a natural one and a not (as it turns out) insurmountable one in the way the BBC's Mary would be even before the unpleasantness in Magnussen's office. Doyle's Watson still leaves her at home and goes out solving cases with Holmes, after all.
There's a sense in which Watson's decision to ride off into the metaphorical sunset with Mary at the end of The Sign of the Four is a rejection of Holmes, or at least the lifestyle Holmes enabled. He's choosing to leave Holmes behind, in a way, to make their work together something he does, a friendship he maintains, but not his whole world in the way it was in "A Study in Scarlet." There are textual explanations for this choice, both in-universe and external to the story, and this really isn't the place for a full discussion of all that. But I found it really very interesting that, in this story at least, John seems to be doing something very similar with Molly (and Molly with him).
In the BBC canon, setting aside "His Last Vow" (which, frankly, noone could have seen coming), we never really get an account of how the BBC Mary and John fell in love. We're not treated to the first kiss, the proposal or wedding ceremony, or really much at all about their life together that doesn’t revolve around Sherlock – to the point that the marriage always felt more functional than passionate to me. And in a way, that maps with the Doyle version of Watson's courtship and marriage of Mary. Four is romantic on this point, much more than the BBC show, but it's a romance driven by physical attraction more than anything, and by what Mary represents. "Attaining" her (or at least being able to honorably court her) seems more about signaling that he's established and respectable enough to support the typical married lifestyle. It is (at least in part) about having a life outside Baker Street – being more than Sherlock Holmes's Boswell, just as when his BBC version mentions Mary at all, it is to establish that some areas of his life aren't fodder for the blog.
Which strikes me as extremely similar to what John is doing with Molly. Molly and John are both using each other, and being used, to get what they never got from Sherlock and to distance themselves from his "death." Continuing the religious metaphor, it is sacrilege in the Church of Sherlock Holmes. The equivalent of lighting up a cigarette in the sanctuary and then grinding the butt into the carpet in front of the altar. At the risk of bringing in an entirely unrelated fandom, the whole thing has an air of Jed Bartlet's "Gratias tibi ago, Domine," [video] and the sacrilege is rather brilliant.
That's something I think would be really interesting to explore, especially in the wake of series three: in what sense Molly and Mary are the same person, or at least operating in the same mode – and what that means for John. Both lie to john and betray him, for his own protection they claim but in a way that doesn't really respect his right to make decisions about his own life. And both represent a potential challenge to John and Sherlock's unique relationship, in Mary's case a realized Mary and in Molly's a hoped-for romance with Sherlock that would mean it's no longer the two of them (meaning John and Sherlock) against the rest of the world. Even reading this from a different canon vantage-point than Tweed had access to when she wrote it, the parallel still seems well worth exploring.
In fairness to Tweed, I want to emphasize the date this story was published. I've talked with her about the story, and she clarified that when she wrote this she was playing with the idea that Molly really was the BBC's version of Mary Morstan – not actually an unreasonable idea at the time, given what we knew. We're working with an active canon here, a story still in the process of being told, and that will always mean the fanfic author will be writing her story in a different universe than the one experienced by the fanfic reader, and I don't want to imply Tweed had this parallel in mind. Nor could she have, since she had no way of knowing there would even be a separate Mary Morstan in the next series. Still, she did draw a connection between Molly and Mary, and while I think she meant to make a different sort of comment on the characters than I took away from her story, there is a similarity to what Molly and John do in this story and what John tried to do with Mary in the ACD canon. Which makes the parallel an interesting one, and a unique way to approach this moment in the BBC canon?
In the end, I found this story to be almost lyrical in its beauty. It "got" the theology's tragedy at a deep level and played out the important distinction between choosing and being chosen in a way that really made sense for John's character. It also happens to be shorter than this review, and is well worth the read. The time has come to go in peace, to read and love the fic.
If you have a story you'd like me to read and possibly review, feel free to drop me a link and tell me why you think I'd like it. I don't review everything I read, even everything I like, but I'm always happy to check out as many new authors as I have the time to, and I love to shine spotlights on authors who may not get a lot of attention. Send me an email, LiveJournal note, or Tumblr ask.