Why’d These (Relation)ships Sink?
Shipping (as the title suggests) comes from the word “relationship” and is a rather odd form of fan-culture which involves many people on the internet finding two characters to pair up together. The pairing usually involves long lists of reasons as to why these characters are perfect in a relationship but often times can be taken too far. I’m going to explain some popular MLM ships (that all have a common theme, which I’ll get to eventually) and dive into why they may or may not have become “canon.” The word stems from “canonically” but in fan-terminology just means “what happened in the media itself.” The following is a list of ships ranging from least canon to most canon.
Destiel, Dean and Castiel, from Supernatural (2005-2020). This is a textbook example of fans finding two characters, pairing them together, and insisting it could work out in canon (when, in actuality, it would never be written that way). TV shows with popular ships like this do one of two things… The first is to add in more “bromance” scenes so that the shippers get more content. The second, is to adamantly antagonize the fans that ship it telling them it isn’t real and never will be. Supernatural’s showrunners are divided in this way. I believe Misha Collins does genuinely ship the characters together and attempts to play Castiel as being in love with Dean. However, not everyone does… which ends up in (quite literally) half of the ship being somewhat canon and the other half not. With this ship, Castiel may very well be in love with Dean (in whatever way that means for an angel possessing a human body) but for Dean (a very very heterosexual male character with homophobe tendencies) the love is just not… there.
Johnlock, John Watson and Sherlock Holmes, from Sherlock (2010-2017). This is a very good example of show-writers and copyright versus the fans. Back when the show was still airing, fans definitely read the relationship between the dynamic duo as homoerotic – to which writers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss said “no.” A hard “no” at that. Sherlock Holmes, as a character, is particularly tricky to get a workaround on, especially considering The Conan Doyle Estate is rather harsh with its copyright restrictions (even though the character is largely public domain at this point). If this ship was to ever become canon, it would have to deal with the Doyle Estate first… which would be very hard to do. Not just for BBC’s Sherlock but for any queer-inclined Holmes-fan. Insofar as the show itself, Sherlock may very well be in love with John. But not in a sexual way (Benedict Cumberbatch has a habit of playing characters very asexual-leaning) and in more of a romantic way (should Sherlock ever allow himself to feel, that is). John, on the other hand, adamantly refuses to entertain the idea (especially when other characters point out the relationship between them might be more than just friends) with constant refusals and mentions of “I’m not gay.” Another bromance situation.
Merthur, Merlin and (Prince, later King) Arthur, from Merlin (2008-2012). Since I’ve just talked about Supernatural and Sherlock back to back, I’m sure I’ve awakened the dark past of SuperWhoLock fans everywhere. I am pleased to announce that although this might be vaguely MerSuperLock, no, I’m not going to talk about Doctor Who. Merlin and Arthur have a lot of chemistry in the show and are perfect examples of the “if he is mean to you, it just means he likes you” trope. Merlin does everything he can to ensure Arthur’s safety and Arthur (especially later on in the series) does the same. Not to mention the awesome dragon in the basement cave of the castle mentions that the two are both sides of one coin (with an interlaced destiny). That’s pretty gay, if you ask me. However, given Arthurian legend, Arthur (although he does some very weird things) is fairly straight. Even with their interlaced destiny, and two-sided coin metaphor, the two are not romantically involved and there is a heavily emphasized “we’re just bros” mentality. Granted, this was 2008-2012… which brings me to the next ship…something with a very similar dynamic and much more recent…
Geraskier, Geralt of Rivia and Jaskier, from The Witcher (2019-?). These two have a very similar dynamic to Merlin and Arthur but there’s a giant problem that keeps anything from happening between them: Yennefer of Vengerberg. Whereas Merlin and Arthur are written as being connected through fate, in this show, it is Yennefer who is connected to Geralt by fate (aka a very strong spell cast by a genie), and not Jaskier. But, like with John and Sherlock, other characters (mostly Yennefer) comment on their relationship as if it were a bit more than what it seems. This is mostly for comedic effect (as with Sherlock) but I feel that it still holds weight in terms of their dynamic. The only reason I believe these two to be slightly more canon than Merlin and Arthur is because of the break-up song Jaskier writes in season two (about Geralt). Also, given the nature of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and the “choose your own adventure” relationship gameplay, “Dandelion” (in-game Jaskier) could’ve been an end-route for Geralt and I remember fans adamantly requesting for it to happen.
Hannigram, Hannibal Lector and Will Graham, from Hannibal (2013-2015). Okay, so this is where the definition for “canon” gets a bit slippery. The show writers themselves and the actors both fully support Hannigram and the show itself has very intimate scenes that I like to call a Pride and Prejudice (2005) dynamic. There are long gazes into each other’s eyes, somewhat sexual holding of each other (mostly injured) in each other’s arms, and that dynamic of “do I hate you or want to have sex with you?” I still maintain that it’s very easy to read into Hannibal’s love or fascination with Will, but Will gets a bit tricky. Will never explicitly verbally confirms that he is in love with Hannibal. He is fond of him, definitely, and fascinated in a very similar way, but he is more of an “actions speak louder than words” character. There are scenes where he says something that makes it appear as if he is very interested (perhaps in a romantic/sexual way) in Hannibal but the two will likely never have (I say likely because I’m holding out for a season 4 confirmation even though I don’t think it’ll happen) a romantic confession in the form of directly saying “I love you” or a sexually intimate scene. However, if your definition of “canon” doesn’t revolve around either of those two things, please, by all means, claim them.
Ineffable Husbands, Aziraphale and Crowley, from Good Omens (2019-?). This series also involves a very slippery definition of the word “canon.” Being an angel and a demon, the two are asexual beings (at best) and also genderless. I can say this is more-canon-than-not of an idea particularly because of my familiarity with Neil Gaiman’s approach to the supernatural (angels and demons in particular). For those of you who don’t know, Neil Gaiman is also the author of American Gods, The Sandman, and Lucifer (the very same Lucifer Morningstar that Tom Ellis plays). Because angels and demons are not from the human world, they are not bound to human standards. This means that sex isn’t important to them and neither is gender. This is shown particularly in Crowley’s case as he disguises himself as a nanny for a portion of the novel (and the TV series). It’s also shown with Aziraphale taking over a woman’s body (in an episode toward the end of the TV series). As concepts of sex/romance hold no importance to them… it’s hard to say what their feelings for each other actually are. They’re a bit more than friends and a bit less than lovers. I like to describe this relationship as a 2000+ slow burn fic.
Blackbonnet (or sometimes Blackstede, I don’t think the fandom has decided yet), Edward “Blackbeard” Teach and Stede “The Gentleman Pirate” Bonnet, from Our Flag Means Death (2022). These two not only kiss but also have an intimate confession beach scene. They’re completely canon and yet do they get a happy ending? Unless there is a season two… no. Now, you might be asking what all of these ships have in common if it’s not the fact that all of them are not canon… and my answer to that is: death and promises. Four of these ships have a scene where the promise/suggestion to run away together is posed (Geraskier, Hannigram, Ineffable Husbands, Blackbonnet). Two of these ships involve death, an intimate death, where at least one character dies in the other’s arms (Destiel and Merthur). Hannigram involves both of these things and Johnlock involves death and intense mourning. “Bury your gays” is still a prevalent trope within media and part of that is because, majority of the time, queer people don’t get to write their own mainstream queer content. Big corporations decide what’s allowed and not allowed on the big screen. While Hannibal and Good Omens have taken different approaches to this trend of dead gays and broken promises, I still am looking for something that doesn’t rely so heavily on it.
My greatest fear for Our Flag Means Death is that it doesn’t get a season two and is forever trapped in the “gays don’t get happy endings” trope. Now, given this is kind of Taika Waititi’s favorite ending, it’s not that this choice is done maliciously. It’s probably more because the guy really likes angsty endings as cliffhangers. In What We Do in the Shadows, Nandor and Guillermo (Nandormo) have a similar “sad” ending. But, my point remains, Our Flag Means Death does many good things. It actively presents a normalized version of queerness in a setting where it’s not “strange” to be romantically involved with the same sex or have an ambiguous gender. Racism and homophobia are actively turned down in the series and challenged. It’s a marvelous show, but if a season two doesn’t get announced, confirmed, or even provides a better ending, I wish it would’ve ended at the beach scene.
Fans of queer content are so used to picking up crumbs and building ships out of fragments including shipping characters that haven’t even met because they’re from different series entirely. I want queer fans of pop culture to stop having to fight tooth and nail for content and representation. I want more queer writers on the show’s team to give substantial feedback. I want giant corporations like Disney to stop advertising queer characters and then only give them one scene’s worth of screen time. I want more shows to end like She-Ra and the Princesses of Power and not like Voltron: Legendary Defender. I want more shows like Our Flag Means Death to get made, and with happy endings and confirmed sequels.