Canon Thursday: Studying Molly Hooper

This week’s character study is a true labor of love, an exploration of Molly Hooper, who is played brilliantly by Louise Brealey. Like the other studies, this one was written before Sherlock’s second series, but in this case, I’ve added a postscript because I couldn’t bear to ignore the brilliant way Molly’s character evolved and grew in Series 2.

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Deducing Molly: A Character Study

Long, straight hair, lipstick that comes and goes, and an ironically macabre career—exploring unassuming Molly Hooper is a journey that starts with specific stories framed by the creators of the BBC’s Sherlock, finds its anchor in the Sherlock Holmes canon as a whole, and winds up the wider genre of procedural mysteries. She may seem unimportant at first, but Molly’s character is far from insignificant.

Molly in Sherlock

At the beginning of A Study in Pink, Molly Hooper is first introduced as a contrast to and amplifier of Sherlock’s character. His abrupt, almost alien behavior as he flogs a corpse and fails to notice any normal social signals is contrasted sharply with Molly’s slight attempt at humor and shy flirtation. She immediately gives the viewer a window into the detective’s differences from the rest of the world—a world where a woman’s attempt to impress a man with lipstick would be appreciated at best and ignored at worst. In Sherlock’s world, however, facts come first, no matter what, even when it comes to the size of a woman’s mouth. At the same time, Molly shows herself to be more persevering than one might expect, since she doesn’t give up on Sherlock.

In The Blind Banker, Molly again amplifies Sherlock’s character, this time helping to show that he is not always quite as socially oblivious as one might expect and not above cashing in on relationships to get what he wants. His blatant flirting with her in the cafeteria line not only works on a general level by capturing her attention and flattering her (a certain amount of investment in the relationship for the future), but it also leads to an immediate look at a body that he needs to see in order to complete his investigation. Though Molly appears to be completely under Sherlock’s spell in this instance, readers of her blog, which is produced by the BBC and considered to be part of Sherlock canon, will have encountered the following quote:

“Oh, and Sherlock came in again tonight. And he was his usual arrogant self! And he was blatantly flirting with me and I know he’s doing it and I should tell him to stop but I don’t! And, of course, he was only doing it so I’d help him with something. As soon as he got what he wanted, he was off.”

Molly may intermittently act as Sherlock’s dupe, but she’s not an entirely oblivious victim.

Along with other major arcs of the series, Molly’s story comes to a head in The Great Game, when she is shown to be the unwitting pawn of two extremely clever men, neither of whom is terribly scrupulous about using her for his own ends. Sherlock once again hurts her by abruptly pointing out that her boyfriend is gay, though his offensiveness is apparently unintentional in this case. Jim’s use of her is far colder and more sinister, as she becomes a part of his deadly game.

The cliffhanger at the end of the series leaves Molly hanging as much as the other characters—a woman with a preference for two men who use her, but at the same time a competent career woman who isn’t as gullible as she seems.

Molly and the Holmes Canon

Virtually every incarnation of Sherlock Holmes shares the common characteristic of willingness to use innocent people to accomplish his own ends, and the BBC version expresses this quality no more ruthlessly than his original predecessor. One of the most famous and most discussed canon examples occurs in Conan Doyle’s story The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton, in which Holmes disguises himself as a laborer and becomes engaged to a housemaid in order to find out information about a case.

John Watson is horrified by his flatmate’s behavior and remonstrates with him, but instead of expressing remorse, Holmes remarks that he expects the girl to find ample consolation in the arms of another suitor. Similarly, in The Great Game, John is the one who indignantly criticizes Sherlock for his callousness toward Molly. In both cases, Sherlock does not appear to be actively malicious in his intent; nevertheless, his willingness to treat individuals as means appears almost limitless.

Most of Sherlock’s flaws—such as pipe smoking, drug use, and some aspects of his sociopathy—have been portrayed as glamorous and attractive in various books and films, to the point that in many cases, they have become like backhanded strengths. His selfish, borderline-exploitation of other people, as exemplified in his treatment of Molly, however, is impossible to glamorize.

In simple terms, Molly shows the viewer an ugly side of Sherlock, one that is absolutely necessary to the character. Without true flaws, Sherlock Holmes is a caricature—an impossibly heroic genius who is good at everything and even successfully controls his vices. Molly’s frequent presence on the show is a reminder that the world’s only consulting detective can be selfish, thoughtless, and occasionally cruel. He may be a hero, but he is also an anti-hero, a duality that makes him one of the most intriguing characters in the world.

Molly and the Mystery Genre

The concept of flawed heroes runs through all of literature, film, and television, but mystery novels and shows have made the concept of the heroic antihero an art form. Larger-than-life detectives bring larger-than-life vices to the cases they solve. Dr. House has his Vicodin, Flavia de Luce her vindictiveness, Adrian Monk his obsessive compulsions. Arguably, most of these characters are the descendents of Sherlock Holmes, attempts by authors to capture the complex interplay of light and dark that makes up Conan Doyle’s hero. The creators of the BBC’s Sherlock have seen fit to soften their hero’s smoking habit and take away his drug use almost entirely. Molly is essential to the show because she highlights what makes Sherlock so very imperfect—his frequent lack of understanding of people or concern for them. The things she amplifies in him make him a reflection not only of Conan Doyle’s original source, but also of the mystery genre as a whole, a gray-shaded world of flawed heroes.

And yet, there’s something a little bit different about Molly Hooper, a little bit independent, a little bit unwilling to give up, something in her that might even surprise Sherlock Holmes some day.

Postscript: Molly in Series 2

I’ve left most of these character studies as they originally were, but the revelation of Molly’s true importance in Sherlock’s second series, particularly throughout The Reichenbach Fall, certainly met and then exceeded fans’ expectations. The part she played in Holmes’s master plan has yet to be fully explained, but it’s clear that by the end of the story, Sherlock considers her a major ally and confidante.

Previously, Molly’s humiliation at the Christmas party in A Scandal in Belgravia had revealed an unexpectedly contrite, even sweet, side of the detective. Later on, her perceptiveness regarding Holmes’s true mental state (“You look sad when you think he can’t see you”) helped him to understand her value. Finally, in the end, when even Watson had to be deceived, Holmes looked to her for help.

In the first series of Sherlock, Molly was a humorous character with a great deal of potential. In the subsequent series, she revealed her true nature as a multi-faceted, faithful, and intelligent friend. Her future in the series is certainly something to anticipate.

______________________________________________________________

The Detective, The Woman and The Winking Tree: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.

The Detective and the Woman: A Novel of Sherlock Holmes is available from all good bookstores and e-bookstores worldwide including in the USA Amazon,Barnes and Noble and Classic Specialities – and in all electronic formats including Amazon Kindle , iTunes(iPad/iPhone) and Kobo.

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6 thoughts on “Canon Thursday: Studying Molly Hooper

  1. Really interesting and sympathetic take on a character that I like, but have trouble getting other Sherlock fans to understand why. Thank you for elucidating her character in such an enlightening way!

    I was very happy with her continuing evolution as a character in Series 2, and have found myself defending her to my spouse, among others, for being a part of the deception in RF. My spouse thinks it’s reprehensible that she would lie to John, not telling him that Sherlock’s dead. But as I’ve tried to point out, she’s faithful to Sherlock, not to John, even though he’s always decent to her, it’s Sherlock she cares for.

    I do like the way she has just decided to accept the unrequited status of her feelings for Sherlock, turning them to being absolute loyalty and faithfulness. Perhaps that’s something that Sherlock/John shippers, other than myself, cannot forgive her for, that she cannot see past the shining Sherlock to the dependable goodness of John.

    At any rate, thanks again for a great post!

    • Thank you for the detailed comment. In regards to Molly being willing to deceive John (or anyone else, for that matter), I assumed she understood that it was for their safety. I inferred that Sherlock would have told her that anyone who knew would be in extreme danger. She would have kept up the charade because she knew Sherlock wanted to protect his friends (and wouldn’t even have put her in danger by telling her if he could have helped it). At present, I’m curious what Mycroft knows–if he’s fully aware, as he is in canon, or if he’s deceived like everyone else. I hope for the former.

      • I think Mycroft knows. There was something about the way he was turning the pages of that newspaper that said, “Oh dear, the secrets I have to keep” rather than “Oh, god, my brother is dead, and I have to keep a stiff upper lip.”

        On the subject of Mycroft, it is interesting, having recently rewatched the film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, how Smiley-esque Mycroft is in the second series. Gatiss plays it perfectly, and I really do think there is some truth to Sherlock’s statement that Mycroft “is the British government”!

        I do agree totally with what you say about why Molly has to deceive Watson and the others, at least at first, and then afterwards it just becomes easier to keep the secret than to tell it, with Sherlock off goodness knows where. Even if she did tell them the truth, she couldn’t prove it.

  2. Molly Hooper is one of my favorite characters in the series. She’s grown into the role, maintaining that innocent quality, while become tenacious and strong in standing up to Holmes; not an easy feat. I look forward to the new season.

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