Welcome to the Three Patch Podcast’s new meta column about the BBC Sherlock show! Look for essays posted the last week of each month about topics related to the upcoming episode. For Episode 8 in August, in line with our AU (Alternate Universe) theme, we’ll be celebrating Molly Hooper in the “Sorting Sherlock” segment. Loo Brealey’s original character is an exquisite achievement.
*The Virgin Genius and the Power of Molly’s Desire*
The first time I watched “A Scandal in Belgravia,” I was startled by Sherlock’s viciously personal putdowns of Molly Hooper. Who is he to comment on the size of her mouth and breasts? “Don’t make jokes, Molly”? It’s not as though dating or small talk are Sherlock’s forté, either.
In a discussion on LiveJournal, dis_quiet commented about the Christmas party scene: “Sherlock got a little jealous, or in any case, left behind. He thought he could always rely on Molly, in a way she’d never know, but there she was, all dressed up, ready for a date. I think Sherlock felt, or wanted to think that there was a sort of kinship between him and Molly. How he loved emphasizing her awkwardness. All your future attempts at a relationship, Molly, should be nipped in the bud. For him she was that Other that he felt comfortable with as far as sexual inadequacies were concerned.”
This is one of the many instances of mirroring in Steven Moffat’s beautifully structured script. Having been bested, for the moment, by a far more sexually savvy opponent, the suddenly inadequate Sherlock is sensitized to Molly’s similar shortcomings. Sexual knowledge has been on Sherlock’s mind.
He learns so much from the ways in which Molly and Irene are doubles. Where Irene hides her heart behind a mirrored safe, elicits desire from people and reflects it back to them, Molly is the opposite: her Freudian slips and blunders are a constant betrayal of her desire. So that’s how desire looks when it’s real. The same red lipstick as Irene, the same small breasts, but with nothing hidden, from her bra straps to her stammers…and the same arousal at Sherlock’s touch.
The wince of shame on Sherlock’s face when he realizes what he’s done to Molly at the party — it’s not unrelated to his shame when he’s disgraced in Mycroft’s office. His dismissal of the relevance of sexual knowledge has hurt people, perhaps destroyed them. Whether one reads this virginal Sherlock as sexual, asexual, or celibate, he has avoided sexual interaction at least in part because it involves interpersonal communication. That has always been a source of disconnection and torment for him, an area so fraught that it’s too stressful to bother.
And he thought himself detached from sex because the rest of the world had passed him by so long ago in this area, in all its irrational stupidity and mess, and none of this folly had anything to do with him…until it did. Molly’s desire implicates him and he hadn’t seen it and look how he brutalized her honest overture. She desired him as though he were…valid. A part of all this. She was inviting him into the dance. Whether he wanted the dance or not, he’d thought himself apart from it. And then he showed that we must not ever underestimate Sherlock Holmes; we must not think that just because sometimes he doesn’t understand sentiment, he is always incapable of it. He crossed over and apologized and kissed her. And if he overshot and the quality of that physical contact was more sexual than it should have been, well, he didn’t have much experience, did he? He didn’t know yet how it feels when the object of one’s fantasies comes close and touches lips to the face and speaks one’s name, close and low. He didn’t know he was being seductive. How was he to have known? He didn’t mean to be. He only felt dreadful, and sorry.
But he learns from Molly’s undone response to his inadvertent intimacy. He recalls it when he takes Irene’s pulse. He learns more, to his shame, when Irene kisses his left cheek as he spills state secrets. And in a glorious bit of actor improvisation, when it comes time to undo Irene, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock comes close to her in the same way he kissed Molly, on the right cheek, which is more emotional for most people than the left. But this time, the proximity is completely intentional in its intimacy: dangerous, fully knowing. He has learned Irene’s game.
It was not Irene, then, but Molly whose desire pulled him into mortality and sexual knowledge.
In “The Reichenbach Fall,” Molly asks what he needs and his answer, “You,” is laden with portentous meaning, verging on sexual. Whether this was intentional or appropriate, the intimacy seemed to acknowledge the sexual content of every anguished slip Molly has made over two seasons about her desire for him, amplifying and dignifying that desire. Molly sees Sherlock at his worst, sees him more clearly even than John Watson does, and still loves him. She sees him not as an overgrown child, a virgin to mock, or an unfeeling genius, but as a romantically valid adult. Whatever illusions she has about the kind of lover he’d be…oh, would you look at that. She doesn’t have any. She knows him.
That is what Moriarty cannot imagine even though he has played at romance with Molly. Nobody could see the true Moriarty and love him. The kind of sexual desire that can know the whole person and grow only stronger: Moriarty cannot see that at all. But now, Sherlock can. It is Molly’s desire that brings about Sherlock’s fall into sexual awareness, a fall in the most classic apple-of-knowledge cast-out-of-paradise sense, never again to be an angel. Not that he will necessarily desire Molly in return or be physically involved, but now he knows the thrilling humility of having been known truly and truly desired, not only in spite of but because. He’s part of the mortal world now.
A toast. To Molly Hooper.