In the source material of Sherlock Holmes, Professor Moriarty only appears twice, and is further mentioned 5 times. This is almost exactly mirrored in Sherlock, aside from the physical appearances. In the strictest sense, however, Sherlock only comes face to face with Moriarty while he admits to that identity twice: once in “The Great Game” and once in “The Reichenbach Fall.” The other two times, Moriarty is “Jim” Molly’s “office romance” and “Richard Brooks,” the actor Sherlock has hired to “play” Moriarty. This Moriarty isn’t a professor; he’s something much more dangerous: an actor. Moffat and Gatniss have not chosen, thus far, to play up one prominent aspect of the “classic” Holmes: his abilities as an actor and his prowess in disguising himself. (Ironically, some of the Holmes’s best examples of these talents are found in “The Final Problem” and its follow-up, “The Empty House.” It will be interesting to see how Holmes chooses to “reappear” in series three.) Instead, they have given those talents to Moriarty, who is, of course, presented to us as the other side of Holmes’s coin. It’s not that the modern Holmes cannot act, it’s that he doesn’t feel the need to bother concealing his motives. So, on one level we have a man who never seems to reveal his real intentions and a man who cannot keep from saying what he thinks and feels, even when it would be expedient to do so.
It’s tempting to see the Holmes-Moriarty relationship as purely one of order versus chaos (though which is which?). However, again, Moffat/Gatniss Inc. complicate this dichotomy. Instead, the opposition that most stands out to me is one of sexual energy versus intellectual energy. Irene Adler may have proved to the audience that the two are not always incompatible. Irene’s employment of her sexuality has pure intelligence behind it – she even reveals her body in the most strategic way possible. For her, seduction is a weapon. Moriarty’s sexual energy is not seductive. He oozes sex, but in chaotic way. I don’t even only mean sex as in intercourse; Moriarty plays with his own sexual identity just as readily. In “The Great Game” he is gay, straight, and every permutation in between. He can seduce women handily – as evidenced by Molly and Kitty Riley – but also, as he admits, flirts with Sherlock: “But the flirting’s over now, Sherlock, Daddy’s had enough now!” Despite the flamboyant and feminine overtones to his character – “Honey, you should see me in a crown.” – Moriarty ultimately fancies himself the dominant partner in his and Sherlock’s relationship. The audience is meant to think he’s right too, until the very end of “The Reichenbach Fall.”
And what about Sherlock? Desire is not unknown to him, as Adler again demonstrates, but he only understands seduction as a concerted effort toward one end (presumably, the object of one’s affection). A seduction is, in many ways, like a deduction. In one, the seductress reads the beloved to discover what he most wants and lures him in using that information, while in deduction, the detective reads the criminal (and the victim) to discover what they have done and ensnares them using that information. Both are types of puzzles, and a logical puzzle is something Sherlock understands. However, Moriarty’s application of sexuality is only meant to confuse, not to seduce. As he admits to John and Sherlock in “The Great Game,” “I’m soooo changeable. It is a weakness with me, but to be fair to myself, it is my only weakness.” Weakness, indeed. Rather, against Sherlock it is Moriarty’s greatest strength. As Sherlock himself admits, “I never liked riddles.” A puzzle has distinct pieces you can fit together, but riddles require you to extrapolate, to think outside the box, as it were.
Something else that struck me, perhaps only because I used to be an Irish studies student: Andrew Scott, the actor that plays Moriarty, is Irish (from Dublin originally) and does nothing to disguise his accent while playing the character. I won’t go into it too much, because I think a large part of my analysis probably adds nothing to the show or this article, but it has me thinking… especially: why not get the actor to affect a British accent, like the rest of the characters? On one side of the coin: the British audience is going to be able to recognize the “foreign” Irish accent even more than American audiences would. On the other: maybe the Irish are considered such “near relatives” that Moriarty’s origins as an Irishman are considered unimportant. Practically, maybe it sounded too silly or didn’t fit the character, if the casting folks and Gatniss/Moffat ever had Scott try it out. Knowing what I know about the history of Irish-English relations, however, those bombs Moriarty sets off in “The Great Game” have IRA and revenge against the oppressors popping in and out of this ex-scholar’s addled brain. If John and Sherlock represent the English’s “stiff upper lip,” Moriarty represents the Irish cliche of wildness and emotionality. It’s all part of the above, but with a historical reading.
To add one more cultural/historical angle, there’s this quote from Sherlock as well, which is quite close to a quote from the original stories: “James Moriarty isn’t a man at all. He’s a spider.” In some African mythology systems, Anansi, the spider, is a trickster figure. Moriarty is most certainly quite the trickster.
A further side note, not about Moriarty but about a Sherlock Holmes-based novel I happened to be reading when I re-watched “Reichenbach.” The book is called The Disappearance of Sherlock Holmes by Larry Millett, who is known for the Shadwell Rafferty series of Holmes novels, mostly speculating on the detective’s adventures in America (specifically, Minneapolis/St. Paul and its environs. Recommended! But anyway… the plot of this particular Holmes riff involves a different enemy of Sherlock’s (Abe Slaney, of the Dancing Men mystery) trying to discredit the detective by framing him for a kidnapping and a subsequent murder. He does this by planting fake evidence at several scenes Holmes just happens to show up and hiring an actor to impersonate Holmes so that a great many people can say they saw him later in places he had not been. Also, as a (possible) coincidence, Sherlock had just made the police force incredibly angry by discrediting them in a very public case. So, soon the police are after Holmes for two murders and his name is besmirched on the pages of most major newspapers. Sound familiar? Just saying, “there is nothing new under the sun…” etc.