Content Warning: Classism, police/state violence; brief reference to racism, sexism, colonialism, child trafficking
Spoilers for the Moriarty the Patriot anime
From DC’s Joker to Disney’s Cruella and Maleficent, the repurposing of classic villains for real-world social commentary has become something of a trend in pop culture. By giving these infamous characters their own origin stories, these villains are recontextualized as three-dimensional antiheroes who feel subjugated by oppressive societal structures. The question is, can sympathetic origin stories justify their vile actions? Moriarty the Patriot seeks to answer that question by reimagining Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s criminal mastermind, William James Moriarty, as a youthful revolutionary who wants to completely eradicate corruption and the oppressive class-based system that dominated Victorian England—and continues to dominate the UK today. Moriarty the Patriot would also have you believe that this plan is successful, or at the very least, that Moriarty puts the wheels in motion for it to become successful as time goes on. Under scrutiny, however, it’s clear the flaws he addresses live on in the UK today.
There are considerable differences between the anime and manga versions of Moriarty the Patriot; this article will keep its focus on the anime adaptation. The story starts off with Moriarty living in poverty along with his sickly blood brother, Louis, until they are taken in by an orphanage. Eventually, with the help of his older adoptive brother, Albert Moriarty, he murders prominent and abusive members of the upper-class Moriarty family and plots to use his newfound resources to destroy Britain’s cruel class-based system.
In the anime, Moriarty’s seamless assimilation into British high society makes an inadvertent mockery of the idea that you can simply be born “better” than others. The reality is anyone could get into Moriarty’s position with the right opportunities, but not everyone would choose to share the resources they gained to support those they left behind. It’s no exaggeration to say that to many, classism still feels so deeply ingrained in the UK it seems like the country would collapse without it.
This begs the question: how effective is Moriarty’s plan to burn everything to the ground, and what does the UK (both in fiction and reality) need to do in order to destroy class inequality for good?
Where does Moriarty’s plan leave the UK?
Moriarty the Patriot asks good and complex questions but doesn’t offer sensible answers to them. Perhaps a show in which suspected serial killers in Sephiroth wigs parkour their way across Victorian rooftops shouldn’t need to. We wouldn’t demand as much from a series like Black Butler, Moriarty’s stylistic cousin, for instance. But Moriarty insists on using so many nitty gritty, historically accurate details that it openly invites comparisons to real history despite its most ludicrous moments. Devoting its entire premise to an ideological struggle that is firmly grounded in a real and specific system, rather than a generic or fictitious ‘evil’, also invites us to take things a lot more seriously.
Moriarty’s brand of “justice” is to play judge, jury and executioner against murderous nobles who directly target commoners because their lives are considered meaningless. In some ways, Moriarty remains true to Conan Doyle’s original vision, since he does indeed become a “consulting criminal”, but the difference is the context: he’s working with commoners to seek justice on their terms rather than committing senseless evil acts. After establishing himself in the countryside on a small scale, he moves to London in order to address the corruption that exists in prominent institutions, such as Scotland Yard, the House of Lords, and certain facets of the press.
Moriarty eventually explains that his grand plan is to reveal himself as the Lord of Crime and go on a killing spree to live up to his name, enabling both the rich and poor to unite against him so that all people, regardless of status, will work together to reform sociopolitical institutions to make a better society. Ultimately, he wants to show the brutal consequences of political extremism if the upper class continue to oppress the masses.
As ridiculously Watchmen as it sounds, there are some moderately productive outcomes to Moriarty’s plans. He helps establish a new Scotland Yard with a more socially conscious chief and the MI6—the U.K’s first primary counter-terrorism organization. It’s safe to say that Moriarty didn’t want an actual Lord of Crime to spring up in his place so he made sure to leave an organized group to deal with this possibility. In theory, this sounds great, but in reality, the counter-terrorism’s group’s methods have been accused of being almost as insidious as Moriarty’s.
You might be familiar with MI6 (and sister group, MI5) through another fictional icon in British literature, James Bond, who makes a surprise appearance as a member of Moriarty’s gang. Moriarty’s reveal that this iteration of the character is a trans man is an interesting twist and it’s fun seeing the charismatic spy repurposed to rail against an establishment he traditionally serves. But it’s immediately undercut by the fact that an actual law known as the 1994 James Bond clause exists, and that it authorizes MI6 agents to commit crimes overseas to protect Britain’s interests. New evidence also suggests that the MI6 has also committed crimes in the UK, and there are demands for the British Intelligence Agencies to answer for their suspected compliance in the atrocities committed by the American CIA during the ‘war on terror’ in the Middle East during the 2000s. Disturbingly, parliament is currently discussing legislation that will provide protection for undercover agents.
Moriarty couldn’t directly be blamed if such scandals happened to the made-up MI6 in his universe, but his MI6 was founded on the premise to catch criminals like him and model itself after his brand of covert extremism. Even though he had “good intentions”, the fact is creating a large-scale law enforcement group that is committed to breaking the law for the “sake of the greater good” will inevitably have major long term flaws. Whether its establishment is truly a triumph for Moriarty or foreshadowing darker things to come is left ambiguous in the anime; dependent, perhaps, on your own interpretation of the morality of its founders’ methods.
As for Scotland Yard, while a new Chief is a good start, in practice, a start is all it is. Cutting off the head to suck out the poison is a pop culture cliché: rarely does toppling a single leader stamp out the ideology they stood for, and the supposed “change” is hardly felt by the most marginalized people impacted by police violence.
Almost a 100 years later, police brutality is still a relevant problem and global Black Lives Matter movements are calling for an end to state-sanctioned violence. There are renewed efforts to challenge police violence in Britain, but most of the time, concerns are dismissed because of the “one bad apple’ argument”. This weak argument forms the crux of Moriarty’s plan to reform Scotland Yard and he’s confident that changing the police from within will have long-term benefits. In the anime, a Jack the Ripper-inspired arc shows how deeply imbedded corruption is within the police by depicting Chief Inspector Arterton to be far more interested in violently disbanding a group of civilians trying to catch the serial killer than dedicating his resources to catching Jack the Ripper, himself. He’s also disinterested in keeping the women on the streets of Whitechapel safe and doesn’t seek any form of justice for the killer’s victims (female sex workers).
Overall, Arterton is a caricature of the law enforcement we are familiar with today. Any form of civil disobedience is still punishable by the law, and the lives of women in that industry are still considered disposable. In fact, it wasn’t until 2011, after mishandling the cases of the murdered Ipswich sex workers, the British police stopped labeling women in the sex industry as “criminals”.
Clearly, this kind of systemic change doesn’t happen overnight. It requires a long-term sustainable plan to ensure that radical changes affect all aspects of society for the next generation. Frankly, Moriarty doesn’t establish any backup plans that might protect his short-term goals at all, which a “criminal mastermind” of his forward-thinking calibre should be able to. There isn’t even a guarantee that his hand-picked new head of Scotland Yard won’t simply be replaced by another “bad apple” later on.
In regards to the press, Moriarty removes (Sherlock Holmes adversary) Charles Augustus Milverton, who was a powerful and poisonous figure in London society with substantial ownership over the fourth estate. Milverton abused his power by threatening to expose his victims’ darkest secrets in the papers if they didn’t do what he wanted. He even manipulated a radical socialist politician into committing murder in order to ruin his career.
Milverton is a caricature of media moguls like Rupert Murdoch who have an alarming amount of sway over public opinion. The Victorian era laid much of the groundwork for newspapers becoming attractive business prospects to men like Murdoch. During this century, due to the increasing literacy rates, there was an explosion of local and weekly newspapers being published. In an effort to control and hide what they were doing in other countries, the government began to censor stories and increased the price of newspapers for the working class, which made them inaccessible. Nicknamed the “Tax on Knowledge”, campaigners argued fervently against the price hike, understanding both how popular and important it was to access new information. The campaigners won the case, which helped British newspapers make their papers more affordable, thus sharpening the double-ended sword for business owners to make a profit and to ensure newspapers were accessible to everyone.
In addition to putting Milverton in his place, Moriarty’s plan reminds the nobility of their responsibilities to the commoners (noblesse oblige). Queen Victoria, at Sherlock’s behest, abolishes the corrupt House of Lords— leaving the democratically elected House of Commons to be the main body of government—in the hopes that it becomes a step forward to create a more equitable society. This is perhaps the biggest success for a “mere” mathematician and his ragtag team of followers. Though it’s not exactly in-line with his original goal to radically destroy the class-based system, these institutional reforms—if kept in place—could lay the foundation for a less oppressive power structure.
Crucially, however, Moriarty never once mentions abolishing the monarchy, which is the root of so much corruption and inequality in the UK (plus, a required check box for most political revolutions). This is especially odd considering the series gives him a clear reason to target the royals: Both Sherlock and Moriarty discover that Queen Victoria instigated the French revolution and used it as a social experiment to see what would happen to the UK if the masses decided to rebel against monarchy. The event galvanized royalists like Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s older brother, into quashing any revolutionary rumblings in the UK. However, even he ends up deciding that Moriarty’s proposed overhaul of the country’s social structure is actually a “patriotic” crusade (hence the show’s name): he’s trying to improve the UK through institutional reforms rather than creating an actual revolution. This says a lot about the difference between Moriarty’s emotive rhetoric versus what he actually does for the country.
This perceived oversight of the show in not taking the French’s lead might, speculatively, be rooted in a desire to not be too alternative in its historical grounding, or it was deemed necessary to the story to keep Victoria in power given her role in sanctioning MI6’s creation. Still, the fact it never appears to even cross Moriarty’s mind—the mind of a supposed anarchist, don’t forget—remains puzzling.
What about the UK today?
What is fact and what is fiction in Moriarty the Patriot? For starters, much like the anime, the monarchy still exists today, the MI6 does date back to 1909 and the Metropolitan Police did move into a New Scotland Yard building in 1890.
Unfortunately, the House of Lords was never abolished and it still hasn’t dealt with its legacy of creating an Empire based on classism, racism and colonialism. Perhaps targeting the royal family, even in fiction, might have been too contentious, especially since they are surprisingly still well-liked and are seen as a symbol of the UK’s former imperial glory. Despite their hypocritical enforcement of outdated hierarchical structures, they are constantly involved in scandals, such as Prince Andrew’s relationship with the deceased sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein or the family’s poor treatment of the Dutchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle.
Where would we be if we couldn’t categorize each other by birth, wealth, home and career? These are the questions that Moriarty attempts to answer and he’s committed to creating a more equal society in the UK, but we aren’t any closer to achieving that ideal world both in the real world and in the anime. As mentioned before, we still have the House of Lords, a monarchy, and a press that is controlled by wealthy tycoons, which contributes to ongoing societal problems not too dissimilar from Moriarty’s era.
For instance, political activist Owens Jones has stated the dehumanization of the working class has actually gotten worse in recent decades. According to his book Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, during the 80’s and 90’s “Thatcherism […] completely changed how class was seen. The wealthy were adulated. All were now encouraged to scramble up the social ladder and be defined by how much they owned. Those who were poor or unemployed had no one to blame but themselves.”
The UK’s current governing Conservative party is led by a broadly Etonian group of politicians from privileged backgrounds who favor privatization, a buddy system for tax cuts for the rich, and has contributed to the deaths of thousands of disabled and underprivileged peoples thanks to inefficient changes to the disability benefits system. Certain members of the media have helped prop up a culture of compliance to these horrors within society, too. Instead of discussing how the welfare system should be reformed to be as efficient as our NHS (National Health Service), tabloids shame claimants for “frivolous purchases”, such as buying Christmas presents for their children. This far-reaching inequality is due to an overly vigorous austerity policy – created in response to the early 2000s’ recession—which has naturally made life worse for those already in the grips of poverty and enabled the middle and upper classes to survive relatively unscathed.
Perhaps the most visceral reminder of how disposable the lives of marginalized people are in today’s Conservative Britain was during the Grenfell tragedy in 2017. The fire in the tower block of flats spread more quickly due to the building not complying with standard hazard regulations. It claimed the lives of 72 people, leading to an inquiry about the U.K’s social housing policies. The fact that disabled people were the ones primarily placed in Grenfell was described as “cruel, degrading and inhuman” by the Equality and Human Rights Committee.
This isn’t to say that there haven’t been plenty of advances since the Victorian era. One such change is the broadening of the middle-class social bracket. At the turn of this century, Britain became a middle-class majority country. We have far greater civil liberties, no longer face voting barriers based on our identities or status, and while we still have a Queen, she has next to none of the power that Victoria did.
Still, what would it take for Moriarty’s revolution to actually happen in the UK today? Certainly, ousting our toothless monarchy would make a symbolic difference. Even though we’ve gotten rid of the hereditary peers, it would still be a step forward if we abolished the House of Lords.
The trouble is that classism in Britain is bone-deep. This is why Moriarty’s mission feels so riotous and justified, but he never lives up to his anarchic goals. The fact that he had grandiose ideas to break down the system is admirable, but instead of a chaotic revolution, his plans were more short-term and non-sustainable. Moriarty focused on targeting individuals rather than destroying the system, meaning that even with a few vital organs removed, the flesh and skeleton of classism that still exists today would mostly likely do so in his world, too.
Moriarty the Patriot could’ve been an interesting reimagining of what the U.K could have looked like if a radical revolution actually happened—how a different society could’ve been created if we actually organized together to bring down the monarchy and upturned the institutions around them. Ultimately, the only thing the anime has to offer is the recontextualization of another classic villain into a formidable antihero. While that alone is potent, it’s disappointing that the story never lives up to Moriarty’s initial bold dream for a more equitable world to rise up from the ashes of Empire.