The ending of A Scandal in Belgravia by Steven Moffat could be said to be polarising but opinions seem largely uniform within fandom and those opinions are overwhelmingly negative. One of the main criticisms is that in the canon, Irene wins whereas in the BBC version she does not but this is something I want to examine as I don’t believe this is as clear cut.
At the end of Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia, the King of Bohemia is impressed with the lengths Irene took to keep the photograph, exclaiming: “What a woman – oh, what a woman! … Would she not have made an admirable queen?” but her assurance that he “may rest in peace” regarding the photo is no guarantee of safety. Remember, this photograph could end what is no doubt a politically sensitive engagement and could have a strong impact on the future relationship between two countries so the mere existence of the photograph and the threat still remain. Simply telling him that he has no need to worry doesn’t mean that the King would let the matter go or that Holmes would accept that he had failed. The King could easily engage people who are far more ruthless and dangerous than Sherlock Holmes to track her down, perhaps that’s why Watson names her as the “late Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable memory.” as after all, two years is a very long time, especially politically. (“Then I must begin by binding you both to absolute secrecy for two years, at the end of that time the matter will be of no importance.”)
So does she win? Not really. Her safety is reliant on too many unknown factors.
With this in mind, lets look at the BBC Irene.
Rather than the former American opera singer, this Irene is a dominatrix who caters for a variety of highly connected clients. It’s perhaps a state of modern affairs a member of the royal family having an affair with an opera singer is unlikely to cause a scandal, but if a young female member of the royal family is exposed as being the client of a notorious lesbian dominatrix, it would be front page of The Sun and discussed at length in the Daily Mail.
This is an Irene people trust. She knows and understands what people like and offers them a safe place to explore their sexuality. This trust puts her in a very, very dangerous position so naturally she takes precautions. People can’t risk going after her without exposing more and this is where Mycroft makes a colossal misstep.
Someone very powerful is threatening her so she is going to play them at their own game. Somewhere along the way she has become known to Jim Moriarty or knows of him through one of her clients. This is no different from the canonical Irene who “had been warned…that if the King employed an agent, it would certainly be you…I followed you to your door and so made sure that I was really an object of interest to the celebrated Mr Sherlock Holmes.” there’s no reason to suppose that canonical Irene’s unmentioned source of information wasn’t Moriarty (after all, he is the “organiser of half that is evil and nearly all that is undetected…he sits motionless like a spider in the centre of the its web.”)
Moriarty and Irene now have a common enemy in Mycroft Holmes. Moriarty can furnish her with information on how to “play the Holmes boys”, both understand that to get to Mycroft you first need to get to Sherlock, which she does by presenting herself as an enigma knowing that this would deeply intrigue him.
By the end of the episode, Irene has put Mycroft into a position where he very nearly had to give her everything she wanted, presumably to disappear or as a demonstration that if you threaten her, she will take you down (in other words, if you fuck with her she will fuck with you). In the end though, it is her ego that gets the better of her – she is not ‘Sherlocked’ because she loves him, she is captivated and fascinated by him in the same way John is, she is ‘Sherlocked’ because she thinks she has won. As with canon Irene’s keeping of the photograph, this is a mistake but unlike canon Irene, this mistake has consequences.
Mycroft is still in a dangerous position. Placing Irene into protective custody would force him to reveal her full role in the failure of ‘Bond Air’ and expose Sherlock’s actions, it would also make her a target for those who fear their having their secrets revealed. Mycroft and Irene are now in an extremely impossible situation, but fortunately Mycroft’s job is dealing with impossible situations. It is my belief that Irene’s ‘death’ was arranged by Mycroft as a mutually beneficial solution to both their problems – he needed her to disappear and she needed to disappear.
So does Irene lose? Not really. She forces Mycroft into a corner and is able to vanish but as with canon Irene, that is no guarantee of her safety.