Miss Scarlet and the Duke

17 Nov

An original take on Lady Sherlock, courtesy of PBS.

Poster for the first season of Miss Scarlet and the Duke, showing Kate Phillips in late Victorian dress in the foreground and holding an antique pistol. Behind her and slightly to the side, Stuart Marting, also in period dress, is shown in profile, also holding a pistol. Big Ben looms in the gloom in the background.

This is a detective drama series set in late-Victorian London, though it was filmed in Dublin, Wicklow, and other locations in Ireland. The first season was originally released elsewhere in 2020 by Alibi, and on January 2021 in the USA, by PBS. Being, as usual, ‘behind the times’, I just binge watched it over the weekend.

For anyone else who lives, as it were, “in the past”, here’s a down and dirty summary of the premise:

It’s 1882 in London, and Mr Henry Scarlet has gone missing. Mr Scarlet, once a member of Scotland Yard, retired from the police force to operate a small private detective agency (as in, it’s just him). A widower with an adult unmarried daughter, his household depends entirely on the income from the agency to survive. Once he turns up dead, things get sticky in a hurry for Miss Eliza Scarlet. However, partly out of natural grit, and partly due to the unconventional upbringing her father gave her, Miss Scarlet rallies her resources in order to maintain the detective agency as a going concern, often relying on the help, however unwilling, of Detective Inspector William “the Duke” Wellington, an old protegé of her father. Shenanigans, obviously, ensue.

Like many UK productions for television, Miss Scarlet and the Duke’s first series is very short for USA television standards, consisting of only six episodes, just under an hour each. I personally consider this an advantage, as both the plot and character arcs must be condensed and tightly developed, which means fewer opportunities for plot holes or characterization snafus that would have to be retconned for later episodes/seasons.

The first four episodes deal with separate cases that come to Eliza’s attention, while developing the world and the relationships between the different characters, and showing our intrepid heroine’s growth, both as an investigator and as a working business woman in a world where for a woman to work, let alone in such a field, is not just scandalous, but potentially ruinous. The last two follow Eliza’s investigation of the circumstances surrounding her father’s death.

One of the strengths of the show is that all the characters are written as fully developed people, with their own lives and points of view. There’s Ivy, the Scarlets’ housekeeper, who serves as the conventional foil to Henry’s unconventional approach to Eliza’s education. We have Moses, a shady character, occasional bouncer, thief with a long record, who comes to like Eliza enough to trust her and, occasionally, work with/for her. Then there’s Rupert Parker and his mother, the latter being the Scarlets’ landlady, and their relationship dynamics with each other and with Eliza.

There is not a lot of time spent on explaining the nuances of all of these characters’ places in the world and society, or the mores of the time, but acting and costuming work well to flesh out what little dialogue does dwell on those, to set the scene for the viewer. Generally, the dialogue is tight, and feels period-appropriate, though I am no expert, by far.

In the same vein, though I am no dress historian, I believe they got the look/silhouette of late Victorian fashion well. And! Eliza’s skirts have pockets. Large, functional pockets! On both sides, to boot. If I had to wear long skirts, I would most absolutely insist on pockets just like hers.

The show certainly got the atmosphere down. The London of Miss Scarlet and the Duke is dirty, dark, and dank, with foggy alleys, candle- and oil lamplight, plenty of poverty barely separated from the ‘upper classes’, geographically speaking. The interior sets are rich in detail, the props are great and feel period accurate, from William’s pocket watch to Eliza’s coin purse.

As I mentioned above, the plotting is tight. I have now watched each episode twice, looking for plot holes or inconsistencies, and finding none. What I did find on the second viewing, were a couple of subtle clues related to Mr Scarlet’s death, which I had missed the first time around, and which made me quite happy.

Something else that I noticed more on the second viewing is how the main characters develop from the first scene of the season to the last.

While it is clear that Eliza is both smart and resourceful, she’s still learning to navigate her new position in the world. It is one thing to be the unconventional daughter of a man “in trade” but from a respectable enough family, and completely another thing to be a woman, let alone an unmarried woman, in trade. Over the course of the season, Eliza figures out not just the clever details pointing to the solution of a case or how to read a crime scene, but how to deal with clients who refuse to pay her, with a police force that finds her laughable and irritating at once, and so on.

You may have noticed that up to this point, I have only spoken of Eliza, and that’s because it is always made clear that she’s the center of the show. Yes, ‘the Duke’ is there in the series’ title, and there’s a lot of tension between them, pretty much from their first scene together, but it is clear, from dialogue to production to photography, that this is her story. The series was created, and four out of six of the episodes written, by a woman, Rachel New, and even though the director of all six episodes is a man, the sensibilities of the writing shine through.

At any rate, here’s to William ‘the Duke’ Wellington. The show doesn’t dwell a lot on his past, though it seems clear that he has no family, and that Henry Scarlet was his father figure and a close friend, despite the age difference. We see the impact Henry’s death has on William more slowly than with Eliza, for obvious reasons. Other than an admonition from his now-dead mentor to “look out for Eliza”, Henry’s death changes very little in William’s life. Eliza herself, on the other hand, changes it a great deal.

The relationship between Eliza and William is the perfect mix of long time friends, with an almost sibling-like rivalry, and an increasing awareness of the other as someone they are attracted to. Their banter, always witty, changes subtly to reflect the new light in which they see each other. If you read genre romance, Eliza and William are a well-balanced mix of enemies-to-lovers and friends-to-lovers; the series ends with them still at the “will they, or won’t they” part of the journey.

The casting for the show is so good! The chemistry between the leads is off the charts, but the acting is uniformly good for most characters. Even the bit parts, such as the street urchin with three lines, or the housemaid with two, are good in their bits, from posture to body language, let alone facial expressions. The exceptions here, and it pains me to say it, are the two young girls in episodes 2 (The Woman in Red), and 4 (Memento Mori); in both cases there is a self-conscious artificiality that jars more because it contrasts with the other performances.

My quibbles with the show are the lack of diversity in casting; other than Moses being a Black man (called, “the Jamaican” more than once), and one knife-thrower of vaguely-Asian descent, we don’t see people of color. Which, given the setting, is a choice that bugs me.

London was the center of a worldwide empire for *centuries*, with global trade of goods and people. Where are the Indian and Chinese and African people who lived there during Victoria’s reign? Not, I am sad to report, in the background of Miss Scarlet and the Duke, even though that would have been a fairly easy way to diversify the show, given the number of extras populating the scenes, both on the streets and inside pubs and other unsavory places.

The second issue, also with casting, is that there are only two recurring characters that are not fit-to-thin: one is Mrs Parker, the shrill domineering landlady, and the other is Frank Jenkins, the slovenly Scotland Yard detective under William. Which, again, is a whole choice, and more so because they are not even fat, just, not thin.

There are a couple other not-quite-thin characters, alas also unsympathetic. Like people of color, fat people have always existed, in all social classes, throughout the history of humanity. The absence of fat people in general is pretty jarring, and honestly, when the few not-thin people who do show up are either criminal or assholes, it’s also deeply harmful.

Overall, though, I really enjoyed the series, and I’m very glad to know that it has been renewed for a second season.

2 Responses to “Miss Scarlet and the Duke”

  1. victoriajanssen 22/11/2021 at 10:03 AM #

    Thank you so much for this review! I’ve been very interested in finding out more about this series, and was thinking of it recently when I finished the new “Lady Sherlock” book by Sherry Thomas.

    • azteclady 22/11/2021 at 11:19 AM #

      It’s worth watching, for sure. I don’t know that it will ever reach the fan-love levels of Bridgerton, but it’s IMO very much worth watching. And if you support your local PBS, it’s likely you have access through their “passport” subscription/donation level/whatever that is.

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