Move aside, Sherlock Holmes. Flipping the script on Victorian procedural dramas, Miss Scarlet and The Duke is a delightful gem of a show premised on the first-ever female detective in 1880s Britain trying to make her mark in a male-dominated world. When British network Alibi dropped the miniseries in March 2020, the show became an instant hit among lovers of period pieces and has since gained further traction after its U.S. premiere via PBS Masterpiece earlier this year.
The six-episode miniseries centers on the titular Eliza Scarlet, who is fighting to preserve her late father’s legacy as one of London’s best private investigators. When her father, Henry, unexpectedly dies under dubious circumstances, Eliza is subjected to fate’s whims as a woman of no means in a world where the only recourse for financial security is through marriage.
Determined to escape her lot, headstrong Eliza vows to continue her father’s practice. Using investigative and forensic knowledge passed down to her, Eliza sleuths through London’s cobbled streets and underbelly while dealing with the perils and frustrations of getting her work recognized as a female detective.
While the mystery edges between gritty and macabre, it’s something else entirely that has me and the fandom in thrall. Opposite Eliza, is her partner-in-crime as much as a rival, her childhood friend William “The Duke” Wellington. He’s a Scotland Yard inspector who was Henry’s apprentice.
Their obstinate personalities and crackling banter make for explosive chemistry heightened by the undercurrent of danger that seems to always lurk around the corner. The constant will-they-or-won’t-they question has kept me riddled and frustrated throughout the show just begging for a nod at a potential romance. Needless to say, my heart isn’t the only one that couldn’t handle it:
Oh maaaaaan, Miss Scarlet and the Duke has, "you were my father's apprentice, and we VIBED MAYBE when we were younger?" a trope I ADORE.
— Rachel Hawkins/Erin Sterling (@LadyHawkins) January 18, 2021
THIS NEEDS TO HAPPEN—
— Tahira Osman (@TahiraOsman4) February 22, 2021
And from New York Times-bestselling historical romance queen Sarah MacLean herself:
SEASON TWO: THE ONE WHERE THEY BANG IT OUT
— sarah maclean (@sarahmaclean) March 29, 2021
In fact, I think what makes the show particularly successful is precisely due to its detraction from romance. The show’s appearance capitalizes on the recent resurgence of costume dramas during the pandemic such as Sanditon and Netflix’s Christmas hit series Bridgerton when we were sorely in need of some Austen-esque escapism. Without making courtship as the show’s focus, Miss Scarlet and The Duke instead invites us to see London in the early 1880s from Eliza’s point of view as a penniless woman scraping her way through with seat-of-the-pants resources in solving crimes.
Of course, gumption alone cannot surmount all of her obstacles in a man’s turf, and this is where her longtime friend Duke comes in. Eliza’s naïveté in the rookeries lends her a streak of recklessness that sometimes lands her in hot water. Meanwhile, Duke’s jaded nature from years of police work and shackling bureaucracy rightly counterbalances Eliza’s inexperience, though his occasional mansplaining verges on exasperation. Intense stares and lowkey I-burn-for-you moments aside, their relationship is one that is based upon genuine affection tempered by mutual loss over a beloved father figure.
When asked about the series’ time frame, creator Rachael New specifically chose the early 1880s to lay the groundwork for worldbuilding in order to steer clear of early forensics, which sprung in the latter part of the century during the infamous Whitechapel murders. This allowed for creative license, adding a touch of supernatural elements in some of Eliza’s cases, such as one involving Victorian customs of death photography.
Additionally, the early 80s also witnessed the birth of a nascent suffragette movement in Britain that often came in the crosshairs of the authorities. This presents a conundrum for a woman detective who is often torn between making her place in a world where her role is predetermined and envisioning a different one where multiple possibilities can exist regardless of one’s gender.
The series also attempts to touch upon issues of queerness and racism through intriguing side characters that overturn the facade of upright Victorian morality at the Empire’s heyday. Though these characters have not been sufficiently developed so far, they provide alternative windows into looking at a cosmopolitan London apart from Eliza’s point of view. Class becomes a major factor that weaves the lives of the main and recurring characters, informing much of their motives and allegiance.
That said, I am pleasantly surprised at how grief is wonderfully handled in the show. Other than flashbacks, viewers are treated with ample moments between Eliza speaking to the appearance of her deceased father in the office, offering advice on how to proceed with a case when she hits a brick wall.
Not only does this underscore the deep love they had for each other, but it also allows Eliza to express her fears and hopes while mourning the sudden death of her only family member. On top of support from her friends, this device mimics psychotherapy for Eliza to process her emotions as she proceeds to uncover the truth behind her father’s death.
So what’s in store for season two? After the show’s renewal was announced, creator Rachael New has hinted at exploring Duke’s side of the story, from his impoverished beginnings in Glasgow into a Detective Inspector of Scotland Yard. That would certainly spice things up since we’ve only been treated to Eliza’s narrative thus far.
Season one also dropped a puzzling tip-off at the very end that opens a yawning question about who Duke really is. While fans await more gun-toting action in dresses with pockets, we’ll have until 2022 to mull over an onscreen kiss that never came through. After all, the devil’s in the yearning.
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