Black History Month gave way to Women’s History Month on March 1st, a fact many of us cannot help knowing, given the heavy schedule of women-oriented series and films appearing on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and assorted channels. To be fair, Miss Scarlet and the Duke began its run a few weeks before the hallowed month of March roared in like a lion (pardon, lioness), but its plot assures it will fit comfortably in the celebration of female identity-consciousness.
What, then, is the plot? First, rid your minds of any misconception that the series is a sequel to Gone With the Wind, whose heroine, after all, spells her name with a double-tee. No, the new Miss Scarlet is one Eliza Scarlet, daughter of former London policeman-become-private detective Henry Scarlet (Kevin Doyle). As the first episode begins, we learn that Henry is a deceased private detective, apparently a victim of drink. Dead as he is, he appears frequently to Eliza via her imagination to offer needed advice.
You may have already guessed that she’s determined to follow in her father’s footsteps and hang out her shingle as the first woman private detective in the Victorian capital. Miss S. is a lady ahead of her time, as actress Kate Phillips observed in an interview for Masterpiece Mystery!, and though it is certainly no reflection on her intelligence or ability, it couldn’t have taken much to dream up that description. It’s everywhere this month.
Like last year’s Vienna Blood, the series is heavily atmospheric, with many dark alleys, dingy streets, brothels, and gin joints, places hardly fit for a lady. But Miss Scarlet is a spunky, determined woman who will let nothing stand in her way, even the London constabulary. Here’s where the “Duke” (Stuart Martin) comes in. The name is something of a joke for those in this benighted age (I mean our time) who still know their British history. He’s really Scotland Yard detective William Wellington; hence, the nickname: not a drop of noble blood. On the surface, he’s brawny, dark, handsome, brusque, stubborn, and short-tempered. Add his Scottish accent, and you have the stuff of a classic adventure hero.
Overall, the Duke seems as rough as Miss Scarlet is gentile, but, as with her, appearances don’t tell the whole story. He was apparently nurtured by Henry Scarlet in the policeman’s craft and has known Eliza since childhood. A nineteenth-century Benedick and Beatrice, the two clash frequently, and it’s not unusual for Miss Scarlet to find herself behind bars for, as the Duke insists, her own good and his peace of mind.
In the first episode, a man (Aidan McArdle) comes to Eliza with her first case—a missing person, supposedly a niece who has disappeared into the darker region of London society. Can the lady detective recover the lost girl? Of course, she’ll try and quickly plunges into the seedier nooks and crannies of the metropolis, meeting along the way a black crook named Moses (Ansu Kabia), a rough sort from the Caribbean (and, as it happens, one of the more entertaining characters in the show). With and without his help Miss Scarlet finds the missing girl, Clara (Elise Chappell), and the show ends with Eliza’s first success.
Well, not quite. It turns out that the uncle who commissioned the search is in fact her much older husband whose great goal is to control his wife in every way imaginable. Naturally, he’s a greedy brute, presenting Eliza with the very different challenge of undoing the wrong she has abetted. Where’s the “Duke”? As will often—but not invariably—occur, he’s telling her to quit meddling in affairs that are beyond her competence, a warning she ignores, as she will time and time again throughout the six episodes.
Miss Scarlet and the Duke may not reach the heights of greatness, but few television dramas do. It’s handsomely produced and well-acted, with sufficiently good dialogue, especially in the repartee of Eliza and William, to establish both the necessary human chemistry, humor, and plots that rise above the generic. The flaws lie in the tendency—no surprise here—to load the action with sometimes implicit and sometimes blatant PC “truths”: women are oppressed, blacks are suspect, homosexuals (yes, there is one) are immoral. And Miss Scarlet, ahead of her time as always, stands on the right side of history.
Such yeast doesn’t leaven the whole lump, but it’s present. Viewer beware, but if you can stomach these occasional rabbit trails into the World of Woke, watch and enjoy. Although the series has ended for this season on Masterpiece Mystery!, it’s available on Amazon Prime.