It's worth saying: The cold open for Miss Scarlet & the Duke's Season 3 premiere is one of the best sequences the show's ever done. Not only is the image of Eliza, Ivy, Clementine, some dude named Sampson, and Mr. Potts, of all people lining up to get mug shots taken after getting arrested genuinely hilarious, it immediately makes you, as a viewer, want to know more. How did Eliza convince all these people (Mr! Potts!) to help her with some mad scheme? Where was Moses? How did they get caught? What were they doing when they got caught?
As someone who watches entirely too much TV, I immediately assumed the rest of this episode would be a flashback to flesh out this wild, madcap caper and explain how our crew of faves all ended up in jail together. (I know, we're all incredibly tired of those "24 hours ago..." title cards, but are we really to be robbed of Mr. Potts meeting Clementine??) So perhaps it's my disappointment that this wasn't the story we ultimately got in this episode that made my reaction to "The Vanishing," and if that's the case, then it's not entirely fair. But I must admit that the mystery unfolding over this hour isn't all that interesting.
The story is basically what it says on the tin: A famous local magician disappears during the last trick of his final performance (ever, he's apparently retiring on what would be his 50th anniversary), and Eliza's brought in to track him down. The specifics of her employment are probably the most interesting aspect of the plot in that they underline how much her young agency is still financially struggling. (We see Eliza get turned down for multiple bank loans before finally agreeing to work for creepy tabloid journalist Basil Sinclaire in the hopes of getting paid and getting some free publicity out of the multipart series he plans to write about the famous lady detective solving crimes.)
Given that the Miss Scarlet and the Duke Season 2 finale aired just a few weeks ago, it feels odd to be back diving into a new season so quickly. Perhaps had there been more than a few weeks between these installments, the utter lack of fallout from things like Eliza's near-death experience or William's near-transfer to the Glasgow police force wouldn't feel so obvious. Instead, it just all seems strangely brushed under the rug: Our favorite private investigator and Scotland Yard officer are having regular monthly dinners again, even if Eliza keeps canceling them because she's so busy. We're not given much hint about where their relationship stands at all. (I mean...did they ever talk about the whole "let's be friends" proclamation in the wake of last season's finale? Who can say!)
But, if you can ignore all that, "The Vanishing" Is a perfectly serviceable return to form, an episode that finds plenty of reasons for William and Eliza to share scenes while investigating a case that at least does have a reasonably unusual premise going for it. That said, when it comes to their central dynamic, much of this episode revisits familiar ground. The two bicker about sharing information, repeatedly hide things from one another, lie about it, and act generally put upon when they run into one another at various crime scene adjacent locations before finally giving up and joining forces.
Kate Phillips and Stuart Martin have the sort of chemistry that makes all this fun to watch, to be sure, but as we start Miss Scarlet's third season, I think we have to ask ourselves whether we should (or, more correctly, when we should) move past this particular narrative trick. Not that I'm saying their banter should stop, far from it. But shouldn't there be some momentum in this partnership at some point? How often do either of them need to learn the same obvious lessons about collaboration and the benefits of working together?
Miss Scarlet and the Duke
In the end, the central mystery isn't even a mystery as such — more a sad tragedy about a depressed man who didn't know what to do with his life once his career was over. (To which, I have to ask: Was someone making him retire? If Alfonso wanted to keep doing magic, well...couldn't he?)
As always, I appreciate that Miss Scarlet is so willing to tell stories like this and to subvert the predictable paths and established tropes we expect our mysteries to follow. But the problem with "The Vanishing" is mostly that the disappearing magician plot isn't terribly interesting, and though, on paper, the idea that a female assistant cared enough for him to try to salvage his legacy in spite of his death is moving, it also involves a lot of telling rather than showing. After all, it's not like we saw any of their relationship ourselves, and although Milena does a great job of selling how much this father figure meant to her, that's not really the same thing.
As I've said before, one of the best things about Miss Scarlet is the way that its mysteries are often so effortlessly tied into specifically female experiences, and this story would have worked a lot better for me if it had focused more explicitly on Milena or Miss Ling, one of the young women struggling to make it in a male-dominated industry that insists their only roles can be as assistants in skimpy outfits rather than performing illusions themselves. Instead, both are little more than window dressing here, even though one of them deliberately lies to law enforcement to protect Alfonso's legacy, and the other is trying to get ahead by sleeping with the boss. Surely there could have been more story worth telling there?
In the end, the Alfonso plot is interesting only in what it tangentially reveals about Eliza, uncomfortably underlining (once again) her workaholic nature and her voracious desire to be seen and appreciated for her accomplishments. Her decision to work for sleazy Basil Sinclaire is as much about his desire to write a story about her as it is about the case she's trying to solve. Instead of being relieved that he doesn't try to ruin her after she quits his employ (thanks, William!), she's weirdly irritated that the Duke gets multiple column inches of praise while she gets no mention. The way her back immediately goes up when Sinclaire forces her to admit she has to keep her dead father's name on her agency door to help get clients is so telling, but also something we still haven't explored much beyond the surface level.
"The Vanishing's" B-plot is also strangely limp, as the Duke's campaign to stop his officers from leaking details of Scotland Yard investigations to the press for money ultimately goes nowhere. I mean, do I kind of love the idea that William traded keeping Eliza's reputation safe for the promise of more scandalous tidbits for Sinclaire to print because it's Eliza, and duh? Of course. But, even before that, the story mainly seemed about the Duke's deputies flouting his orders with no real consequences, even up to and including DS Phelps beating up poor Detective Fitzroy for accidentally revealing that he was still selling information. What kind of outfit are you running here, sir?
Granted, the idea of Moses teaching young Fitzroy to defend himself is an outstanding development and one I look forward to watching play out onscreen throughout the season. (To be honest, I hope we see a lot more of Moses and William's weird frenemy thing in Season 3!) But other than poor Fitzroy will (someday, maybe) be able to throw a punch, did this subplot change anything? Not really. In the end, this is how I feel about "The Vanishing" writ large — as an episode, it's fine, but what did it tell us about where this season or these characters are going? Not very much at all.