After the disappointment of the Season 3 premiere, Miss Scarlet & the Duke fully returns to form with this second episode, an hour that features some of the best character work from the show in ages. There's a lot to love about "Arabella's," an episode that allows Eliza to be the worst version of herself without apology and shows us she's capable of real growth. From its story that takes us back to the series' foundational themes of women trying to survive in a man's world to its intriguing new titular character, a woman that I suspect many of us ended up liking despite ourselves, this episode felt more like the start of a new season than its predecessor did.
The Season 3 premiere was...if not outright bad, at least something of a letdown. From its boring mystery that focused on people who we'd either never met or didn't care about to its main story's lack of a clear female perspective, almost everything about "The Vanishing" felt off. (I mean, how much can we say about an episode if the cold open mystery we didn't see is the hour's most interesting part.) That the show bounces back so entirely is both a relief and a delight and, thankfully, sets up several potentially intriguing arcs for the characters onscreen. (We all know this isn't the last we'll see of Arabella Acaster, right?)
Most importantly, it felt as though things were progressing for all the characters onscreen, and we, as viewers, learned something about them we didn't know. This is probably the most emotionally vulnerable we've seen Eliza since her father died. Her explanation for her intense dislike of Arabella and the other girls like her in school rings so true to the experience of every young woman who's ever been ridiculed for being different.
The mystery at the heart of "Arabella's" plays to Miss Scarlet's strengths, centering its mystery around a female business owner struggling to keep her dead husband's restaurant afloat and questioning just how far she's willing to go in order to do so. In many ways, Arabella's life story isn't terribly different from Eliza's — she's desperate to be taken seriously and is as just as frequently discriminated against, by banks and even her own family.
The pair have so much in common, from their bone-deep pride to their determination that no one should be able to look at them and see that they're struggling. On a different sort of show, Eliza's suspicions would have naturally been borne out — Arabella would have somehow been part of the counterfeit jewel plot and our heroine would have felt smug and justified in her continued hatred of the woman who'd made her so miserable as a child.
But instead, Arabella's just...normal. She's selling her jewelry to survive, wearing fake copies to soothe her own pride, and inadvertently propping up a crime ring in the process. She's not a criminal mastermind, she's just a woman trying to make it in a world that doesn't even want her to have a chance to succeed.
Miss Scarlet and the Duke
One of the best things about Miss Scarlet is that it doesn't require its titular heroine to be perfect in order to be someone worth rooting for. Eliza is at her absolute petty worst this week, jealous, small, and holding grudges from literal decades ago without doing any actual investigation about whether the girl she once so hated grew up into a woman worthy of her ire.
That Eliza is genuinely awful in multiple ways during this episode doesn't make her any less smart or capable, and Miss Scarlet itself doesn't seem to think she should be cosmically punished for being something less than her best self. The show also isn't afraid to allow Eliza to be wrong either, which is honestly so incredibly refreshing. (Particularly after watching decades of male detectives get everything right with zero effort.) Our heroine isn't perfect, but that's what makes her so compelling to watch.
"Arabella's" also does a fairly admirable job of showing (instead of telling) that Eliza is, in her way, capable of change. She realizes that although she was actually right about Arabella when they were girls (after all, she did steal her necklace), she is wrong about her as an adult. She also even manages to bake a cake on her own, which surely must be a first. (Even if she does end up hiding it as soon as her frenemy shows up at Scotland Yard with platters of professionally made pastries.) There's hope for her yet.
"Arabella's" does highlight something Miss Scarlet has needed to poke at in more detail: Eliza desperately needs some female friends. Her profession means she's often the only woman present in spaces that men dominate. But does that isolation have to extend to the rest of her life? Granted, maybe Arabella is the wrong sort of person to be Eliza's BFF, and maybe there's too much water under the bridge between them, even if she were. But surely there must be...someone in her life that isn't Ivy? I was hoping that Hattie might help in that department, but the younger woman seems to have disappeared in the wake of her engagement.
Perhaps then she might have someone (again: who is not Ivy!) with whom to discuss her clearly complex feelings about whatever's going on with William. Granted, the awkward juxtaposition of the Duke commenting, "Surely you must one day want a family to take care of?" (Where on earth did *that* come from?) and Abarella's comment she missed having a man to take care of is a foreshadowing of the clunkiest variety.* However, if it finally means our heroine has to deal with the fact that she can't have it both ways forever, so be it.
(*And admittedly, I'm very much looking forward to the inevitable Jealous!Eliza storyline we're about to get.)
But if Eliza's not willing to admit she wouldn't mind having William to take care of, and he's not willing to admit that he'd rather have her passably mediocre Victoria sponge than fancy pastries from Arabella's, where do we go from here?