For Miss Scarlet and the Duke fans — at least those who haven't already binged all of Season 4 early with PBS Passport — the past week has likely been agony. The season's second episode concluded with the show's biggest cliffhanger to date: William was shot, badly enough that a dazed and blood-covered Fitzroy was forced to find Eliza immediately to tell her about the gravity of his injuries. Thankfully, Miss Scarlet is aware of the importance of this moment, following it up with one of the best episodes in series history. But while "Origins" finally answers some of the questions we've all been asking about Eliza and William's past together, the episode is less clear about what this near-death experience might mean for the pair's future.
To what is likely the surprise of no one, William Wellington does not die this week, though he does spend most of the episode unconscious while Eliza frets at his hospital bedside. Though we don't see most of it, we're told she's been coming every day, even going so far as to pretend to be his wife to gain access to his room. She's gotten advice from everyone about the best way to help him get better, which runs the gamut from talking to him as though he can hear her to staying quiet and letting him experience some silence for once. Despite her steady chatter, it's obvious that Eliza is distraught as she begs William to wake up, and the show dissolves into a flashback, which subsequently takes the bulk of the hour.
Taking us 12 years back into the past, to the first meeting of William and Eliza is an interesting choice, a move that not only gives us the origin story for the series' titular duo we've always wanted, but also serves as a concise and important reminder of what the pair have always meant to one another. Occasional present-day behavior to the contrary, William has always known how different Eliza is and how crucial those differences are to who she is. (He's also literally been into her for over a decade now, can we please get on with this?)
The flashback story is delightful. It picks up just as Eliza has returned to London, having left yet another finishing school for young ladies meant to teach her all the appropriate female skills she has no interest in. She may be just sixteen, but she's already certain that the life expected of a young woman like her isn't what she wants. Ivy and her father are running out of patience with her, but Eliza's love of forensics and human psychology cannot be denied. In one of the hour's more entertaining twists, she's forced to hang out with a younger version of the Scarlet landlady, Mrs. Parker, who is already determined to fashion Eliza into an acceptable lady who wouldn't be an embarrassing wife for her son Rupert. Awkward social calls and teas ensue, and Eliza's frustration with her future prospects grows.
Elsewhere, we meet a young William Wellington, freshly arrived in London from Glasgow. Unable to find work, he's forced to pickpocket, steal, and sleep on the street to survive. When he accidentally witnesses a murder, it brings him into the orbit of Detective Henry Scarlet; an officer convinced William knows more than he's telling about the crime but is also kind enough to ensure he gets something to eat along with his interrogation. A surprise guest at the Scarlet home, William is secretly privy to Henry's anger over Eliza's sudden return, and their initial first meeting afterward goes about as well as you'd expect.
It's also absolutely adorable as Eliza tries to lie and pretend she's some sort of domestic goddess while failing utterly at the simplest kitchen tasks and indulging in the first round of the bickering that will come to define their relationship.
It's hard to overstate how perfectly cast the two performers playing young Eliza and William are. Laura Marcus, in particular, is a wonder who perfectly embodies Eliza's youthful, headstrong nature and barely contained anger at the state of the world while having every one of Kate Phillips' mannerisms and vocal inflections down pat. Her performance is genuinely uncanny at times, and the often mulish set of her jaw is so reminiscent of the woman she'll one day grow up to be.
Matt Olsen, for his part, is also a stellar young Duke who perfectly captures William's do-gooder, try-hard attitude even when it's covered with the grime of life on the streets. He bears a strong physical resemblance to Stuart Martin and mimics many of his gestures perfectly. Both these actors have clearly done their homework regarding the characters they're playing, and they easily slide into the pair's trademark banter. (The chemistry, for those who are curious, is also on point.)
Eliza convinces William to escort her to a party at Bornborough Hall if only to run interference between her and Rupert, whom she admits she does not want to marry. The honesty seems to settle something between them (Eliza had lied initially that her father had instructed William to take her), and William subsequently opens up a bit about the murder he and Henry are investigating. When they see the man William believes is the killer, Eliza springs into action, using all the social connections she's been cultivating with Mrs. Parker along with her willingness to ask questions of those the law and society often like to ignore (maids and carriage drivers) to get to the truth.
Unfortunately, despite her evident brilliance, all her hard work gets her is a well-meaning compliment from her father and a ticket back to the women's college she'd abandoned. No matter how talented Eliza is, following in her father's footsteps isn't a life she's allowed to have. (At least, not yet, anyway.)
William, however, is encouraged to apply to join the police force, with the promise of a good word from Henry to add a little extra oomph to his application. Eliza, heartbroken at yet another confirmation of the ease with which men are allowed to navigate the world in ways she herself is not, starts furiously crying. And she's right; it's not fair that she is forbidden from a dream that's handed so easily to one who isn't even sure he wants it. (That he will, ultimately, want it and even be quite good at it isn't the point.)
William, in an awkward attempt to comfort Eliza, ends up kissing her instead, a move that seems to shock both of them in frankly adorable ways. Yes, kids, we finally got a kiss. Granted, it happened a decade ago, but beggars and choosers, etc. I'm desperate to know how their relationship evolved from this point and when they next saw one another, but perhaps that's a question for next season's flashback installment. (Here's hoping, anyway.)
"Origins" ends with William regaining consciousness and Eliza overflowing with joy at his side, where she hovers in a decidedly domestic fashion, getting him a glass of water, fluffing his pillow, and teasing him about the distinct lack of available whiskey. But there's little time for conversation and even less to hint about what this all means for the two of them going forward. Yes, the Duke's alive, as we all knew he would be. But...what now?
Have the hours of sitting in a hospital room by his side given Eliza some new perspective on how much her "friend" really means to her? Will William's recovery force him to reevaluate what he wants out of the life he almost left behind? Is it finally time for these two to have an actual conversation about what they mean to each other, or at least a State of Their Relationship summit? A girl can dream.
But, as someone very wise once said — it's the hope that kills you.