After several months of anticipation and hype, as well as a bunch of trailers made up almost solely of gorgeous costumes, Victoria has arrived in the U.S. The period drama was wildly successful across the pond, and ranks as U.K. network ITV’s most successful show of the year. So to say that there are high expectations for its performance here in America is…something of an understatement.
Happily, if the first episode is anything to go by, it’s probably going to do quite well here, because it’s loads of fun. So let’s talk about it.
For the record: This episode individually aired as two separate parts in the UK, and I’m not sure that it didn’t work better that way. Victoria’s coronation serves as a good endpoint for the first half, after all. That said, I guess I’m not going to complain about getting more of the show? Just something to be aware of as you watch.
The King is Dead, Long Live the Queen. In 1837, a messenger arrives in the middle of the night to tell an eighteen-year old girl that she’s just become the ruler of the greatest nation on Earth. She goes downstairs to meet her destiny, clad in a nightgown and carrying her puppy, and, just like that, Alexandrina Victoria becomes Queen of England.
From the start, Victoria determines that she will chart her own course. They will no longer speak German in the royal household. She will see her future ministers on her own, without interference from her mother, her mother’s overbearing manfriend John Conroy, or their random lady-in-waiting Flora Hastings. She decides to pick her own close staff, and elevates her governess to the head of her household staff. Victoria is incredibly human in these moments of transition. (Jenna Coleman really does deserve so much praise for this performance.) It’s obvious how excited she is to be queen, and how terrified she is of all the things that entails. She has very definite opinions, and seems to want very much to be her own person; even though this is clearly the first time in her life she has ever asked for anything on her own terms and expected to get it. That she knows people have to obey her because she is their sovereign is obvious; that she is incredibly nervous that she will make a mistake is too. As viewers, we like her immediately. We want her to succeed.
Victoria + Lord M = Heart Eyes Everywhere. When the Prime Minister of England, Lord Melbourne, arrives at Kensington to meet the new queen, Conroy attempts to convince him that she’s sheltered and stupid and needs someone (like, say himself) to keep her in line. This will be a running theme throughout this episode – that Victoria’s family wants to rule her, that they don’t trust her, that they don’t really seem to think her capable of being queen at all. Misogyny is real, y’all.
Happily, Lord Melbourne doesn’t fall for any of this, and seems quite impressed when he meets Victoria. In fact, he ends up being the primary person who helps ease her through her transition into queenship: reminding her of the names of the seemingly endless list of older men on her privy council; staying her side though the proclamation of her ascendancy and generally existing to remind her that though she be but little, she is fierce. He is basically everything you could ever wish for in both a right-hand man and an agent of government, so it’s not surprising that the queen gets a little bit swoony about him. I mean, to be fair, I am pretty swoony about him.
Melbourne becomes almost instantly indispensible to Victoria – she takes his advice on almost everything, they go riding together every day, he’s a frequent dinner guest at Buckingham House. He eventually becomes her private secretary, and biggest cheerleader in all things. Victoria is openly and obviously besotted with him. It’s very sweet, if only because it seems so obvious that Victoria is unused to having people who are so openly on her side in anything.
The problem here is that Jenna Coleman and Rufus Sewell are SO charming together that you almost don’t want Victoria’s eventual husband Albert to show up at all. Surely young Tom Hughes will be very dreamy whenever the Prince manages to make an appearance, but many people (cough, cough, I mean me) are probably already predisposed to dislike him simply because he is not Lord M. Unfortunately, this show is, at the end of the day, confined to the broad strokes of history, so it’s probably too much to hope for that Victoria will suddenly up and run off with her much-older Prime Minister, no matter how happy it looks like they’d probably be together. (If this were a show that were not based on actual historical people, that is absolutely what I would be cheering for at this moment. Just saying.)
Victoria and Melbourne’s Relationship is… Complicated. Much of the first episode of Victoria concerns her attempts to pull herself out from under the thumb of her dreadful family. Her mother and her mother’s awful man-friend are constantly belitting her and undermining her choices. They resent the presence of Lord Melbourne in her life, and whine that he has too much influence over her. (That what they really want is power for themselves is glaringly obvious.) Awful Conroy even confronts Lord M about it himself, and pompously asks his about his “intentions” toward the young queen and implying that their close association is scandalous.
Their relationship is certainly….something. In any other period drama, we’d probably be rooting for these two to just figure out that they’re crazy about each other already. Melbourne ends up being late to Victoria’s coronation ball because he’s in his feelings about it being the anniversary of his son’s death. The queen freaks out because he’s not there and starts drinking to cope. Victoria, as it turns out, is a big fan of champagne, but a rather sloppy drunk, and has several embarrassing moments at the party. Melbourne eventually shows up after he receives a message that Victoria’s been asking for him, and the two end up dancing together. (It’s totally swoony, and yet again, I sort of wish Albert didn’t exist. Ugh.) He eventually convinces her to leave the party early, because she’s drunk, and the two share a moment where it totally looks like they’re going to kiss. But they don’t and things get awkward, and Victoria heads off alone.
Welcome to Team Downstairs. In other news around the palace, Victoria’s various servants and attendants attempt to adjust to their suddenly elevated stations in life. The problem with all these storylines is that they’re boring. Baroness Lehzen, suddenly elevated from governess to running a royal household stresses about budgeting and lectures the rest of the staff about economizing. Mrs. Jenkins, the royal dresser is salty about not getting any input in the hiring of her new assistant. For some reason, possibly because she is just nice, the new assistant Miss Garrett covers for Mrs. Jenkins when it comes out that she’s selling the queen’s used gloves and making herself a tidy profit. (Victoria, randomly, doesn’t fire this girl immediately, I guess because she has to be in more episodes. But Mrs. Jenkins sure has learned a valuable lesson about kindness and presumption!) There are also entire subplots focused on whether they should use beeswax or tallow candles around the house, and if installing gas lighting is likely to cause an increase in the presence of rats. This is the worst.
The insertion of this “downstairs” world, filled with stories that don’t really impact the larger narrative of Victoria’s queenship, feels like a sop to Downton Abbey fans who miss the saga of Bates and Anna. These aren’t characters we care about yet and while maybe we will grow to do so, at the moment, they’re so much fast forward material. It’s doubly unfortunate that the “downstairs” segment of the story is the one least restricted by history and therefore is the place in which the showrunners will have the most freedom to craft something interesting (and totally fictional). But we’re here for Victoria, and the intrigues surrounding her life, not so much what’s happening with her kitchen staff.
This is the Dumbest Scandal Ever. Lehzen decides to tell Victoria that she thinks terrible lady-in-waiting Flora Hastings is pregnant, because her dress looked tight at the coronation ball. She thinks Awful Conroy is the father, because they had shared a carriage alone together at some point. (Lehzen is kind of an idiot.) Lord M cautions Victoria to avoid scandal, particularly when Flora has so many friends in the opposing political party. Instead, she decides to publically accuse Flora of being a harlot and insist that she be publically examined by a doctor.
Victoria’s sumptuous coronation takes place, and everyone looks fantastic and the costumes are incredible, even if the show does use some really fake-looking CGI for Westminster Abbey. She takes the orb and scepter and manages to not fall over under the weight of St. Edward’s Crown. Strangely the scene of her coronation is intercut with the scene of Flora’s exam, which leaves a weird pall over Victoria’s triumph. The situation worsens when it’s revealed that Flora is not pregnant, but rather dying from a giant tumor. The public doesn’t take this news well, and Victoria is viciously attacked for it in the press.
The most insane part of this is that this story actually happened. (Though Flora's examination didnt' actually take place on the day of Victoria's coronation.)
Victoria Grows Up (A Little). Gross Conroy and Victoria’s terrible uncle take advantage of the Flora Hastings situation by proposing that the queen needs a regency to keep her in line. The crown is mired in scandal and things look pretty terrible. Victoria tells Melbourne that she wishes she’d listened to him and done nothing. Flora’s health worsens; and when Victoria tries to apologize for what she did, she is rebuffed. Flora dies, and Victoria’s mother basically accuses her of killing her via shame. Poor girl has really had a rough week.
And it gets worse. Flora’s death inflames public opinion against her, and Victoria can barely bring herself to face her countrymen. Melbourne makes her feel better by telling her about the death of his son, and how he felt like that moment was the end of his life. He explains that becoming her Prime Minister (and “friend”) has given him a new reason to feel like his life has meaning again. He tells her that she has to go out and smile and wave at the people, and never let any of them know how hard it is, being her. So she does, and it looks hard as hell, but she gets through it. Afterward, she puts all her little dolls in a drawer, in case you didn’t get the message that Victoria has decided to grow up now.
The Hunt for a New Prime Minister. Thanks to blowback over an anti-slavery bill in Parliament, Lord M is forced to step down as Prime Minister. The Tories are now in the ascendant, and Victoria is meant to call on one of them to form a government. The only problem is, is that she doesn’t want to. She still wants Melbourne as her Prime Minister, and her advisor, and she refuses to replace any of her current Whig ladies-in-waiting with Tory counterparts. (This is tradition, apparently.) Melbourne says that she has to, because it’s her duty, and someone has to lead the country. He further argues that his continuing on as PM wouldn’t be in her best interests because he doesn’t have enough support to form a government among the other leaders.
Victoria meets with several prominent Tories, including the Duke of Wellington, who refuses and her Sir Robert Peele, the popular choice among Parliament members, whom she immediately dislikes. She sets her mind that she will have neither of them, so she refuses to ask anyone at all to form a government.
Victoria’s Family is Still the Worst. Put off by the fact that Victoria puts so much trust in Lord Melbourne and his opinion, her mother, her terrible uncle Lord Cumberland and her mom’s worthless boyfriend Conway join forces against her. They create something of a period drama Voltron of awfulness, once again plotting to install a regency over her head and take control of her crown. They’re pretty much planning to gaslight both Victoria and the rest of the court into believing that she’s going crazy – after all her grandfather, King George III was rather known for being mad. They’re sure that this will convince both the public and Parliament that “changes must be made” and Victoria must be forced out of power (or at least direct power). This is a particularly thrilling plan to Lord Cumberland, who thinks that this is his surefire path to somehow becoming king.
To be fair, Victoria isn’t terribly interested in really commenting on politics (and it’s hard to tell if its general disdain for the Tories is the show taking on Victoria’s current attitude or not). However, it’s hard to watch the way that almost every man on this show treats Victoria – she’s the Queen of England, and she’s dismissed, scorned and belittled by her ministers, family members and a not insignificant chunk of the public at large. Does Victoria have a temper? Yes. Is she extremely used to getting her way all the time? Of course, she’s a royal. But it’s hard to imagine that this gaslighting plan would have ever gotten any traction at all against a man, let alone involved the constant speeches from different men about how what Victoria “really needs” is some “calm and seclusion” so that she might sort herself and her wild emotions out. Everything is just too much for her, according to these guys. (Barf.) It’s infuriating, and there’s a lesson in here not only about how difficult it has always been for a woman to hold power, but that a lot of these double standards still manifest themselves today in different ways. (Clearly I am very #TeamVictoria, LOL.)
Lord M to the Rescue. After Wellington tells Melbourne about the rumors that certain factions (i.e. Cumberland) are telling people that Victoria primarily listens to the voices in her head, Lord M decides to step up and save the day for his queen. (Duh. Of course he does.) At the official unveiling of Victoria’s portrait, Melbourne manages to both help her with multiple struggles at once. He helps get the heavy cover off her giant new painting, and tells Victoria that if she officially asked him (again) to form a government and serve as Prime Minister that he would accept. Victoria looks happy and they smile at each other and it’s kind of adorable if you don’t think about the fact that the entire government basically had to grind to a halt for this to happen. But, it’s almost worth it for this moment, and the one immediately following, where Wellington informs Cumberland that he thinks the queen looks remarkably sane, and isn’t it weird how Melbourne must have caught wind of what he was up to with that whole forced regency plan. Cumberland is awful, so this is majorly satisfying.
And that’s the end of our first supersized episode. Victoria isn’t exactly what most people would refer to as serious drama, but it’s entertaining fluff, and that’s kind of what I need most in my viewing lineup right now. Apparently I enjoyed this show ever so much more than I initially expected to, so I’ll be interested to see where it goes from here. And what you all thought of it. Hit the comments and let us know!