Previously on Victoria: The period drama finally gave us a fun, fluffy episode, as most of the royal court heads off to France as part of Victoria’s plan to talk King Louis Phillippe out of a plan to marry his son off to Spain. This plan ultimately ends up being unsuccessful, but the trip is hilarious fun, full of lavish costumes, ridiculous French costumes, and lots and lots of Albert being a snooty jerk. The prince, it would seem, is having some emotional distress over the idea that he might really be King Leopold’s son, and basically takes it out on everyone else until he gets a talking to from his wife. Victoria, for her part, makes a moving speech about how she loves Albert for who he is, and the two end the episode more united than ever. (And, also, pregnant again!) If you need them, more details can be found in our full recap of "Entente Cordiale."
Well, in case you thought we had just a little too much fun last week, Victoria goes straight back to serious again with an episode that focuses almost entirely on the 1840s Irish potato famine. “Faith, Hope and Charity” acquits itself admirably well, unflinchingly looking at the reprehensible attitudes among certain government and religious groups towards the Irish and poor people in general. However, the episode does perhaps overly rely on an overly kind characterization of Victoria herself, presenting the monarch as a woman with the best of intentions, who finds herself hamstrung and unable to do as much as she would like thanks to the cynical machinations of her own government. Is that entirely accurate, historically speaking? Maybe, maybe not. There’s little evidence either way about whether the real Victoria cared all that much about these catastrophic events happening in her kingdom. But this makes for a much better, more compelling story in the end. So, let’s all go with it, shall we?
One reason that Victoria is such great television is because of the way the show conceptualizes its titular monarch. This queen is a multi-dimensional woman who tries her best to rewrite the rules of the man’s world she finds herself in. Our collective desire to see Victoria succeed in this endeavor — to be the progressive, pseudo-feminist monarch we want to believe her to be — occasionally allows the show to get away with some fairly creative interpretations of the facts. But because this idea of Victoria is such a powerful one, it makes the show even more compelling than it might be otherwise. The queen’s campaign to force her Prime Minister to acknowledge the horrors happening in Ireland is not only great TV, it’s what we actually want to believe happened — whether it actually did or not.
The Irish famine is pretty heavy subject matter for this show — and Victoria does deserve some credit for genuinely attempting to be a period drama that’s capable of addressing weightier stories than servants’ quarters romances. The bulk of this this episode focuses on the Irish potato blight and its effects on the populace, and it doesn’t shy away from depicting the various horrors attached to this humanitarian disaster. These include everything from the suffering, starving poor, dying for want of bread, to the heartless politicians charged with their welfare, who insist that those with nothing should someone learn to manage their nonexistent resources better.
The presentation of Sir Charles Trevelyan is particularly vile, given that the man charged with administering what scant government relief efforts there were is also a bigot inclined to expound upon the idea that mass starvation is somehow a Darwinistic remedy to the problem of overpopulation. (Ugh. What a disgusting piece of work.) But Trevelyan was hardly the only person who felt this way, and Victoria doesn’t bother to sugarcoat the fact that there is plenty of religious and class-based bigotry at work amongst English people both great and small. (Just look at Penge, who delights in the suffering of those — Catholics — he dislikes because of their differences from him.)
It’s also rare for shows like this to acknowledge the selfish and self-interested natures of those we’re meant to admire. Up until this point, Prime Minister Robert Peel has been generally presented as forward-thinking visionary, someone with the best interests of England’s future at heart. (His friendship with Albert is clearly meant to draw parallels between them in that way.) But in this particular situation, Peel is revealed to be just another cynical political opportunist, largely unwilling to risk his job or popularity at home to save the starving in Ireland.
Albert’s utter disinterest in the human suffering of the Irish is admittedly sort of strange, particularly given the fact that the plight of the poor was one of his number one personal issues back in Season 1. (Remember him rubbing Lord M’s face in how he didn’t care enough about the less fortunate?) Now, however, Albert seems perfectly content to trust that Peel can handle the situation, and prefers to focus his attention on more important matters, like installing bathrooms in the palace servants’ quarters. Which, yes, hurrah for progress and all, but come on, y’all. Albert has opinions about forests. You don’t think he’d have something to say about the official stance of the government being that starving folks can just get all their nutrition from nettles? Get it together, show.
Ultimately, Victoria sends for Dr. Robert Traill, the clergyman who’s spent most of the episode campaigning vigorously on behalf of the victims of the famine. A good-hearted man who eventually turns his own home into a soup kitchen for the hungry, he represents the many regular people who wanted to help, but found themselves able to accomplish little without the help and influence of the state and its government. His plea to the queen — as well as new junior dresser Cleary’s personal sob story about the suffering faced by her family — helps Victoria get a more real sense of the crisis facing her people, and further goads her to act. Jenna Coleman acts her face off during the queen’s second confrontation with Peel, as she leads her Prime Minister to the nursery and tells him that she understands the struggles of these people, who would do anything to stop their own children from dying in their arms.
Elsewhere, Ernest gets syphilis. Yes, really. That’s actually a plot point this week. In what I have no doubt is a totally period accurate, but nevertheless extremely infuriating scene, his doctor blames the woman Ernest slept with for giving it to him rather than his own gross and lecherous lifestyle. Siiiigggggh. Anyway, eventually he recommends Ernest do some horrible things to attempt to cure himself, like sitting in a room breathing in mercury vapor. Yuck. These disgusting treatments appear to work for the most part, but unfortunately for Ernest, this doesn’t mean he’s entirely cured. In fact, his doctor ominously intones that it’d be a real shame if he managed to infect an innocent woman with his disease.
On the one hand, Ernest is lucky, in the sense that he is a man of class and means, which means that he’ll have access to any sort of cutting edge treatment he cares to pay for. His chances of survival, and a cure, are much higher than, say, an average working class person. On the downside, he’s just discovered his condition right as Harriet Sutherland’s husband dies in a freak hunting accident. He now has what appears to be the perfect opportunity to go after the woman he’s spent so long pining over — just when it now seems like he can never be with her. Dun dun dun. I can’t say that I’m tremendously vexed either way about whether Ernest and Harriet work things out between them — but talk about an unusual relationship obstacle! You don’t see that on Downton Abbey, is what I’m saying.
What did you all think of this episode of Victoria? Let’s discuss what worked and what didn’t in the comments.