Previously on Victoria: Victoria and Albert are vacationing at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, because London supposedly isn’t safe thanks to all the political upheaval going on. Victoria frets about being so far away from her government, but Albert is having the time of his life, bullying his eldest son Bertie through overbearing educational practices and occasionally bossing his wife around. Surprisingly, Victoria and Lord Palmerston – after much sniping and scrapping – finally come to something of a tentative détente, while the Foreign Secretary and the queen’s sister Feodora both discover some secrets about one another. (If you need more details, our recap of "Et in Arcadia" is here.)
In its third season on-air, it’s nice to say that Victoria is still capable of surprising you. Rather than settle for a paint-by-numbers recitation of history, the show is more than willing to lean into the often ridiculous nature of royal life, make things up for the sake of narrative drama or kill off one of your faves that it can’t quite figure out what to do with. It does all three of these things here, and “Foreign Bodies” is an episode that works on multiple levels as a result.
It’s a surprisingly modern look at gender roles through the prism of Victoria and Albert’s marriage, as the queen continues to reiterate that she’s, well, the queen, and as such has certain roles to fulfill. Sure, she’s maybe a bit overly attached to the idea that that she has a “relationship” with her people that’s anything more than superficial, but it does motivate her to take action in ways that Albert does not. (And, for what it’s worth, does not understand.) While Albert is off standing for Chancellor at Cambridge and lecturing the dons about how unscientific they are because they don’t follow the protocols of his German schools, Victoria is visiting sick houses and literally mothering the least of her subjects.
Albert and Victoria apparently did fight often in real life, as the queen had something of a temper. And, to be fair, their spat is pretty entertaining. Their argument via silent treatment and increasingly uncomfortable servants forced to pass letters back and forth between them is incredibly entertaining and also deeply childish, which makes it all seem perfectly in sync with how something like this might actually go down between them. These two may rule a country and have six kids but they are not exactly mature or particularly into the idea of communication. (Particularly when Victoria’s half-sister Feo – who is basically Stefano DiMera in fancy dress – is slinking back and forth between them and egging them both on, for reasons that remain deeply unclear.)
Yet, despite the fun of their increasingly snippy written correspondence, Victoria doesn’t exactly frame their argument in a way that indicates the show thinks both sides are equal. Albert’s repeated insistence that Victoria is vain and her idea of queenly duty is ridiculous is clearly wrong, as is evidenced by his near-defeat in the voting at the hands of the Cambridge dons, and the show openly, even eagerly, allows him to look like a jerk for nearly the entire episode. (Why, precisely, Albert’s still so resentful of the fact that his wife outranks him after all these years, is not exactly clear either, but it’s still rather awesome that the show remains so firmly on Victoria’s side and insistent that she both can and should be more than a decorative figurehead.)
“Foreign Bodies” is also a history lesson, which gives us the five minute version of the life of Dr. John Snow, a man who is known as the father of modern epidemiology thanks to his discovery of the source of an infamous cholera outbreak in London’s Soho district. Victoria even manages to meet Florence Nightingale along the way. None of this is surprising, as the show has done plenty of these little “and, also, this historical moment occurred around now” or “this famous person exists” vignettes in the past. This one, however, is a bit different in that it results in the shock death of a character that’s been around since the series’ first episode.
While the decision to kill off the newly married Nancy Skerrett Francatelli may seem sudden, was it? Naturally, it was heartbreaking to watch – as the episode gave Skerrett everything only to yank it all cruelly away in the space of an hour. She and Francatelli were on the very cusp of fulfilling their dreams by opening a hotel and fine dining establishment. Skerrett had just learned she was pregnant, and her husband was overjoyed about everything awaiting them. To go from their triumphant celebration dinner to Skerrett dead in bed in the space of something like 36 hours, all because she ordered a prenatal tonic from a local shop is crushing. (And bravo to Ferdinand Kingsley for his incredible performance during Nancy’s death scene.)
Maybe the lesson here is that life is fleeting, particularly so when one lives in an era with unclean water and a nebulous understanding of disease transmission. But perhaps the folks behind Victoria finally realized that they don’t quite know what to do with these two characters, and haven’t in some time.
Happy endings are often the death knell for characters in dramas like this after all – only usually not quite so literally. But despite Victoria’s attempts to replicate the concurrent upstairs/downstairs plots of shows like Downton Abbey, it’s never been terribly good at it. Now that Skerrett and Francatelli are married, have moved out of the palace, and everyone knows the full scope of Nancy’s identity theft subplot, it’s not clear what stories they really had left to tell. Of course, one might have assumed that the show would just let them drift off to middle class obscurity as it refocused on stories within the palace, rather than obliterate their joy in the cruelest possible way, but here we are. RIP, Skerrett.
In fact, that same lack of ability to tell stories about any class besides society’s upper echelons is precisely why this flirtation between Duchess Sophie and Joseph the footman is so worrisome. Where in the world is that going to go?
Historically, Victoria just isn’t that good at this kind of thing, which is evident already in the fact that the Sophie side of the equation – her oppressive husband and the fact that half the court seems to already be aware of his abusive tendencies – is the more interesting of the two. But, Victoria hasn’t tried a cross-class romance yet, and one would think the star-crossed aspect would sort of give them the best of both worlds (longing glances, a definite end point, etc.). So we’ll have to see how it goes.
What did you think of this episode of Victoria? Let’s discuss in the comments.