The government just can't stay out of anyone's marriage, can it?
Credit: ITV
S1 E4
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Victoria and Albert just got engaged, but the honeymoon is already over. Now life is all finances and disapproving politicians and bittersweet goodbyes. Everything was more fun when the prince and the queen were bickering over the piano or stealing candlelit kisses, but that’s what Victoria gets for wishing to be ordinary. She thinks it means getting carried over the threshold, but we all know what being an “ordinary woman” is really about: having your choices regulated by a bunch of stuffy old guys.

As soon as Victoria and Albert announce their engagement — which is to say, as soon as they’ve scouted out every secret kissing corner in the palace — Albert is whisked back to Coburg for six weeks to pack up his life and say goodbye to his childhood home. Victoria, meanwhile, has to get the privy council to sign off on her marriage, which requires making romance sound like a tax return. She reads a prepared statement:

“Since we last met, I have declared the intention of allying myself in marriage to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. I hope that God will bless this union and render it conducive to the interests of my people, as well as my own domestic happiness.”

Ah, young love. No matter how much Victoria wants to feel like her choices are her own — and no matter how Lord M spins it — she’s still bound by tradition and political game-playing. Duke Wellington, who wants to use her upcoming marriage “as a stick” to beat Melbourne’s government, reminds the council that King Leopold is a Papist. “How can we be sure that Prince Albert is in fact a Protestant?” he wonders, hoping to start a rumor. Good to see politics haven’t changed at all in the past two centuries.

And neither have echo chambers. Everyone in the palace made a fuss about how good Victoria and Albert’s union would be for Britain, but as it turns out, they really meant it would be good for them. (Inbreeding: royalty’s nepotism.) The general population doesn’t exactly love Germans, and Parliament doesn’t love this family — which is mostly thanks to Leopold. Good old Uncle Leo has continued to collect his generous allowance every year since his wife died 20 years ago, using the money to support an actress he’s been sleeping with on the side. One of the weird joys of this hour is the way “actress” becomes a euphemism for “mistress,” and no one dares to speak it above a whisper.

Parliament refuses to offer Albert an English title, and they limit his allowance to half of what Leopold got. Back in Coburg, Albert broods luxuriously like he’s in a music video, grumbling in a sauna and fencing in an empty room full of columns. “I wish things could still be decided at sword point,” he sighs to his brother. Victoria, in letters, tries to soothe her fiancé with promises of all the free handkerchiefs his heart desires, but as much as she wants him to get what he wants, she’s also starting to worry that he’d use the money to finance an actress of his own.

Imagine what the queen would think if she saw Ernest dragging Albert to a “house of ill repute.” (Ernest: “Think of it as a university of love.”) She’d probably run off crying and miss the best part: Albert telling a prostitute that he doesn’t want to “engage with her,” but he does want her instruction since she’s here. He literally asks for a pen and paper so he can take notes. This boy — he’s one of the good ones.

Ernest might not have expected the pen and paper, but that’s all he really wanted: to educate Albert before his wedding night. The lovable playboy gives his brother a few pep talks during their time in Coburg, first when he promises Albert that the people of England will love him when they get to know him, and then when he admits that he saw their mother once after their parents’ separation. She had tears in her eyes. Ernest never told his brother because it was easier to believe that she hated them, and anyway, they had each other. “And now you have Victoria,” Ernest says, “and she will never leave you. Do you know how much I envy you, and how I will miss you?” Can Ernest just live at the palace, please? The kids are going to need a fun uncle.

NEXT: Albert puts a ring on it

The family returns to Buckingham, where Victoria skirts her way around that whole no-titles thing by making Albert a Knight of the Garter, the highest order of chivalry. Albert is only a little bit comforted to know that he has a title Melbourne doesn’t. Melbourne still has what Albert really wants: a seat at the House of Lords. Even worse, Albert’s new private secretary used to work for Melbourne. The prince worries that he’s being spied on, but Victoria accuses him of being peevish. “Peevish,” Albert repeats. “This is a word I do not understand. Perhaps I should ask my new secretary to translate it for me.” I want these two to be very happy, but I hope they never stop bickering.

At Lord M’s encouragement, Victoria confronts her soon-to-be husband about their matching his-and-hers insecurities. She finds him fencing the air, which feels like a pretty apt summary of how Albert approaches the world, and admits she worries that he wants money so he can keep a mistress like their uncle does. Albert is offended, but he isn’t storm-off-into-the-trees offended, and that’s a surprise. If Albert ever had license to storm off into the trees, it’s now.

Instead, the prince tells Victoria that he’ll only ever want her. He just wants to be financially independent because he needs to know he’ll have “the chance to do something good.” Victoria can’t promise him a bigger allowance — although maybe if he can do something about Leopold, Parliament will talk — but she can promise that she’ll marry him tomorrow like an ordinary woman, which in this case means she’s decided to ignore her advisers and leave the line about “obeying” Albert in the vows. Too bad; she had a real chance to stick it to the patriarchy with that one. At least she gives her husband an allowance.

For Victoria, promising to obey anyone else is a kind of rebellion, albeit an ironic one. So many of her choices are made for her — the Lord Chamberlain even wants to pick her bridesmaids. He hands her a list of “suitable girls,” but when Victoria passes along Albert’s request that the women come from families with clean reputations, Lord Chamberlain and Lord M look scandalized. Chamberlain protests: “But your attendants must come from the aristocracy, ma’am!” She can’t have it both ways! Melbourne suggests reducing the list to six bridesmaids. Chamberlain hedges: “Or… four?” Victoria walks down the aisle with eight bridesmaids, reputations unknown.

Victoria and Albert’s wedding is a hit. Not only does the queen single-handedly bring white wedding dresses into vogue (she did that) and inspire the Snapchat flower-crown filter (that part’s not true!), but she also gets to share a good-looking cake with zero rats. There’s just one last, bittersweet item to check off the list: saying goodbye to Lord M, who’s decided to step down from his post and return to Brocket Hall. He’s so sad about it that he doesn’t even mention the rooks. Books, yes. Rooks, no.

Victoria, in her after-party bonnet, requests a minute alone with her prime minister. She takes us all back to two episodes ago with so much conviction that this feels like a series finale calling back to the pilot. “You once told me,” the queen says, “that when I gave my heart, I would give it without reservation.” But according to Victoria, he was only almost right. “I shall never forget,” she tells Lord M. With her permission, he kisses her cheek. Without anyone’s permission, I am crying. This all feels very permanent. I hope the birds take good care of him.

Melbourne watches Victoria run down the hall one last time, and that’s where he leaves her — and where we leave him. We, on the other hand, follow Victoria into the bedroom at Windsor, where she nervously asks her husband if he’s thirsty. He is, but it’s 1840. They fall to the bed kissing.

Royal scraps:

  • Penge: explained! The grumpy steward is only grumpy because of a thwarted romance with the Dowager Duchess’ dresser, which is both a tragic backstory and a fun tongue twister.
  • “First rats, and now an infestation of Coburgs. I feel like a chapter from the Book of Job.”
  • Albert and Ernest’s dad seems like a real bundle of laughs.
  • “But what a profile.”

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