The future is sooty
Credit: ITV
S1 E6
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If you thought Victoria and Albert’s courtship was fun, get ready for Albert and Peel. The prince and the Tory have been “strangely drawn” to one another ever since their meet-cute at the anti-slavery convention, but the queen doesn’t approve — Victoria can’t stand the man who stands to inherit Lord M’s role in Parliament. So, like star-crossed lovers, Albert and Peel have taken to exchanging longing glances and meeting in private. Who wants to be the one to tell Albert that he’s in another rom-com?

To be clear, the prince’s man-crush is entirely platonic. Victoria is pregnant now (and terrified), and Albert is so happy about it that he’s started making jokes. Then again, those jokes are about marrying Peel. But that’s the fun of this hour. Albert is still the type of man to tell Victoria with a straight face that their love could burn down the city, but with Peel, he’s riding trains, getting soot all over his nice clothes, and quoting card games in everyday life. (He likes card games now! WHO IS HE, EVEN?) The broody, candlelit passion of Albert and Victoria’s romance is still the backbone of this show, but after a few weeks of hitting the same note, the innocence of Albert and Peel’s earnest guy love feels like a breath of fresh air. Mixed with smoke from a steam engine.

The issue on the table this week is the railway, which Albert and Peel believe is the future, not that Victoria is ready to embrace it. She isn’t doing too well with change lately, and that’s fair. The biggest change in her life could very well kill her. And as if it weren’t enough that the best contraception at the queen’s disposal was jumping on a couch, now she has to endure such questionable medical advice as “laughter is bad for baby” (courtesy of her mother). Oh, but alcohol’s fine.

The announcement of the queen’s pregnancy brings Lord Chamberlain to her door, where he kindly reminds her that the government has to prepare for her death now. If Victoria passes away in childbirth and her child survives, Britain will need a regent. Victoria picks Albert. The Tories meet to plot their opposition, which boils down to, “Please, God, anyone but Albert.” While Wellington waxes poetic about the “torpid Teuton” wedging himself “yet further into the sagging cleft of power,” Peel sits back in silence and wishes his friends would get new hobbies.

Back at the palace, Albert is showing off his new hobby: memorizing obscure facts about the industries of British towns. (“Adjacent is Northumberland, rejoicing in the digging of coal. And fish. Fishing. One cannot dig for fish.”) He tells Victoria that if she wants the people to accept him as regent, she should probably send him on a tour of the countryside. Like, maybe up north. There’s a railway there. But that’s completely unrelated, of course. Victoria isn’t thrilled that her husband is planning for her death, but she’d like to be allowed to laugh without her mother breathing over her shoulder, so she agrees to let Albert go north as long as she gets to come along — and make the whole trip look like her idea.

The royals and their “entourage” set off for Staffordshire, where Sir Piers Gifford, a traditionalist Tory, has offered to host them at his estate. Victoria begs Albert not to talk railway with their hosts, and he does well for a while, though he still manages to scandalize the Giffords by daring to talk about people who actually have to work for a living. At dinner, Sir Piers offers to take the queen and prince hunting, but his wife Beatrice protests that Victoria can’t go around riding horses in her condition. Anyway, Albert doesn’t hunt.

But he does shoot. The next morning, Albert dons his tallest hat and sets out to impress the ladies by killing some birds. Much to Sir Piers’ horror, Albert squats to steady himself — and, even worse, his technique works. It’s kind of like bowling with Tom Haverford. While Sir Piers fights the impulse to yell, “Son, people can see you!” at the prince, Victoria is dealing with her own problems. Apparently, Peel lives within walking distance of the Giffords’ estate, and he’s stopped by to say hello. The queen gives him the cold shoulder.

NEXT: In fair railway, where we lay our scene

I don’t know when Peel got all bumbling and sweet, but I’m not opposed. He tells Victoria that sport isn’t really his thing — he is “unused to it” — then joins the gang for lunch, where his presence gives the prince the courage he needs to bring up the railway. You tried, Victoria. Sir Piers doesn’t want trains anywhere near his property, but Peel says he’s a fan; who is he to stand in the way of progress? Albert agrees. “I believe the railway dissolves the unnecessary cultural divides of our region,” he explains. “Men can travel for work. Families unite.” He should have tried that argument on Victoria sooner. She might have listened if she didn’t have to look at Peel’s face while Albert said it.

Victoria excuses herself from the table, grumbling that people can’t just go around saying what they mean all the time. That night in bed, she asks her husband to stop getting so excited about things (some people find it “un-English”) and suggests that he let her guide the conversation from now on. Albert does the opposite: He sneaks out of bed the next morning and writes to Peel that he’s on his way. It’s a love story, baby, just say, “All aboard.”

Just the sight of a train brings Albert to his feet. “That is the most magnificent thing I have ever seen,” he gapes. His pregnant wife would not be thrilled to hear that, but you can’t fault his enthusiasm. The prince shows off his knowledge for the engineer, then requests that he and Peel get to ride up front, where the boys waste no time doing what they each do best: saying exactly what they’re thinking. “My wife does not care for you,” Albert says. “Uh, the queen.” (Oh, that wife.) He explains that Victoria finds Peel cold and ambitious; Peel says he gets that a lot. “Snap!” Albert exclaims. “As in the card game, snap. It’s what people say about me also.” Did they just become best friends?

Just when it seems like this couldn’t get any more adorable, Albert and Peel check to make sure that it’s real. The prince asks Peel point blank if he’s just using him for political advantage. Peel promises that he isn’t. Is Albert just using him to ratify his regency? No, Albert says, but that’s a good idea. Maybe he should. It’s real, you guys.

But Albert still has a wife back home, and she isn’t too happy that her husband abandoned her for a playdate on the rails. It isn’t Albert’s place to embrace England’s future without her. “I decide what is the future,” Victoria declares. That is, at most, 40 percent true, but it’s 100 percent badass. Also, Albert came home all sooty, and now he looks like a peasant. “I’m not the one eating beet root,” Albert returns, taking aim at the queen’s latest craving. Victoria tells him that beet root is only peasant food in his country, but that’s the problem, isn’t it? This is Albert’s country.

Victoria knows what she has to do. She has to ride a train. And she’s already starting to enjoy herself when she looks down to find her husband running alongside the tracks. At least, I think it’s her husband; it might be a puppy. That seals the deal: The queen loves trains now. Get on board, Britain.

It doesn’t hurt that now she gets to rub the railway in Sir Piers’ face. As she and Albert leave, Victoria tells her host through the window that it’s never a good idea to make up your mind on something before you’ve even tried it — which also applies to getting to know men like Peel and Albert. She’s starting to warm to the Tories’ leader, and just in time, too. Peel tells his fellow Tories that he endorses the queen’s choice of regent, so they’d better fall in line and stop making “farmyard noises” about it.

This trip north worked out better than Albert could have imagined; Victoria even gives him some paperwork to read. And the excursion is good for the downstairs, crew, too, especially Jenkins and Lohlein, who bond over slapping Sir Piers’ stodgy butler in the face. The butler keeps trying to embarrass Albert by lying to Lohlein about the customs of the region (like singing “God Save the Queen” while getting undressed), but Jenkins notices and cuts right through the butler’s games. With that slap, Lohlein gets the last word. “There is no one here to see this but God,” he says. And Jenkins, but she isn’t telling. The Slap season 2: coming to England in the fall of 1840.

Royal scraps:

  • Victoria and Albert’s new code for “I love you” in public — rubbing their ears — is pretty darn cute.
  • “Ridiculous. Whom will you marry?” “Wellington. Peel. Maybe both. Cumberland shall be my mistress.”
  • “As you can see, I am far too busy to die.”
  • I am reluctantly starting to get on board with this whole romance between Francatelli and Our Eliza, but I wouldn’t have to be reluctant about it if the first few episodes hadn’t made the chef out to be such a creep.
  • “Listen to me: Your nurse is a virgin. Your husband is a man. Your doctor is a fool.”
  • “You are my monkey.”
  • “Don’t talk railway at me.”

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