In a world of young popes, be the young queen. The 18-year-old monarch at the center of PBS Masterpiece drama Victoria feels as current as Gossip Girl’s Upper East Siders — and just as determined to get her way. Like the doll she’s still young enough to cling to, Victoria (Jenna Coleman) is viewed by some in her government as a plaything, and she needs to work on treating her subjects as more than the same. But as much as her inexperience gets her into trouble, it also makes her bold. Victoria is an impetuous and, in Coleman’s hands, vulnerable queen, and Victoria is just as magnetic.
It’s 1837. To quote an impossibly British title card, “the monarchy is in crisis.” William IV is sick and has retreated to Windsor, and the heir to the throne is his teenage niece, Alexandrina. She goes to bed one night a sheltered young woman. She wakes up the queen. Alexandrina meets the news of her uncle’s death with more sparkle-eyed wonder than you’d expect from someone who just found out she’ll have to lead her country, but of course she does: She’s young enough not to know the full weight of this responsibility and old enough to have spent years dreaming about it.
Still in her nightgown, Alexandrina receives the archbishop alone, at least aside from her faithful dog, Dash. Her independent streak upsets Sir John Conroy (Paul Rhys), comptroller and confidant to Alexandrina’s mother, the Duchess of Kent (Catherine Flemming). Sir John likes to be kept in the loop — all the better to control you, my dear. As the primary villain of the show so far, Rhys plays Sir John as a wolf who uses the duchess as his disguise, filling her head with self-interest masquerading as concern. He’s looming and slimy. His sideburns are terrible.
Sir John smells an opponent in the prime minister, Lord Melbourne (Rufus Sewell), who arrives at Kensington Palace to make nice with the queen. Melbourne is tired of governing; he tells his friend he’d rather retire and “contemplate the rooks.” He knows as well as she does that “the rooks must wait.” As fun as it would be to watch Rufus Sewell think about birds (and I mean this: It would be fun), the queen needs guidance. There’s an immediate spark between the young monarch and the weary politician, but Alexandrina turns down Melbourne’s offer of assistance.
Her resolve doesn’t last long. The next day, the queen is expected to receive each member of the privy council by name. She should have been trained for this sort of thing, but her baroness Lehzen (Daniela Holtz), like her mother, is German, so there are holes in Alexandrina’s education. Melbourne comes to her rescue, whispering everyone’s title in her ear like the Anne Hathaway to her Meryl Streep. In a few days, she’ll belatedly accept his offer to serve as her private secretary. For now, she has a request: She’d like to be known by her middle name. Meet Queen Victoria.
To get some distance from her oppressive childhood, Victoria moves from Kensington Palace to Buckingham, banishing her mother and Sir John to a remote wing. Buckingham has about 10 windows to Kensington’s every one, which is so symbolic it’s tempting to think the designers had this show in mind. “It was hard to see things clearly,” Victoria tells Melbourne of her old, dark home. But too much light can be blinding, and in her attempts to cut ties with Sir John, Victoria might be too quick to dismiss her mother’s lady-in-waiting, Flora Hastings (Alice Orr-Ewing).
Flora might spend all of her time with Sir John and the duchess, but her motives seem pure. She comes from a long line of courtiers, so she knows people and customs Victoria does not; when the young queen accidentally turns her back on the troops during a ceremony, Flora is the only person in her circle honest enough to tell her she’s made a mistake. She offers to teach Victoria what she doesn’t know, but Victoria spots Sir John lurking around the corner and declines, just as she does when Flora draws up a list of reliable maids of honor — “none of them above average height.” The whole country seems very concerned with how short Victoria is.
NEXT: Just peachy
One man who isn’t bothered by the queen’s stature is Russia’s grand duke, Alexander (Daniel Donskoy), who gets handsy with Victoria at her Coronation Ball. Melbourne steps in and arranges a rescue, and he and Victoria share a dance. Despite, or maybe because of, her mother’s request that she take it easy on the champagne, Victoria has too much to drink and makes it clear how badly she wants to dance with him again. She obviously has a crush. But Melbourne, whose wife had a public affair with Lord Byron, is well aware of his reputation and concerned for the queen’s. He stays in his lane, suggesting Victoria call it a night.
But what happens at the ball does not stay at the ball. Lehzen spots what looks like a bump beneath Flora’s gown and plants a scandal in Victoria’s head: Flora and Sir John shared a carriage together all the way from Scotland. Are they having an affair? Melbourne tells Victoria to leave it alone (“The problem with a scandal is that the mud does not always stick to the right people”), but the queen arranges for a doctor, Sir James (Robin Soans), to examine Flora. The exam confirms Flora is, in the doctor’s words, virgo intacto. Victoria, who has never seemed more sheltered, presses, “But is she with child?” Melbourne clears his throat behind her. “Uh, no, ma’am. The one generally precludes the other.”
To make matters worse, Flora’s bump is actually the result of a tumor. As Flora’s health declines, Victoria tries to make amends, but until now, she’s never known a problem that can’t be solved with a fruit basket. Flora sighs: “I am beyond peaches, ma’am.” When Victoria apologizes genuinely for her mistake, she seems surprised not to be immediately forgiven. Flora is near enough to death to stop being polite and start getting real. She tells Victoria being queen means accepting responsibility for her subjects: “They are not dolls to be played with.”
After Flora dies, Victoria is almost frozen with guilt, and her reputation takes a hit. She leans on Melbourne to find the strength to keep going, which he knows something about. Melbourne lost a son. He has every right to tell Victoria that being booed isn’t as bad as watching your child die, but he doesn’t go that route. Instead, he tells the queen a sweet story about holding little Augustus’ hand every night until he went to sleep, adding that when his son died, Melbourne couldn’t see a point to his existence. Knowing and working with Victoria has given him a reason to continue. If he can do it, so can she. “You must smile and wave,” Melbourne says, “and never let them know how hard it is to bear.”
The closer Victoria gets to Melbourne, the more determined his opponents are to oust him. Melbourne supports a bill to abolish slavery in the Caribbean, so the Tories take up the fight against it. Victoria asks if there’s anything she can do to help, but that only exposes how much political power she doesn’t have. “And if I insist?” she asks. “You cannot, ma’am,” Melbourne replies. “Advise, yes. Encourage, certainly. Even warn. But you cannot insist.” The bill passes, but only by five votes, which Melbourne takes as a sign he’s lost control of the House. The Tories can smell weakness; his days as prime minister are numbered.
Victoria takes the news like a teen in a coming-of-age movie, moping in bed and crying in the rain. Melbourne suggests she ask the Duke of Wellington (Peter Bowles) to form a new government, but Wellington, who seems like a kindly grandpa, says he’s too old to be prime minister again. He directs her to Sir Robert Peel (Nigel Lindsay). As things slip further out of Victoria’s grasp, she goes rogue, showing up at Melbourne’s house and surprising him in his slippers. Melbourne reminds her she can’t go around ignoring the peaceful transfer of power just to suit her interests. Victoria is going to have to work with Peel, and it’s going to require some sacrifices. To avoid the appearance of favoritism, Melbourne says, he’ll have to come to dinner less often. She might also have to replace some of her ladies with Tories. That does it.
NEXT: Don’t tell Victoria what to do
Victoria meets with Peel, but she refuses to replace any of her ladies with women connected to the Tory party. Somewhere in London, Melbourne sinks further into his armchair and pours another drink. Peel might not be a charmer, but he isn’t being unreasonable, either. When Victoria asks if he’s trying to surround her with spies, Peel says he just wants her to appear to be “friendly to all.” But after a lifetime of micromanagement, Victoria isn’t about to give up the first friends she chose for herself, even if that is how it’s always been done. And Peel can’t lead the government without the queen’s support any more than Melbourne can without Parliament’s. It looks like Victoria does have the power to insist, after all.
Melbourne, who was probably excited to get back to his rooks, tells the queen she made a mistake. If he forms a government now, critics will claim he was pulling the strings on this whole scheme and Parliament won’t trust either one of them. People are already questioning her sanity behind her back. Most of those rumors are courtesy of Victoria’s uncle, the Duke of Cumberland (Peter Firth), who wants the queen to be deemed unfit so he can serve as regent. Every time Victoria so much as screams at a rat, Cumberland is there, whispering in someone’s ear that the queen’s wits have deserted her.
But Cumberland only has the one chess move, and Wellington can see right through it. He visits Victoria to ask her to appoint someone — just anyone, at this point — and she refuses again to go into battle without her ladies by her side. “I was not aware that you were fighting a war, ma’am,” Wellington says. “Because you are not a young woman, Duke,” the queen replies. “And no one, I suspect, tells you what to do. But I have to prove my worth every single day, and I cannot do it alone.” Is there a 19th-century equivalent to dropping the mic?
Wellington is impressed enough by the queen and annoyed enough by Cumberland to do a little scheming of his own. He tells Melbourne about Cumberland’s false rumors and suggests the prime minister put them to rest. Fresh out of reasonable excuses, Melbourne agrees to serve Victoria again. While Wellington rubs Cumberland’s failed plan in his face, Melbourne helps the queen unveil her official portrait, which might as well be twice her size. “Seems I cannot manage unaided,” Victoria admits. But Melbourne already knew that.
Now back to those rats. While Victoria is busy with upstairs affairs, events downstairs are just as dramatic. The staff doesn’t appreciate working under the stingy Lehzen, especially since everyone from dresser Mrs. Jenkins (Eve Myles) to steward Penge (Adrian Schiller) is selling palace supplies to make a profit on the side. Penge, whose business is candles, is horrified to learn Lehzen wants to install gas lights. When the palace is overrun by rats, he blames the gas, pressuring Lehzen — who does seem like she’s in over her head — until she agrees not to make the switch. Penge is a cartoon Scrooge; his best rat line is a tie between “I’ve got plans for them, big plans” and “It’s like a miasma of corruption.”
But Penge might not even be the most calculating person on staff. Jenkins’ new assistant, Miss Skerrett (Nell Hudson), is polite to a fault, but there’s something deliberate about it, like she’s saving up favors for later. The chef, Francatelli (Ferdinand Kingsley), eventually recognizes Skerrett from a “house of ill repute.” Is she just trying to start a new life, or does she have a bigger plan? If Francatelli keeps her secret, what will he make her do in return? And can you imagine demanding a new pair of gloves every time you went outside?
- The costume designer must be having a ball (pun not intended).
- Why did Wellington have to go tell Peel to flirt with the queen? I trusted him.
- How to properly respond when the queen says a prince has a head like a pumpkin: “I see you have a keen eye for detail, ma’am.”
- Come for the regal intrigue; stay for Eve Myles making fun of such frivolous pursuits as “astronomy!” and “pianoforte!”
- Meanwhile, upstairs, one of Victoria’s ladies volunteers to stop being her friend because her other friend can play piano better.
- “You’re right, I’m not a … flip? Flip? Flibbertigibbet?”
- “I look like a goose wearing a crown.”
- “I have missed you.” “It’s been all of a day and a half.”