“From now on, I wish to be called Victoria.”
That line, elegantly and confidently delivered by Jenna Coleman’s newly crowned 18-year-old monarch, was one of my favorite moments of the premiere episode of “Victoria,” the new miniseries that debuted on PBS Sunday. From the moment a solemn, black armband-wearing courtier arrives to deliver the news that young Alexandrina Victoria is the successor to the throne it is clear that little has been done to prepare the teen to be the sovereign of what was then the world’s largest empire.
Raised in virtual isolation by her mother, the German-speaking Duchess of Kent, Victoria ascended to the throne without ever truly interacting with commoners or even learning the basics of sex and procreation. (The latter becomes extremely apparent as Victoria badly navigates a scandal that nearly derails the monarchy.) But the best parts of Sunday’s premiere was getting to watch the young Queen decidedly take charge of the monarchy while effectively (and often brattishly) thwarting the many adults who tried in those early days to manipulate her. We see Victoria literally laugh once and future Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel out of the room when he tries to work with her before building his government. She crumples up lists of advisors carefully prepared by her Lady in Waiting. And, in the first of many mother-daughter conflicts, she orders her mother to stop speaking to her in German (and quickly drops her first name of Alexandrina.)
“Victoria” wouldn’t be a proper British costume drama without the following: a ballroom scene in which Victoria flirted with the “wrong” kinds of men, intrigue downstairs in the servants quarters, a maid who made a VERY BAD mistake but was instantly forgiven, and mommy issues galore. Fortunately for us all, we got plenty of all of those things and the costumes and music were exceptional throughout.
One of the men Victoria inappropriately flirts with is her trusted advisor and friend Lord Melbourne (Rufus Sewell.) Melbourne, who was Prime Minister at the beginning of Victoria’s reign, also served as her private tutor, instructing her on the ins and outs of government and diplomacy. While historians say that Melbourne and Victoria’s relationship was more of a father-daughter relationship than a romantic one, there are lots of longing glances and poignant conversations between the two in this series. (And really, isn’t that what we’d expect to see of two characters played by Jenna Coleman and Rufus Sewell?)
The first 30 minutes or so of “Victoria” were, in short, exactly as you’d expect them to be. But then Victoria’s ignorance and suspicious leads her to do something that ruined many people’s lives.
It all began when the Duchess of Kent made Lady Flora Hastings her lady in waiting and trusted advisor. Victoria instantly despised Lady Flora and the duchess’ private secretary John Conroy, suspecting that they were teaming up with her mother to socially isolate her and eventually strip her of power. At the same time Victoria realizes Lady Flora is a threat, Flora’s appearance begins to change and her midsection begins to grow decidedly larger. Victoria instantly suspects Lady Flora is pregnant and that the married Conroy is the father. Over the strenuous objections of her mother and Conroy, Victoria orders Lady Flora to undergo a horrible and demeaning physical examination to determine if she is carrying a child.
(I have to admit that I had to look away during the ‘examination’ scene. It was awful and violating and is said to have deeply impacted Lady Flora and her family.) When the doctors make their report, it is revealed that Lady Flora is pretty much the opposite of pregnant, she is a virgin with an abdominal tumor that is rapidly killing her.
When Victoria is told about Lady Flora’s virginity she is confused and asks if that definitely means she is not expecting. After a long pause, it is explained to her that yes, you cannot be pregnant while being a virgin. (I can’t be the only one who thought the Duchess did her daughter an enormous disservice by not explaining all of this to her earlier.)
Lady Flora begins to decline rapidly after enduring the examination. As she begins to realize that Flora is both in enormous amounts of pain and not long for this world, the young queen begins to experience what seems to be a new emotion to her: guilt. Her mother blasts her for her “shocking mistreatment of an innocent young woman” and Victoria immediately goes on the defensive. How was she supposed to know it was a tumor? And even though Conway wasn’t guilty of impregnating Flora, she assures her mother that he must be guilty of other things. Losing patience, her mother continues to express deep regret and shame about how Flora was treated.
Victoria does eventually realize the enormity of her error (while also noting that her treatment of the now-exonerated Lady Flora could be used against her by all of the factions vying for power.) She visits Lady Flora’s sickbed in the middle of the night and essentially begs for forgiveness. The most painful moment came when Victoria earnestly asks Flora if there is anything she can do. She then offers the dying woman … peaches.
“I am beyond peaches, ma’am,” Lady Flora replies.
Victoria then takes a deep breath and asks Lady Flora for her forgiveness. Flora, to her credit, is not having it. “Only God can forgive,” she tells her Queen. For her part, Victoria is stunned (this might also be the first time anyone has denied her anything since her coronation.) But Flora is not done. She uses some of her dying words to scold Victoria and tells her that it is time to start acting like a grown up. Her subjects, after all, “aren’t dolls to be played with.”
Unforgiven and lost, Victoria is completely unprepared to process her feelings after Flora dies shortly thereafter. She turns once again to her old friend Lord Melbourne, who shares the stories of his own grief after the death of his young son many years before. Seeing Melbourne and Victoria get closer than ever before once again starts upsetting everyone, naturally. Sir Robert Peel and the Duke of Cumberland begin to conspire about how they can have the young queen declared unfit. A regency, in which an ‘adult’ was appointed to essentially run the empire would be an ideal situation for them both.
As all of this is going on, the British public begins to turn on the Queen as stories about what happened to Lady Flora begin appearing in the press, complete with lewd depictions of her medical examination. Victoria begins to suffer from negative press and negative public sentiment for the first time in her reign and she’s at a loss when it comes to what to do.
Melbourne himself is also navigating how to hang on to his slim margin of power inside Parliament. Here’s when viewers were reminded that politicians have always been super petty, even when the issues being settled are about things as grave as slavery and human rights.
During one of their discussions (which are essentially civics lessons), Melbourne, who is a Whig, explains that he is a supporter of a bill that will abolish slavery in the Empire. Victoria is shocked, she thought that slavery had already been abolished, but Melbourne explains that it is still happening in the Caribbean.
Seeing an opportunity to finally oust Melbourne, the Tories rally and attempt to defeat the bill, which ultimately passes by only a handful of votes. A wonderful scene occurs when we got a glimpse of the debates in Parliament about the bill. The arguments for and against sound painfully familiar, even more than two hundred years later. The Tories argue abolishing slavery would have dire consequences for planation owners (won’t someone think of the plantation owners? Ugh!) One of the Whigs says this in reply:
“The moral principle cannot be ignored simply because it’s inconvenient.”
After this interesting point in the episode, I have to admit that my interest overall started to wane. (A two hour premiere is REALLY LONG.) I will say that both Victoria and Melbourne emerge from Sunday’s episode with their power intact. The British public has begun to move on from the Lady Flora scandal and Melbourne himself is ready to become Prime Minister once again after his ouster. The unity between Victoria and Melbourne is displayed once again when Melbourne attends to her as her official portrait is unveiled. “Seems I cannot manage unaided,” Victoria tells him as she attempts to reach up and pull down the curtains covering the painting. He gives her a meaningful glance and immediately assists her.
It was a fitting ending to what was overall a very satisfying episode.
An eight-hour miniseries, Victoria airs at 9 p.m. on Sundays on PBS.