A new season means new decisions for Her Majesty
The Show: Victoria
The Network: PBS
The Genre: Period/Biographical drama
The Challenge: Give a show four episodes with which to draw you in, impress you, challenge you, make you feel something deeply. Four episodes for the chance to find out if you care what happens to the characters you’re watching enough to become invested in the story. If after all that, it does none of those things for you? Then no biggie. You gave it a good shot and you can move on. But if you love it, you’ll be glad you stuck around.
The Premise: Victoria stars Jenna Coleman and Tom Hughes as Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in the early years of their reign. They must juggle political crises as well as taking care of their growing family. Notable supporting cast includes Rufus Sewell, Diana Rigg, David Oakes, Alex Jennings, Andrew Bicknell, Leo Suter, Bebe Cave, Nell Hudson, Jordan Waller, Ferdinand Kingsley, Nigel Lindsay, and Tilly Steele. It was created by Daisy Goodwin, who is most well known for her novels The American Heiress and The Fortune Hunter. Produced by Mammoth Screen for PBS.
Victoria Season 2 picks up not too far from where Season 1 finished off. Fans love the first season for shedding a new light on the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign. Queen Victoria is ready to return to public life after the birth of Princess Victoria. Her advisors are keeping the progress of the war in Afghanistan from her. New royal mothers are expected to observe stilted and sexist traditions of the church and society in general. All she wants to do is to get out of the nursery and back to the work of running the country. Prince Albert wants to be a more active assistant to Victoria, but she is afraid that delegating too much power will ultimately weaken her position as Queen. Will Victoria and Albert be able to comprise and work as a team in parenting and ruling?
Jenna Coleman makes Queen Victoria relevant and relatable to today’s world
Victoria in Season 1 focused on Queen Victoria’s transition from adolescence to adulthood in a short amount of time. For viewers under 30, her quick flashes of anger and the desire to break away from her mother were a welcome break from dramas which depicted Queen Victoria as a stuffy older woman. Although Victoria is still in her 20’s in Season 2, women across the age spectrum can appreciate this season’s emphasis on Victoria working through postpartum depression. In the 19th Century, women and medical professionals had no idea about this condition. Today, many women experience postpartum depression, but there are still societal taboos over discussing the issue and seeking treatment for it. Viewers who have experienced postpartum depression can see themselves when Jenna Coleman blankly stares at Princess Victoria’s bassinet. They may have also had to explain to loved ones what was happening to them as she did at the end of “Entente Cordiale” to Prince Albert. Coleman’s tone of voice communicated to the audience all of the anguish Victoria had inside of her. She revealed that she felt like an impostor because she couldn’t meet society’s expectations of being a perfect mother and ruler. These scenes have sparked a necessary conversation on diagnosis and resources for treatment of postpartum depression.
“I realized that the nub of Victoria’s dilemma over series two is really how did she cope with being a queen, a wife, and a mother? And so I just remember what it was like, you know after I had my own children and how hard it was to go back to work, and I wanted to, you know, explore that for Victoria.” – Daisy Goodwin
Even if viewers have not experienced postpartum depression specifically, feeling the strain from high expectations and a lack of confidence are universal emotions. The pressure society places on women to be ”perfect” despite progress in women’s rights hasn’t quite gone away. Nearly 200 years later, women still have to shoo away mansplainers in the workplace. Coleman’s performance emphasizes discovering more about historical figures viewers may already know a lot about. Victoria’s character development in a way is essentially the story of why Queen Victoria’s reign continues to influence modern society. Unpacking the emotions behind the decisions political leaders make is why viewers watch biographical dramas. We want to see the flaws as well as the strengths in these larger than life historical figures. Victoria Season 2 is an excellent example of the story of a woman being told by women, stressing the issues male writers and historians in the past couldn’t or would not discuss. Even though many of these scenes aren’t exactly happy ones, the audience gains enjoyment through experiencing the emotional connection with Queen Victoria.
Lord Melbourne’s departure enhances the season’s plot by creating more room for secondary character development
The departure of Lord Melbourne (Rufus Sewell) from the story was written in a somewhat subtle way that, when combined with the visuals, was a powerful farewell to a fan-favorite character. Although many in the audience may resent his departure, the overall effect is that the focus away from Lord Melbourne is an improvement of the storyline. This improvement does not mean the initial story was flawed, in fact, his departure made an already strong storyline even more compelling.
Lord Melbourne’s departure from the story is another moment of growing up for Victoria. The script starts out with small hints of his failing health. Queen Victoria has come to rely on his advice out of office as a friend with a neutral opinion. She confesses to Lord Melbourne her fears that Prince Albert (Tom Hughes) might be interested in more than mathematics in his conversations with Ada Lovelace (Emerald Fennell). He successfully convinces her that Albert is not the type to betray her in that way and she should trust him more. Victoria’s maturity combined with the shift of Lord Melbourne as a skeptic of Prince Albert to a supporter sets the stage for the next chapter in Victoria’s life. Her final scene with Lord Melbourne has all of the hope that he will come around to see her again. His death from what appears to be a stroke at the end of “Warp and Weft” becomes a catalyst for Queen Victoria to work on her marriage. She did not realize it right away, but her mind dwelling on the past holds her back from making Albert first in her life. Although she lost a fond reminder of her younger years, by the end of Episode 4, she is a much stronger character because of her grief.
“Well, I would if I thought you really needed my counsel, ma’am. But you’re quite capable now of going your own way.” – Lord Melbourne
Daisy Goodwin has successfully avoided the trap many showrunners face after the departure of fan-favorite characters. Prince Albert’s character arc benefits the most from this. Before Lord Melbourne’s death, he successfully convinced Victoria to build her trust in Albert. In the following episodes, Albert opens up to her about his own crisis of confidence after finding out Uncle Leopold (Alex Jennings) is his real father and not the deceased Duke of Coburg (Andrew Bicknell). Albert’s conversations with his brother Ernest (David Oakes) and Uncle Leopold are the windows into his mind. The audience hasn’t bonded with the Duke the way they have with Lord Melbourne, so in turn, the sympathy for the audience is focused more on Albert’s perceived loss of identity. His struggle to be a better example for his children compared to the Duke is what viewers relate to. Viewers who might have considered bailing on the season are persuaded to stay because the script acknowledges the grief and also shifts towards building up the secondary characters below stairs and in politics.
The new characters this season add their own unique flavor to the episodes. The Duchess of Buccleuch’s (Diana Rigg) well-timed shade and comic relief also serve to contrast more progressive points of view on the show. Her overly fussy complaints about the lack of plain toast in France were not only humorous but were a perfect way to contrast the cultural differences between France and England. Drummond (Leo Suter), Sir Robert Peel’s (Nigel Lindsay) private secretary and Lord Alfred (Jordan Waller) give fans a new ‘ship that breaks social convention to root for. Both Drummond and Alfred have an interesting divide between familial expectations and the increasing bond between them. Miss Cleary (Tilly Steele) has formed quite the bond with her supervisor Mrs. Skerrett (Nell Hudson). Cleary really comes alive when she has to fight to support her relatives in Ireland. Wilhelmina Coke (Bebe Cave), the Duchess’ assistant, also has a role to play in expanding the development of Ernest’s character. Their cat and mouse dynamic are shown in a subtle and intriguing way. The end of Episode 4 leaves viewers with a few unanswered questions. How will Ernest cope with his syphilis diagnosis? Will Miss Cleary continue to find her voice? Answering these questions, along with the anticipation of more character development for the main characters, persuades the audience to stick around for the payoff in solving these mysteries.
This season immerses you in Queen Victoria’s world of regal palaces and sprawling greenery
The sets play a key part in making the characters come alive. Last season introduced viewers to the palace and spacious gardens. Brocket Hall (Lord Melbourne’s residence) and Greater London, and occasionally a shot of Coburg. This season’s plotlines involve new locations and additions to existing sets. These new plot lines were clearly an opportunity for the set designers to be even more creative in establishing contrasting environments. Every aspect of the palace nursery is designed to symbolize the innocence of childhood. White curtains and furniture along with natural light are used to visually separate the nursery from the throne room and other parts of the palace which are usually lit in yellow or darker tones. The white is also a wonderful contrast to Victoria’s postpartum depression emotions.
“But ma’am, France is a Godless country.” – The Duchess of Buccleuch
“A Soldier’s Daughter” cleverly uses flashes of winter scenery to establish what the soldiers were facing in Afghanistan. Queen Victoria travels to France in “Entente Cordiale”. Although the royal yacht was mostly CGI work, the rest of France featured an entirely new location. King Louis Philippe’s chateau set from “Entente Cordiale” has the illusion of coming right out of a fairy tale. The high ceilings, the bright chandeliers, and nude artwork on the walls are all carefully placed and designed to show Queen Victoria and her delegation completely out of their usual element. The set design is key in shaping the escapist enjoyment of Victoria for viewers.
We’re loving the crash course in 1840’s British history
One of the best parts of watching period dramas is learning about events and figures you may not have heard of before. Season 1 established a tradition for mixing in Easter Eggs for history buffs. Season 2 of Victoria continues the trend with the addition of more historical events and trivia, alongside the interpersonal drama between the characters. From the Anglo-Afghan war to the Irish Potato Famine, large political concepts and individuals are a vehicle for storytelling. Many fans had no idea Ira Aldridge (Ashley Zhangazha) broke the glass ceiling for black Shakespearean actors well before the modern era. Visual elements and the dialogue throughout the season work hand in hand to keep audiences thinking about the historical research that went into the crafting of this seasons’ storylines. Running to Wikipedia after an episode enhances the enjoyment of these scenes. Frequently, conversations between Victoria, Peele, and Drummond are the main vehicles of conveying difficult-to-show concepts such as economic protectionism. The pacing of these scenes avoids the “info dump” effect, which is a common pitfall for biographical dramas.
“ If I were a member of the lower orders, I might blame the Prime Minister, who supports the Corn Laws that make bread unaffordable, for my misfortunes.”- Queen Victoria
The directing of “Faith, Hope, and Charity” makes this episode a clear standout for communicating history this season. Daisy Goodwin borrowed the story of her great-great-great grandfather, Dr. Traill, and his work in assisting the potato farmers in Schull, County Cork to show a small slice of the much larger crisis. The staging emphasizes the great social divide between the malnourished potato farmers of Schull and the excess of riches in the palace and the massive carts of grain in the London markets. The set for Ireland is designed to maximize the visual impact of the poverty and desperation in the dialogue. This episode shows that Victoria can move between a light-hearted tone and a sober and emotionally reflective one without losing narrative focus. “Faith, Hope, and Charity” is also a showcase for displaying how far Queen Victoria has progressed in her capacity to judge the issues she faced. Her empathy continues to deepen. Victoria isn’t the same woman who brushed off the Lady Flora crisis in Season 1. Although some Irish and Irish-American viewers criticized the script for giving Queen Victoria too much credit for her role in famine policy, Victoria did not hold back from staging scenes with malnourished children.
Final Verdict: With relatable characters and an adorable romance, Victoria’s second season is definitely not a stuffy biographical drama.
Overall, as a biographical drama, Victoria Season 2 is incredibly successful in bringing the early years of her reign onto the small screen. The argument that Victoria should stick only to the history is just not viable for an audience looking for romantic escapism. Victoria/Albert or “Vicbert” as the fans call the ‘ship is the fulcrum that Season 2 is built around. Jenna Coleman and Tom Hughes no longer have to play the awkward newlyweds and their chemistry shines throughout the season. Victoria often thinks with her emotions and Albert balances that with his logic-based outlook. The script this season has made it clear that there was no way for “Vicburne” or Victoria/Lord Melbourne to be anything but a friendship based on mutual respect and admiration. Lord Melbourne’s expressions make it clear that Victoria and Albert are well-matched for each other. For many people, their romance surviving despite the struggles of parenthood is the most compelling reason to continue watching Victoria. For those critics who disliked teenage Victoria in Season 1, her struggles with postpartum depression and the work/life balance show a clear development of maturity.
Although this season is an especially strong showcase of writing, directing, set design and costuming, no show is perfect. PBS’ decision to reorder ITV’s episode order negatively impacted the flow of the season. The first two episodes “A Soldier’s Daughter” and “The Green-Eyed Monster” worked fairly well as a double-header. The mashup which led to the jarring transition from Lord Melbourne and Dash’s death at the end of “Warp and Weft” to the birth of Prince Albert at the beginning of “The Sins of the Father” didn’t allow enough time for the audience to process their emotions. Prince Albert’s moment of catharsis at the waterfall in “Entente Cordiale” was dampened by censorship.
Biographical dramas often face the dilemma of balancing research, modern critiques of the historical figure, and fictional characters. Victoria this season so far has had to balance presenting Queen Victoria in a positive light with her support imperialism in “A Soldier’s Daughter” and/or ethnic bias in “Faith Hope and Charity”. “A Soldier’s Daughter” had throwaway lines about “savages” in Afghanistan which remained unchallenged by any of the characters. Many people see the lack of questioning by any of these characters as an endorsement of racism from the time period. The show doesn’t present the Afghan army as a group of people who were fighting for their right to self-determination. On the other hand, the majority of the lines filled with anti-Irish sentiment were followed by a rebuke by a character sympathetic to the Irish. Depending on your point of view, one or both episodes were too far in the direction of whitewashing.
Throughout all of these episodes, you are very likely to suffer extreme jealousy over Queen Victoria’s fabulous wardrobe. Rosalind Ebbutt’s designs have managed to win over people not normally interested in the 1840’s fashion. From Victoria’s purple traveling dress and fur muff in Episode 1 to her white day frocks in France, there are tons of opportunities for historical costuming inspiration. Even her black and dark day dresses have touches of elegant lace. Prince Albert and Ernest’s costumes are great examples of early Victorian menswear. The costumes are also instrumental in filling in the details of Queen Victoria’s world. If this was only the halfway point of the season, it’s clear there’s a satisfying conclusion to the story at the end of the season.