Have you been jonesing for a whiff of English aristocracy ever since Downton Abbey closed its doors for good? After binge-watching The Crown, were you left pondering how you might get another glimpse into a sweet Buckingham Palace life? Do you love strong, flawed women fighting the patriarchy while also wearing very pretty gowns? Welcome to Victoria. You’ll feel at home here.
The latest behind-the-scenes look at royalty has everything you could want in a British period drama: romance, group dancing, forbidden flirting, evil people with big scars on their faces so you know they’re evil, explanations of the inner-workings of Parliament, great costumes, people introspectively staring into mirrors, servants talking about candles, and lots and lots of hand-kissing. So much hand-kissing!
The two-hour premiere picks up right at the start of the Victorian Era. King William IV has died, which means that his niece, 18-year-old Princess Alexandrina Victoria (Jenna Coleman), will ascend to the throne. She’s a little bit scared, but mainly pumped about this promotion. Others, however, do not share her enthusiasm. She’s very young and she’s a woman — which, in England circa 1837, is treated as an enormous handicap. Lucky for us, this iteration of Victoria is just the right mix of stubborn teen and regal lady boss to be believable. (Okay, so she leans heavily toward the stubborn side in “Doll 123,” but she’s trying!) Coleman does an excellent job of showing Victoria’s attempts to assert herself, while also revealing the vulnerable girl who woke up one morning and found herself in charge of an entire country.
Although Victoria doesn’t encounter many allies in this premiere, there are two dudes who really have it out for the new queen. (They want that sweet, sweet throne, you see.) The first is Sir John Conroy (Paul Rhys), king of the glower. He, along with Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent (Catherine Flemming), basically kept Victoria imprisoned in her own home throughout her childhood. They claim they did so to keep her safe, but it mostly just made Victoria extremely unprepared for the monarchy.
Conroy runs the duchess’s household and he also runs the duchess, if you know what I’m saying. Just kidding: These two supposedly aren’t hooking up, but that’s not for lack of trying on the duchess’s part. Conroy is here for the power, and fights hard to convince anyone who will listen that a regent should be installed until Victoria gets her bearings. Thankfully, Victoria sees through Conroy, and soon after her coronation, she’s yelling things at him like, “If I require advice, I will ask for it!” It is awesome.
However, Conroy has an unlikely ally in his attempt to get a regency: the Duke of Cumberland (Peter Firth). Cumberland is one of Victoria’s uncles, and next in line for the throne. He also has a giant scar on his face, so you know this dude is up to no good. He knows that should there be a regency, so they’ll need a co-regent with royal English blood. Needless to say, Cumberland is down to clown with Conroy.
With all these nefarious types wandering the halls of Buckingham Palace, there surely must be one hero in Victoria’s corner, right? Oh, you guys, there is. Enter Lord Melbourne (Rufus Sewell), a man who puts the prime in “prime minister,” as it were. This Lord M is exactly what a young queen would want in an ally: He holds duty and love of country in the highest regard; he believes in Victoria from almost the moment he meets her; he guides her without seeming too manipulative; and, crucially, he rescues her when the Russian archduke gets handsy. He is, by all accounts, a certified dreamboat. Rather than dismiss Victoria, like most people, Lord M wants to help Victoria learn to rule. As her prime minister and her private secretary, he fills in the gaps where she’s lacking knowledge and attempts to keep her calm when she starts acting like the teenager she is.
Those attempts don’t always work, and “Doll 123” spends the majority of its time telling the story of two major scandals that plagued Victoria at the beginning of her reign. The first has to do with the Duchess of Kent’s lady-in-waiting, Lady Flora Hastings (Alice Orr-Ewing). Lady Flora seems like a decent enough person; though she’s in the pocket of Conroy, she loves her country and the monarchy. To the new queen, however, Lady Flora represents another person who’s been holding her back since her childhood, so when she sees Lady Flora’s swollen belly and hears a story about Lady Flora and Conroy getting it on, she pounces. Although advised by the Duchess and Lord M otherwise, Victoria forces Lady Flora into an incredibly humiliating examination, only to find out that the woman is not pregnant, but dying from a tumor. Word gets out and people are pissed.
But not Lord M, of course. Although he may be a bit frustrated, he’s never mad at his queen. When he finds Victoria too terrified to go out in public, he sits with her and tells her about his late son. After his son died, he thought he had no purpose … and then he became Victoria’s prime minister. Until that happened, he had to muscle through it, and that’s what she needs to do too. If you questioned the certified dreamboat status, just watch this scene again.
The second scandal is a bit more complex and a bit more premeditated. After Lord M and the Whigs win an anti-slavery vote in Parliament by the narrowest of margins, he realizes his days are numbered and decides to resign. Victoria can’t fathom having anyone else as her prime minister, and frankly, I can’t either. When Victoria tearfully asks him, “Do you really mean to forsake me?” and then he tearfully responds, “I have no choice,” it is just the saddest. Sure, you know that they don’t get together because, well, history, and you also know they shouldn’t get together … but maybe they should? In this extra-long premiere, the scenes between Coleman and Sewell are all we really need.
No matter his personal feelings, Melbourne is a man of country first. He’s stepping down. The big problem? Victoria doesn’t like the next man in line very much. Tory leader Sir Robert Peel (Nigel Lindsay) is boring and his eyes don’t pierce the soul with just one look. Victoria is smart enough to know that if the crown demonstrates zero confidence in this new government, they won’t be able to govern. She is not smart enough, however, to realize that this will trigger a constitutional crisis. With her little plan in place, she refuses to replace any of her ladies-in-waiting, who are all Whigs, thus showing partisanship and an alliance with Lord M. If people weren’t calling her “Mrs. Melbourne” before, they certainly are now.
Of course, everyone tries to dissuade her — even her ladies offer to resign! — but Victoria stands firm. As she explains to the Duke of Wellington (Peter Bowles), these women are her allies and she won’t go into war without them. This latest stray from royal protocol sends Cumberland and Conroy into a fit, which means it’s full steam ahead with their attempt to force a regency. They try to convince people that Victoria is out of her mind, much like her mad grandfather. Unfortunately, their biggest piece of evidence is Victoria screaming when she finds rats all over her birthday cake, so you know this plan is going to be a wash. There were so many rats! Not screaming would be the crazy thing.
Melbourne, who’s been trying his best to stay away until the Bedchamber crisis subsides, catches wind of this plan to discredit and remove Victoria from power. For that, he cannot stand. Even after his swoon-worthy speech about putting the constitution before his devotion to Victoria, he knows he’s the only one who can stop this scheme, so he comes to her aid. If she asks him to form a government, he’s all in.
As if that’s not enough for a two-hour premiere, “Doll 123” also digs into some downstairs story lines. You know, for the Downton fans in the crowd. To be frank, these parts are pretty boring. It’s mainly about a power struggle between Victoria’s frugal governess, Lehzen (Daniela Holtz), and head butler Penge (Adrian Schiller), who is entertaining but can’t hold a candle to Carson. There’s also this whole thing about a mysterious assistant dresser named Skerrett (Nell Hudson), who apparently once worked in a brothel. All of this is fine, but it’s very unnecessary when there’s so much drama and chemistry happening upstairs. Since we, like Melbourne, know his days as Victoria’s closest male companion are numbered, shouldn’t we get all the Victoria and Melbourne while we can?