It seems unnecessary to say all is not well in the royal household, as already this season we’ve seen riots, fleeing heads of state, and wine-throwing, but I am sorry to say, it’s gotten worse. Victoria and Albert are now not even speaking, choosing to instead perform the classic “have your servants deliver notes back and forth while you’re both in the same building” routine.
Telling your partner they’re not worthy of respect and then having wine thrown in your face definitely requires a cooling-off period for both parties, especially when those parties are the queen of England and her extremely opinionated and certain-he’s-right husband. It doesn’t help matters that Albert writes to Victoria (again, from inside the same building) that he has been offered the chancellorship at Cambridge, so he’s leaving, bye, and Victoria says he absolutely cannot leave, as they’re receiving the foreign ambassadors today. Albert says she is exercising her vanity and wants to parade him around like a show pony. That’s a bit much, Albert.
When these two present a united front, they’re indomitable, but their personalities are calculated to clash. Victoria always wants to do things her way, which she sees as her right as queen (fair enough), while Albert wants to make his own mark on the world through Science and Order. And possibly sewage systems. Victoria doesn’t really care a fig about any of these things and is continually baffled by Albert’s earnest and intense interest in improvements she finds trivial.
Albert’s concerns can come across as trivial compared to Victoria’s, and it must be difficult to have to argue with the “but I’m the queen” trump card. Particularly for someone as ambitious and intelligent as Albert. Throughout this series, he frequently finds himself pushing against a brick wall: His excitement about bringing Cambridge in line with the modern ideas of the 19th century is met with effigies in his likeness being paraded around the university while people shout about his being a foreigner. He’s trying to help you, you xenophobic turds, but sure, go back to mocking the idea that it took longer than seven days to create the earth.
Meanwhile, among the plebeians, Mrs. Skerrett and Mr. Francatelli are going at it in bed. The show has really been trying to get viewers invested in them, but it made a misstep early on when it falsely set up Francatelli as someone who really seemed like he would blackmail Skerrett for sexual favors. First impressions can be mistaken, but that’s a hard one to come back from (and as I’ve said, I now only care about the duchess and the footman). Skerrett’s final episode is still emotionally compelling, but less impactful than it could have been if we’d ever really liked Francatelli. The moral here is: don’t make one half of your romantic pairing look like a skeevy perv and then try to redeem him through his fancy desserts.
Which brings us to cholera. Cholera is a bacterial disease transmitted through infected water; its symptoms include extreme dehydration, diarrhea, and vomiting. During the first 30 years of Victoria’s reign, it killed almost 40,000 people in London, and the search for its method of transmission is one of the most interesting themes of this week’s episode.
“Foreigners. It is brought in by foreigners,” says one of the men invited by Victoria and Albert to explain the disease’s origin. Cool, sir. I bet you’d fit right in at Cambridge. Another guy says it’s a toxic miasma, i.e., gross, infected air. I can’t wait for us all to look like idiots to future generations.
The hero who is frantically searching the streets of London for the real answer is Dr. John Snow ( … who currently knows nothing). Snow fights against the idea that cholera is transmitted through miasma. No one knows about germ theory yet, but he looks at the actual evidence of who was infected and when and says “ … no” to infected air. By interviewing people who live around the area of infection, Snow finally traces the source back to a water pump in Soho. If you’ve heard of epidemiology, i.e., the study of disease, this is its founding moment. The pump gets put out of service, and the cholera epidemic comes to a halt.
We must now pause to acknowledge that in this episode, Victoria commits one of the cardinal sins of historical fiction: namely, the shoehorning in of a Very Famous Person. While normally the show can make that work since the queen of England is legitimately surrounded by recognized figures of the day, this scene felt wedged in for the purpose of pointedly educating youths. Victoria and Lord Palmerston sneak out of the palace to visit cholera victims in a nearby hospital, and Victoria comes across a very practical-looking nurse with a pet owl named Athena that she found at the Parthenon (sure). The nurse says she doesn’t hold with the miasma theory, and all she knows is this disease follows “poverty and dirt.” Victoria thanks her and asks her name, and it’s Florence Nightingale. No. I reject this. While her pet owl was quite real, and Nightingale did eventually meet Victoria, the name-drop at the very end of the encounter is cringeworthy for a show that has traditionally handled similar encounters with a fair amount of grace.
Speaking of cringeworthy, how is Feodora faring this episode? Continuing her role as the Gargamel of Victoria, she carries on with her apparent mission to destroy the happiness of the royal couple. Her primary method is by visiting them individually and taking each of their sides while planting seeds of doubt about the other. Skerrett’s death and Albert’s complicated election at Cambridge foil all of this, leaving Feodora furious.
Which brings us to Mrs. Skerrett, a.k.a. Nancy. Nancy has been with us since episode one, and while her departure with Mr. Francatelli made her end inevitable, being taken by cholera while newly pregnant is surely not the end we would have wished her. It does mean, however, that Victoria is honest with us about life expectancy. Skerrett was surely in her 30s by the time of this episode, and life expectancy for a white woman would have been about 35. To twist the knife, her death is brought about by tainted water in the tonic she was taking to aid her pregnancy. Victoria visits her immediately before her death, and Skerrett tells her “I’ve got my own palace now.” Cue weeping from everyone, including me.
Albert’s contested election as chancellor makes him see Victoria’s side, as he says, “It’s not enough to be right; one also has to win over the public.” When they both return to the palace — he from Cambridge and she from Skerrett’s bedside — they embrace and later indulge in some sensual Victorian unbuttoning of extremely button-filled clothing.
(The beautiful lighting in this episode, particularly around Victoria, deserves a mention. This is the first episode directed by Chloe Thomas, and I look forward to more of her softly lit, stunningly framed direction as the season progresses.)
We’re halfway through season four and Feodora has not yet fully shown her hand, Joseph the Footman continues to toss coded looks at Sophie the Duchess (who is beginning to return them), and we are quite close in the timeline to the British Raj, i.e., the British Crown ruling India. The show hasn’t quite addressed England’s fierce subjection of nations around the world in what was called its “imperial century,” so let’s see how they handle that.