Victoria Season 2 Episode 4: Faith, Hope, and Charity
An episode that finally figures out how to meld upstairs and downstairs properly, this week’s “Faith, Hope, and Charity” is Victoria firing on all cylinders.
Downton Abbey was freakishly popular because it had everything in one package: a comedy of manners, oddly faithful historical accuracy and a constant running theme of how modernity was changing the world too fast for those in the world to keep up. That analogy was an important thread throughout the show because it serves as a funhouse mirror to our own world 90 years on. Fans might have giggled at Daisy’s fear of the electrical outlet, or Mrs. Patmore’s bluster at receiving a refrigerator, but they could relate. The social changes that have taken place over the last ten years are on par with the revolutions of the 1960s. We may not grouse over electric irons, but we don’t sound so different when muttering that snapchat is simply a step beyond us.
Trevelyan: I would be happy to explain the Irish situation further Ma’am. When your nursery duties allowed, of course.
Victoria has tried to ape Downton in the upstairs-downstairs structure, but in a household where the privileged upstairs really are removed from the help in a way the Earl-level aristocracy wasn’t, it hasn’t worked so well. They’ve also abandoned historical accuracy for romance, and while there have been a few meta jokes about how society simply isn’t up to 21st century feminist standards, most of that has stayed to the wayside.
Until now. This week, Victoria brought us quite possibly the most Downton of episodes they’ve attempted. Centered around the potato famine in Ireland, we have a real connection to downstairs where assistant dresser Cleary, our Irish lass, has Catholic family that’s losing hope fast. Once again, the show continues to rehabilitate Francatelli from last season, by having him not only struggle with a chance at fame but also choose to give Cleary his gold watch, so her family can survive. Upstairs, we have Victoria, who unlike her advisors would like to do something about it, instead of seeing this as divine retribution for the “Irish troubles” the Catholic rebellions had brought about. Meanwhile, in our B-plot, Albert continues to move forward in his belief that modern technology will make the lives of everyone better, and proceeds to install that Roman marvel, indoor plumbing.
Now, how historically accurate it is to say that Victoria noticed the Irish Potato Famine is a big question, but most likely, it’s an untruth. While the show desperately, almost comically gives Victoria 21st century attitudes, there is almost no historical basis to say that she gave a fig about what was happening in Ireland. In fact, the scale of the devastation is a good indicator the queen didn’t give a good goddamn what was happening over there, or someone would have probably done something.
But Victoria is extremely lucky in that Netflix’s The Crown is running simultaneously, and hammers home, every season so far, that the royal monarch is not allowed to express their political opinions. In fact, the few times Elizabeth has attempted to get directly involved in politics, the show makes sure to highlight the fallout. Moreover, other PBS films, like King Charles III are based upon the idea that the monarchy would fall, should the monarch in question attempt to do anything but smile and figurehead.
Albert: The palace is built on a sewer!
So the show basically gets to have their 21st-century values while sticking to the history as it played out. They insist Victoria would have done something. She was horrified, she was sympathetic to the plight of the dying, she wanted to go visit and show her support for the Irish people. Heck, she didn’t even fire her dresser for being Catholic. But those pesky politicians, like Robert Peel, just stood in her way, and despite her wishes, she was unable to do anything but watch from afar while millions died.
Despite was is probably a nonsensical premise, it gave the show a chance to really dive into the appalling racism that led to the famine. I was personally reminded of the 1980s when Republican leadership would claim that AIDS was divine retribution to the gays for their sinful existence. Though no one quite directly correlates the two here, there are moments when the show comes close, especially with guest star Edward Bennett who plays Sir Charles Trevelyan, the man who was supposedly in charge of the official relief efforts, and who believes those who are dying deserve to. His counterpart in Ireland, Rev. Robert Traill (played by Martin Compston), serves as a reminder that there were people who wanted, and who tried, to stop this tragedy, but without any sort of state help, it was like fighting the tides.
This would be a painful episode to sit through, with gruesome scenes of the Irish dying, juxtaposed against Victoria arguing with men who have no interest in her opinion. But that’s where Albert his water closets come in, along with Ernest (he just can’t stay put, can he?) who turns up with an “oral STD” (I assumed herpes, but since he’s having a “mercury cure” it’s probably actually syphilis) only to learn that his beloved Harriet just became a free woman now that her husband has conveniently died. Too bad he’s contagious now.
It’s a little frustrating that the show decides now to have Albert be weird and wonky off in his own world (which is actually true) after trying to pretend he was all “man of the people” during the silk ball. One would think that “Man of the People”-ness would come out when, you know, millions are dying of famine. But nevermind. Instead, we get the humor of seeing Albert install toilets everywhere, (even downstairs!) and the embarrassment and confusion that springs up at first until people actually discover how darn useful it is to have a convenient bathroom when you need to go.
Mrs. Langridge: I love the way you talk about the Prince as if he is a mere mortal.
Sadly, Cleary’s sending of the watch arrives too late. Her family was evicted, and like so many Irish Catholics has taken a boat to North America in hopes of reaching the land of opportunity. Despite his trip to the Palace to convince Victoria to do something, Rev. Traill falls ill from the stress of trying to solve a problem too large, and dies of Typhus, in a startling moving scene of despair. (Or perhaps not. A bit of research turns up that the real Traill was an ancestor of the series writer, Daisy Goodwin.) And Peel does try to get something done in the House of Commons for the Irish people but is shouted down, and outvoted. If this is is indeed late 1845/early 1846, (which by the size of the children, I’m guessing so?), this will be the beginning of his downfall and he will be out as PM by June….or the Christmas special, whichever comes first.
But don’t worry, all is not lost. Albert’s toilets are hit, and he dreams of one day a London where every pot a chicken and every house a water closet.