Things get personal this week as Victoria faces the Irish potato famine in the show’s most poignant and powerful episode to date.
Series 2’s off-shore approach continues for the third episode running. But whereas the ominous Germany contrasted the exuberant France, this week things are less vivid. Our story begins in a wet and foggy County Cork, where the potato famine is hitting hard. The only word to describe Ireland in this episode is gloomy. It’s dark, it’s stormy, and plague is rife whichever way you look. Innocents are dying in the desolate cold, and no one is doing anything about it. The Irish Church refuses to help the papists, but “famine has no denomination”. Even across the water in England, the government are reluctant to intervene. They simply deem the Irish as “a race prone to exaggeration” and the famine as an act of “self-regulation”. In their eyes, the Irish have got themselves into this mess through overpopulation – and their deaths are seen as an inevitable consequence.
It’s not until Victoria receives a letter from Dr. Robert Traill that she actually realises the plight they are in. Played wonderfully by Martin Compston, Traill is actually Victoria writer Daisy Goodwin’s great-great-great-grandfather. But rather than just being a piece of useless trivia, that relation quietly informs the entire episode – and injects it with intensely personal emotion. Traill, having been invited to the palace, tells Victoria all about the Irish troubles, highlighting the comparative wealth of England to its neighbouring isle. Victoria, as a woman of morals, feels strongly inclined to help. But she faces resistance from Prime Minister Peel, who at first puts his party before his principles. Even Albert is too pre-occupied with renovating the palace sanitation to fight her corner. Defeat seems like a foregone conclusion in this losing battle.
“It is quite impossible for the government to support four million people”
The overbearing shadow of doom and gloom extends to the rest of the cast as well. The plight is reflected in servant Miss Cleary, who fears for her family in Ireland. Her family face eviction, and maybe worse. Luckily Mr Francatelli donates his solid gold watch to help her out, but it is too little too late. Meanwhile, the wind is taken out of Ernest’s sails when he falls victim to a disease. Turns out his promiscuous ways have come back to haunt him. Thanks to some harrowing treatment, he recovers – but at the risk of infecting any woman he now gets with. To twist the knife further, Harriet Sutherland’s husband suddenly dies in a hunting accident. The love of Ernest’s life is finally available, but now he cannot afford to be with her. Such cruel irony.
That’s not to say Victoria has completely lost its charm this week. Albert indulges in some very literal toilet humour, for one thing. But mainly this episode portrays a message of hope. Victoria herself is the guiding light in these otherwise murky waters. She does not stand down, imploring Peel to follow his conscience. As a queen, she does not understand his decision. And as a mother, she will not let her people starve. She has grown up a lot since she first ascended to the throne, that’s for sure. Peel appreciates her sense of purpose and finally gives in. Elsewhere, Victoria becomes a symbol of acceptance. When it comes out that Miss Cleary is Catholic, many of the palace staff are horrified. But this fact does not faze the Queen. “As if that matters,” she tuts – and how right she is to say that, too.
“Charity begins at home”
Ultimately though, this story belongs to Traill. Victoria and Peel’s efforts set the wheels in motion for things to change. But it is this brave lone soldier in Ireland that makes the biggest difference of all. By defying the Church and following his morals, he gives everything up for his cause. He sacrifices his marriage, he sacrifices his future. He even sacrifices his home, transforming it into a soup kitchen to feed the starving poor. Then, in the end, he also sacrifices his life. The final moments of this episode are supremely sombre, and all the more powerful for it. Slow, lyrical Irish music plays as Victoria hears the news that Traill has died. This is beautifully edited together with cuts to his funeral and Peel tearing his Tories apart in parliament.
The episode breaks from tradition by ending with text over a black screen. We’re told how Traill died of Typhus Fever in 1847. We see how many suffered during the time of the potato famine. This is not a chapter of Victoria with a happy ending. It is harsh, it is bleak, and it is tough to swallow. We’ve seen the good putting up a fight – but sometimes that just isn’t enough. This striking use of fact serves as a reminder that, while we’ve just been watching a drama, all of it is based on truth. History isn’t a fairy tale. It’s unlikely that Victoria will repeat this format any time soon, but that only makes it stand out more. We’ve still got two weeks left to go, but already we may have seen this year’s standout instalment. What could have simply been ‘the Irish episode’ will go down as the most poignant in the show’s catalogue. Bravo to all involved – you’ve done this story proud.