With its first, largely successful season having come to a close in a satisfactory manner, we would like to suggest to the team behind Victoria that they think long and hard about how they can course-correct for the second one. Not that they’re required to listen to us – especially since it was, as we said, a largely successful season – but it was hard for us to contain our impatience through this finale and we’ve just got to vent a little. The finale, while satisfying in its full-circledness, managed to shine a spotlight on all of the series’ flaws all at once.
Don’t get us wrong: we love a glossy royal historical drama as much as the next two queens and in many ways, this series pushed all those buttons effectively. Sumptuously art directed and photographed, Victoria the series, despite its international buzz and stunning art direction, never quite managed to breathe life into Victoria the person. It’s hard to say how much of the fault of this can be laid at Jenna Coleman’s feet, since she’s a competent and likable actress who didn’t get the chance to convey either of those qualities in this tale. Granted, the series went to some effort to deliberately show Victoria as somewhat incompetent and unlikeable at times, but if you ask us, there was a bit too much of a focus on those aspects of her, making the watching of her in scene after scene sometimes seem a chore.
And as a series, it never quite managed to ignite its storytelling, except in those moments early on between Coleman and Rufus Sewell, which wasn’t entirely to the series’ credit, since the semi-romantic plotline that fueled all their chemistry was itself rather glaringly ahistorical, not to mention the fact that history required his exit from the tale fairly early. It seems to us that the casting of Albert would always be of utmost importance to any telling of Victoria’s life, but it becomes even more important when the lead actress has such off-the-chain chemistry with a different actor in the cast. Tom Hughes is a fine actor, but he was fairly charmless as Albert. When paired with a petulant, moody Victoria, you’re stuck with a series about two only marginally likable people who are almost never entertaining on their own. This may have been by design, as a way to show both characters’ growth and it may even have been by necessity, given the real people these actors are portraying. But we’d argue that any growth shown by Albert and Victoria was only practical in nature. They both learned how to settle into their roles and fulfill their stifling duties, but neither of them really came off all that much different in their last scenes than in their first. And to be fair, Victoria did make peace with her mother and uncle, although it felt rushed in both instances. Still, roughly 80% of Victoria’s dialogue at both the beginning and end of the series consisted of her complaining. She didn’t grow nearly enough, given all the whining we had to sit through.
Fans of Victoria may decry the constant comparisons to Netflix’s The Crown, but they can’t not be made, given their similarities in subject matter and tone. The Crown made the largely dull and uninteresting Elizabeth Windsor seem interesting by sticking rigidly to themes of family and duty and making her choose between the two constantly, allowing the people around her to become as important to the story as she is – and sometimes more so. Because there’s only so much you can do with a marginally likable and somewhat set-in-stone historical figure, it’s not uncommon to make the story about the people around them. Victoria took a slightly similar road. While The Crown focused mainly on Elizabeth’s closest family members, her prime minister, and the various men who control her life, Victoria touched on only some of those same relationships. It also opted to do something that was, in our opinion, its major failure as a series. It focused way too much on Downton Abbey-esque subplots about maids with secrets and cooks with passions and footmen with ambition, absolutely none of which came off fresh or interesting and almost none of which had anything to do with the main character. There was also a clumsy attempt to graft an illicit romance onto the background with Albert’s brother and Victoria’s lady in waiting, although it went nowhere and felt like a waste of time by the end of the season. Literally every subplot away from Victoria felt like a waste of time.
And even those story lines that should have had serious weight to them – like her romance with Albert – just seemed to plod along, probably because it’s so hard to add dramatic tension to these events. The final episode was largely turned over to discussions of the Queen not surviving childbirth or being killed by an assassin. And while we have no doubt there were true concerns along these lines at the time, there was very little dramatic weight to any of it because – spoiler alert – Queen Victoria lived well into old age and had many children. Even a casual viewer knows that. The difficulty with any biography of a historic figure is finding ways to bring tension even though the audience likely knows the broad details. Too much focus on a concern that the audience didn’t remotely share (that Victoria might die this episode) meant too many flat scenes with no tension or emotion to them.
There is a way to tell the story of sheltered, immature and petulant young woman who learns to become a nation’s ruler without leaning so hard on the “immature and petulant” parts. A story like this needs subplots and side characters, but rather than focusing on so many people who really don’t have any power over or effect on the Queen or the country (i.e., servants) focus on all those important people surrounding Victoria; working for her, working with her, working against her; working to influence events and decisions. These people should be the focus of any story surrounding the Queen; not the servants. In a way, it does her a disservice because it make her role seem small and domestic in nature when she was, in fact, a ruler in every 19th Century European sense of the word – which is to say, she had vastly more power than the current Queen has. She was literally one of the most powerful women in history. Why waste time on fictional tales of her ladies maids and housekeepers?
The assassination subplot, to be fair, was one of the best things the show has done so far. Mainly, because it situated Victoria at the center of the action, instead of on a couch in a room somewhere outside it, complaining about her lot. And Coleman and Hughes are not entirely without chemistry or charm when they’re together. There’s a lot to love about Victoria, but despite the woman’s near-singular standing in history and the epic events of her life, it’s a show that has yet to make her all that interesting. Here’s hoping for that course-correction.
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