We’re skipping ahead a few years to, presumably, 1845 or thereabouts, which means it’s time to turn our attention to the Irish Potato Famine. Strap in, folks, this is going to be enraging (deliberately so. Not accidentally enraging like that postpartum depression episode a couple of weeks ago).
Over in Ireland, things are getting very rough. Black potatoes are pulled out of the ground by hopeless-looking people, as a clergyman (Dr Traill) rides past, looking sad. He sits down with some of the other higher-ups in the church who squeeze their well-fed bellies under the table, grin, and pat themselves on the back over how smart and generous they are. You can just scrape all the black gunk off and then use the pea-sized remainder to flavour some water with! You can eat nettles, which are super nutritious, so they’re doing the poor a favour by forcing them to do so, like this blight is some excuse to go macrobiotic! And one guy’s started up a soup kitchen and he’s even allowing Catholics to come and get a decent meal, provided they convert to Protestantism! His flock grows more every day!
Traill, being a human being with a brain, heart, and soul, is horrified. On the way home, he’s flagged down by a little girl who leads him into her family’s hovel where he sees a bunch of very young children clustered around their dead mother, wondering why she won’t wake up. He tries very hard not to burst into tears, goes home, hugs his own daughter, and writes an open letter, describing the crisis.
In London, Victoria reads the letter and is all, ‘Wait, I thought everyone said this blight was NBD? What’s going on here?’ She summons Peel and some absolute asshole of a minister, who smarms that this is just nature’s way of readjusting to Irish overpopulation. Jesus. He goes on to say (as many will this episode) that the Irish simply need to learn to live within their means. Nobody seems to appreciate that that’s impossible to do when your means are literally 0. You can’t live within nothing, people!
Victoria is clearly disgusted with these men, and even annoyed with Albert, who, curiously, doesn’t seem to care about any of this. He’s too busy overseeing an overhaul of Buckingham Palace’s sanitary system and having water closets installed. Seriously, he’s so into these bathrooms that he actually shrugs her off when she tries to tell him that one of history’s worst natural and humanitarian crises is developing in part of the country she’s responsible for. I can’t believe he’d be so dense about this. Or so unconcerned, since Albert was, actually, pretty interested in matters affecting large swathes of the British public. The show’s already gone out of its way to show him in that manner, so this seems… I don’t know… off.
Albert reassures Victoria that Peel’s a good guy and will see to this, but it turns out Peel is more interested in keeping his job than repealing the horrible Corn Laws that have made it impossible for many people to afford bread, which is why they had to rely so heavily on potatoes. And anyway, he and the rest of the Commons are spouting that utter bullshit that if you give people a helping hand, they’ll just think they can get handouts forever and never work again. I HATE people who spout that line.
Victoria summons Traill to Buckingham Palace to give her a first-hand account of the horrors unfolding in her own kingdom. (Fun fact! Traill was an ancestor of the series writer, Daisy Goodwin). He tells it to her straight: this is a horrorshow, and the people who should be helping don’t seem in the least interested. Even Albert, who wanders in about halfway through the meeting, seems somewhat affected. Traill begs Victoria to speak to her government, and she promises to do so.
Peel is summoned, but he still drags his feet. Victoria leads him to the nursery and holds up her latest baby (she says it’s Alice, but in 1845 or so, that really should be Alfred, or even Helena, if we’ve made it as far as 1846, which seems fairly likely, given how far the crisis in Ireland has come along), reminding him that babies are dying in their mothers’ arms in Ireland every day, and isn’t that terrible? That finally seems to get through to him. He goes to bat for Ireland in the Commons but is shouted down. Peel was actually ousted very shortly after this, historically.
Oh, remember how Victoria’s second dresser was Irish? Yeah, she’s just here to fulfill the same role the head dresser last season did, which is to bring an unfolding external crisis within the walls of the palace. She has family in Ireland, of course, and she’s sending them all she can, but it’s not enough. Francatelli takes pity on her and gives her his watch to pawn. She sends it home via Traill, but it’s too late, and her family’s been evicted and decided to head to America. I can’t help but wonder: if they didn’t have the money to pay the rent, how did they pay for passage to America? I know this happened, of course–this was an era of mass migration from Ireland to the United States, but it feels like just a ham-fisted attempt to bring every aspect of this terrible situation home. But we didn’t need this at all–we already got how terrible it was. Victoria got it too, so this just feels superfluous.
Speaking of superfluous: Ernest is back in town to get his syphilis cured. It just so happens that while he’s there, the Duke of Sutherland dies in a hunting accident (in reality, Sutherland died in 1861, after an illness). So Harriet’s single now! Hurrah! We can continue to drag on this incredibly charmless interlude. Sigh. I know I’ve said it before, but what the hell, I’ll repeat it: I like David Oakes, and I like his character here, because Ernest is a lot of fun and clearly good for Albert, but this subplot is dull, the two people involved have zero chemistry, it’s dragged on for ages now, and it’s added nothing. Time. To. Let. It. Go.
Ernest’s treatments do give us a chance to have a nice glimpse of someone lying in a room breathing in mercury, along with the kind of casual sexism Victorian males were known for. Ernest was infected during a ‘wild night in Paris’ but it’s the unnamed prostitute (presumably) who gets the blame from the doctor. Ernest gets no judgement. Yep, that’s pretty accurate.
The doctor does, however, pour some cold water on any plans Ernest might have had to pursue Harriet, however, when he mentions that it would be a real shame if some ‘innocent party’ (a nice, pure, wife) were to be infected. Also, any resulting children would likely be pretty messed up. So, no Harriet for Ernest. Oh well.
Traill returns to Ireland and decides to start working with the local Catholic priest to provide some relief to the people of his parish. The other clergy are so aghast at the idea of having to sit at a table with a Catholic and discuss matters they all just get up and leave. And one of them informs Traill that his future job prospects are sunk.
Not that it matters, ultimately. Traill and the priest get to work, distributing food, and it’s undoubtedly most welcome. But shortly after, Traill dies of typhus. Victoria gets the letter and is very, very sad. Oh, honey, you have no idea…