I don’t know if you’re aware, but the Victorians are very tied to our modern-day Christmas traditions. Prince Albert, especially, gets a lot of credit for bringing Germanic Christmas traditions (like the Christmas tree) over to Britain. Seems that wasn’t quite accurate, though: George III’s wife, Charlotte, actually put up the first known British Christmas tree at Windsor in 1800, well before Prince Albert was even born.
But yes, Albert did help popularise a lot of Christmas traditions in England, a fact that this episode makes much of. He is SUPER into Christmas, going on about decorations and mansplaining Christmas cards and tree traditions to people who seriously couldn’t care less, which is kind of hilarious. Ernest, especially, has no patience for his brother’s Chris-zilla behaviour here, and his face, when dragged out to the woods to find the perfect tree, is priceless.
It’s the face of every beleaguered person around the holidays whose partner has just gotten waaaaay too into Pinterest and is now making everyone crazy. It’s the face of someone thinking, ‘I could be back in front of a nice, warm fire with a drink right now, instead of tromping through the damn woods with an axe to fulfill your nonsensical holiday fantasies!’ Ernest, I love you. Never change.
Ernest, as we know, has his own drama to deal with and doesn’t have time for his brother’s crazy. The syphilis treatments aren’t working, Harriet’s giving him the cold shoulder, and Uncle Leopold is back, this time with a German princess he’s determined to launch on his only single nephew.
Leopold notices the mercury treatments in Ernest’s room and puts 2 and 2 together. Ernest thinks he’s now off the marital hook, but that’s just because he doesn’t know his uncle. Leopold’s like, ‘Eh, don’t worry about it. I mean, what do you care if you infect a woman you don’t love with syphilis anyway?’ That Leopold: quite the charmer.
Harriet, who’s been fairly chilly towards Ernest during this particular visit, overhears him at one point strongly telling Leopold to back off, because he’s not interested in marrying this Princess Sophia. She decides to take things into her own hands and arrives at Ernest’s rooms that night in just her underwear. Things get hot and heavy fast, but then Ernest puts the brakes on and gets rid of her in the meanest way he can think of: by telling her he’s not interested, now she’s made it too easy. She goes and weeps in a corridor and is found by Leopold, who’s all, ‘Oh, I guess Ernest told you about the syphilis then?’
So, she and Ernest finally have a good talk, during which she tells him she doesn’t care about his illness, she wants to be with him anyway. He tells her that can never be, because he’s all drama, this one. You two: condoms were a thing that existed. Not only do they exist, but we know, for a fact, that Ernest, at least, knows about them, because Leopold mentioned them earlier. So, I don’t really see what the issue is here. Yes, it would mean not having children, but it seems like Ernest has kind of resigned himself to that (reluctantly, I’ll admit). This is…unnecessary.
But that’s actually a B-plot, because the main story is about Victoria, who unexpectedly finds herself with an extra child on her hands when an African king gifts her a little girl named Sarah.
Poor little Sarah’s been through hell: her family was killed, and then she was handed over to a British captain, Forbes, and his wife. These two treated her wonderfully, as a member of their own family, but then reluctantly had to do their duty and give her to Victoria. Victoria’s in a rough spot because she doesn’t feel like she can just reject this kid, but at the same time, a human child is a very messed-up present to give someone. I think Albert needs to go school someone in what’s appropriate as a Christmas gift.
Really, though, this show just wants us all to remember that slavery was a thing that was a reality during this period and it was very, very bad. This is backed up by Skerrit’s B-plot, in which she inherits 20 slaves from a dead uncle she didn’t even know existed, and wonders what to do with them. If she sells them, the money would be more than enough for her and Francatelli to go open up the boutique B&B they’re suddenly talking about, but her guilt won’t allow it, so instead she sets them free. No B&B, but some people are treated like actual human beings, and Francatelli is proud of her and they have a little kind-of wedding ceremony just between them, which may or may not have been overheard by Penge.
(Oh, speaking of B-plots–or, rather, D-plots, there’s a whole thing about Penge having invested in a railway. He’s so sure it’ll make his fortune that we all know it’ll go bust. And it does. So we’re not going to be shot of him just yet.)
Also in town (Christmas is all about family!) is Cumberland, who’s come over from Hanover just to hassle Victoria about a family heirloom necklace. After all these years, he’s suddenly decided it’s rightfully his, and he demands she hand it over. She tells him to F-off, which is great, but then Albert, who can’t be bothered to take five minutes from bauble organising to support his wife or give much thought to anyone else, just tells her she should give the necklace to Cumberland and be done with it. Victoria angrily comments that Lehzen would have supported her in this matter. Of course she would have. Lehzen always took your side, Victoria, it’s why you loved her so much!
Even Leopold thinks that Albert should intervene here, and have a word with Cumberland, who’s obviously just being a dick. But Albert’s like, ‘trees! I must live out my fantasy!’ You know why Albert’s so obsessed with the holiday? He tells Ernest that he remembers a Christmas back when they were little, when his parents were standing by the trees on Christmas Eve and it was all so magical that he was able to imagine, for just one night, that they were a truly happy family. And he wants that for his kids. What, Albert, a total sham evening that covers up deep fissures and outright misery? What a great thing to want for your family!
After days of hearing Albert go on like this, Ernest breaks the news that that particular Christmas was a living hell. Their mother was sent away the very next day, and she knew she was going, so she was crying the whole time. So, actually, Albert’s precious memory is one of complete misery for everyone who wasn’t, oh, four years old at the time. Albert’s really just clinging to something that never existed, and making everyone crazy.
Victoria, meanwhile, is trying her hardest to make Sarah feel welcome and comfortable at the Palace. She has her installed in the nursery with the other children, takes time out to build snowmen with her, and genuinely seems to want this kid to be happy. She tells Albert, at one point, that she knows what it’s like to feel ignored and abandoned and she really doesn’t want that for another child.
Albert just pouts and sulks and seems affronted by the fact that this kid is being treated on the same level as his own children, which doesn’t quite jive with his own anti-slavery views, which were quite prominently on display back in season 1. He keeps telling Victoria the child seems unhappy, and Victoria insists she needs time to settle. Which is probably true, really. Considering all the child’s been through, all this major disruption is bound to make her feel uncertain. But Victoria’s probably going about this in the best way possible. Still, though, it’s causing tension between herself and Albert, especially when he realises she intends to adopt the girl. He tells her she really should have consulted him on that and she seems baffled by the very idea, pointing out that he didn’t consult her when he invited her mother to stay for Christmas, against Victoria’s wishes. Much as I want to be on Victoria’s side here, I must point out that there’s a vast difference between asking a relative to stay for the holidays and adopting a kid.
Albert goes on to accuse Victoria of using Sarah as a means of getting back at her mother, by showing her how someone should treat a daughter. What an incredibly shitty thing to say. First of all, if Victoria wanted to do that, she already has two daughters she can use in that way. Second, there has been absolutely no indication that that’s the case. Nearly every scene between Victoria and Sarah has been absent the duchess, and seem to show Victoria just acting like a caring human being to this child she’s basically had foisted upon her. Meanwhile, Albert has been such a dismissive asshole to this child he couldn’t even be bothered to give her her own space in the family Christmas tree hall, shrugging that she can just share with Alice, and she won’t notice anyway, so what’s the big deal? Albert, this kid’s, like, eight or nine years old. Kids aren’t stupid. She’ll notice that she’s being slighted. By you, Mr Happy Family man. What a dick.
He’s not wrong, though, that Sarah’s seeking extra comfort. She seems to find it in a parrot that Victoria’s mother gifted to her. She keeps sneaking out of the nursery to visit it.
On one occasion, Victoria goes to the nursery to see the kids and notices Sarah’s missing. Curiously, none of the nursemaids, whose job it is to ensure all the children are safe and accounted for, seem to have noticed she was gone. They certainly don’t seem to care. So, only Victoria goes looking for her, in the snowy gardens around Buckingham Palace. And that’s why she’s there when Albert, on a rage-skate after having his holiday bubble burst by his brother, falls through the ice on the pond. It’s fine. Tense, but fine. Victoria helps him get out. Apparently, something like this actually did happen, though much earlier in their marriage and a bit less dramatically.
Sarah was safe this whole time: Skerrit found her in the drawing room with the parrot.
Now that Albert’s escaped death, he can have heart-to-hearts with everyone. Ernest apologises for having lost his temper and explains that he feels kind of jealous that Albert will be able to have the happy family Ernest will never experience.
And he’s finally able to speak calmly to his wife and gently suggests that maybe Sarah would be happier with the Forbeses. Victoria, being sensible, actually goes and asks Sarah what she wants, and yes, Sarah would very much like to go back and live with Captain and Mrs Forbes. She gets her wish, because it’s Christmas. She also gets to keep the parrot, which is sweet. And Albert gets his wish that he not have his tree display spoiled by having to add an extra one. God, what a hassle.
Christmas Eve! The kids are excited! The hall looks lovely, the presents are fun, the family sits down to dinner. Cumberland shows up just to say he’s not going to try and rip the necklace right off Victoria’s neck after all–a decision we can, apparently, thank Leopold for. Glad someone was dealing with this very vital issue while Albert was ordering ornaments from Bavaria. Victoria’s feeling so generous, she offers to let Cumberland stay for dinner.
Oh, and there’s an engagement to celebrate as well! Poor Lord Alfred is still very much grieving his lost love, to the point where he’s still wearing a mourning armband, secretly, under his clothes, which…
No, seriously, I’m not made of stone, people, and that was sweet and sad. Wilhelmina’s been working overtime to try and make him feel a little bit better. She gets him on the dance floor at the servants’ ball, talks to him, and gives him a lock of Mr Drummond’s hair, which was gifted to her, for some reason, by his fiance. Lord Alfred is so touched by this gesture that he proposes marriage to her, and Wilhelmina, despite knowing that this man was and still is in love with another man, accepts. And apparently we’re supposed to be happy about this? I mean, I’m sure these two will get along splendidly and make each other happy on some level, but I can’t be happy or excited by the idea of this young woman entering into what is, essentially, a sham marriage. Marriages between gay people and straight people do not tend to end well. Go ahead and check out The Miniaturist.
But, uh, ok, moving on. After everyone else is in bed, Victoria and Albert exchange gifts. She’s sat for a portrait with Winterhalter which her mother has found shocking (Albert loves it, though), and he gives her a new tiara, set with emeralds, her birthstone. Nice gifts, you guys. Guess gifting between royalty is different from the rest of us. Can’t just put new socks in someone’s stocking and call it a day, right?
After everything’s unwrapped and the kids sent to bed, Victoria and Albert have a moment alone and she tells him how Lehzen used to bring a big box of marrons glacees to her room on Christmas Eve, where Victoria had been banished, far from all the festivities. Albert finally does a decent thing here and tells his wife he knows she really misses Lehzen, but they both have to admit that they’re not children anymore and need to form new happy memories, instead of forever clinging to the old ones. Well, you can do both, but I see what he’s saying here.
Well, that was… all right. Pretty much what I’ve come to expect from an episode of this show. Not bad, but not particularly deep either, which is a shame, because it keeps trying to take on these weighty subjects and then just treating them pretty shallowly. If you’re going to bring up slavery, then BRING UP SLAVERY. Don’t turn it into some drama between Victoria and her mother which the actual show fails to deliver on. And what was with all the side plots? Did we really need them? I don’t really think so. I think that what happened here was the powers that be went to Daisy Goodwin and told her she needed to script a 90-minute episode, and she didn’t have any central story ideas that were strong enough to carry it, so she just added in a bunch of extra stuff. It’s a Christmas Tree of an episode, if you will. Although, I’d argue that some of the things that were brought up here: childhood memories and traumas, and the adult desire to set them right, and, as I mentioned, the slavery aspect could have been strong enough, if the writer had really committed herself to them. Daisy, come on. Do better. Please.
But maybe I’m just asking too much. Maybe I just keep wanting this show to be better than Downton Abbey, whereas the vast majority of the people watching it really don’t want that. It just frustrates me a bit because Victoria and the times she lived in were fascinating. There is so much there, but I feel like we’re getting such a superficial look at all of it, and that annoys me. But it’s not just for me, is it?
Ah well. I’ll admit, it’s not going to keep me from watching the next series. Because I like Jenna Coleman and David Oakes, and the costumes are so, so pretty. And yeah, ok, sometimes I’m a bit shallow like that.