“It was with some emotion that I beheld Albert—who is beautiful.”

- Victoria’s diary, 10 October 1839

Until now, Victoria has been fairly firmly in Victoria’s corner. There are subplots on the sidelines (maybe too many, given how they flicker in an out), but paramount are her worries and her triumphs, the comforts she finds in her new position and the pain of facing her mistakes. The first heartache of her feelings for Lord Melbourne were staged in full Gothic as if for a funeral of girlish dreams; so far, we’ve been in Victoria’s head. When she dreamed of reigning alone, it was while painting a portrait of the Virgin Queen, and giving a solo recital for her attendants. If we were indeed in Victoria’s perspective, this was deliberate; she was testing herself about the patterns of solitude.

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That was, of course, before Albert.

The Victorian era is notorious for its regimented public modesty, which reinforced class barriers and attempted to curtail anything that seemed overtly sensual—sensuality was one step away from anarchy—and Queen Victoria was often held up as a bastion of dutiful marriage and motherhood. However, the young Victoria’s account of her early days with Albert is infatuated and unabashed; she writes rhapsodies about his hair, and notes it’s “quite a pleasure to look at Albert when he gallops and waltzes,” since he “holds himself so well with that beautiful figure of his.” There’s little doubt she wanted Albert; there was, by the time she was Queen, little doubt Albert would accept her proposal. The only question remaining was how Albert felt about her.

“The Clockwork Prince” tries to suss that out, using some of Victoria‘s most overtly romantic staging yet, balanced with some excruciating moments that are so startling to our sense of the young queen that it’s clear the whole perspective’s shifted; this time around, we’re Albert instead.

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Some of this shift is practical; the series needs to establish Albert’s easy rapport with his brother Ernest and his long-suffering relationship with Uncle Leopold, if for no other reason than to contrast his uneasiness around cousin Victoria. But the rest of this shift is to provide a romantic hero to a story that already had one, so recently that nobody’s even had a chance to forget. And Victoria does a yeoman’s job giving us an Albert who can stand up to several episodes of Melbourne melodrama. Studious, serious, and resentful of his position as royal pawn, Tom Hughes’ Albert is the picture of aristocratic discomfit: skin stretched over a Faberge egg. Through him, Victoria’s worst habits are on display; besides her notoriously swift eating habits, we also see how fragile and immature Victoria looks to an outsider. It’s excruciating, in a useful way.

We know from the early episodes how she’s fought to have her opinions listened to, that her education is incomplete, and that some of the finer points of court etiquette are always going to be beyond her. These moments have served, in the past, to humble Victoria on her own terms. But Jenna Coleman throws herself into the half-conscious airs of a girl still trying to seem older and wiser than she is, and in an episode so sympathetic to Albert, that means she looks like a proper little fool.

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Of course, “The Clockwork Prince” assures us, she’s a little fool apparently pretty and malleable enough to fall in love with; Hughes and Coleman work overtime to make their chemistry overcome some of these stagey standoffs. (Pride And Prejudice has set the template, down to the last scold, and who are they to break with it?) They do well enough that we’re able to assume Albert’s good intentions, though on paper his habit of denigrating her is right out of the Bad Boyfriend manual. And Coleman nearly gets us to buy that Victoria sees not just a dishy lad, but a useful potential partner, in Albert. (Does it work as well? Not really. She’s in Albert’s episode. We get the heart-pounding infatuation; the psychology of doing scales because Albert told her to is less clear.)

This would all be incredibly awkward if Victoria was still tripping over her feelings for Melbourne. Honestly, it’s still awkward, if only because this shift in her affections happens so quickly that even she seems a little taken aback. (The cut from Melbourne to Albert as Albert asks Victoria if she prefers “Flattery…or truth” isn’t subtle.) The advantage of shifting perspective to Albert is that he only has his suspicions about what happened before he got there; Melbourne and his relationship with Victoria are seen through the eyes of a wary lover.

It’s a great shift, probably the episode’s best perspective tweak, if for no other reason than for the Melbourne we get now. Under his scrutiny, Rufus Sewell slips seamlessly from the Full Byron to a dry counselor who’s a little too flip about things that matter and a little too smitten with his charge. He gives longing looks on an ad hoc basis—no reason to leave behind perfectly good pining just because history’s encroaching. But his job now is to highlight just how young the Queen seems (accurate) in the face of men who know better (awkward), and his scenes are filled with his palpable delight that he gets to be a little terrible at last.

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Part of this is because the episode uses politics mostly to keep time rather than as significant engagements of character for Victoria. Certainly he’s still being pitted against Uncle Leopold as an example of someone who’s still more concerned with Victoria’s own happiness than with settling the Marriage Question for its own sake. But this new and unimproved Melbourne is a reminder that, no matter how well-meaning, Melbourne obviously had an agenda that filtered down; a glib bon mot about the tiresome poor is all it takes for Albert to win the moral upper hand here, too. (Sewell’s fine with it. Any time the script doesn’t demand he manfully repress his endless love for the monarch, he looks absolutely thrilled to be smirky.)

It’s a reasonably effective episode, especially given that we know exactly where this is going but still feel uneasy; despite the narrative (and visual) shift, there are too many hints of Albert’s restlessness and Victoria’s naivete to imagine there’s smooth sailing ahead. But “The Clockwork Prince” makes a case for the mess that lies ahead…and the hope of Rufus Sewell judgmentally drinking fake champagne in the background. Maybe sometimes that’s all you need.

Stray observations

  • One of the nicest dynamics this episode is between Tom Hughes’ Albert and David Oakes as Ernest; the two of them manage a rapport that runs deeper than their dialogue. And though Oakes’ career has established him as a master at putting an oily sheen on a scoundrel, he always keeps something in reserve that makes him a stealth scene-stealer. (He goes from nineteenth-century finger guns to pathos in a heartbeat when he drops the dandy act with Victoria and admits, “Albert is worth ten of me.”)
  • Alex Jennings, of course, is not going to take this lying down. The look Leopold gives Victoria after she complains “He was playing my keyboard as if he owned it!” is the biggest possible hat-tip to the Victorian habit of assuming everything is innuendo, and thus ruining all conversations for the rest of time.
  • Related: The Windsor uniform jackets featured waist-tapering triangular braid for everybody for Alex Jennings, who got the Sleazebag Uncle Rectangle option instead.
  • Then again, with lines like “Ernest would have taken her to bed already,” you’ve probably earned it. (What a sharp little scene; nothing like someone trying to deliver a naturalistic and engaging performance with a low-key Ham-Off happening on either side of him.)
  • Victoria’s so caught up in courtship that “the dispatches from Afghanistan” is nothing but an administrative headache. Awkward.
  • I’m still not captivated by the downstairs plots, but Eve Myles’ armchair-commentary expressions during German chew-outs this episode were fantastic. She’s one bag of popcorn shy of being a meme.
  • Don’t make people run at length in slow motion. Just don’t.
  • Nice touch: Victoria’s deep-royal dress with the sheer gathers at the neck is the most sober outfit she’s worn since she came out of mourning. The pastel lantern-sleeve dress she wears next is the most girlish she’s worn since the first episode.
  • Nothing says Romantic Interest like wearing your boyfriend’s mother’s signature flowers! This tip brought to you from the show that thought it was romantic to mention to your crush that he doesn’t feel nearly as much like your dad as he used to.
  • Message for the Young Women of Today: Well, the big takeaway from “The Clockwork Prince” is that there’s a thin line between a man suggesting you broaden your horizons and shaming you for your interests and your friends, but you should definitely get involved with them before you figure out which one it is and just hope for the best. (Not everything from 1839 is going to scan neatly for the Young Women of Today.)

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