This article has some content you might find disturbing!Reason Rats.
Victoria's Reign Is Beset By Pests
Rats? Why did it have to be rats?!
I don't know whether Sunday-night PBS viewers -- myself included -- are generally signing on for the thrills, spills, and shocking surprises so much as we are for the expensive soap opera history lessons and advanced pining. That said, there's something satisfying about the occasional, shall we say, tonal shift? Victoria mixes things up in its second episode with a scene so delightful in its noisy, gross catharsis that it makes me wonder whether the whole show has a sense of fun it's so far been keeping on the down-low.
We get a little foreshadowing early on, when a worker opens up a wall in the kitchen to reveal a rat king.
The installation of gas lighting all over Buckingham Palace is riling up the Victorian rat population and causing a normally hidden infestation to go public. The Queen has "a horror of rodents," so the palace inmates spend all their time trying to either shoo the rats out of her immediate vicinity, or just convince her that twitch of motion she saw out of the corner of her eye was nothing, nothing, just the wind, your Majesty.
It's also, we're told, Victoria's birthday! In between periods of skulking around Skerrett, trying to establish himself as her "friend," Chef Francatelli is working hard on the royal birthday cake. When the big day arrives, Victoria admires the cake in her pristine royal whites, opens a bitchy gift from her mom, and...
This is the kind of thing the show should be doing frequently if it wants to be fun enough and memorable enough to take on the Downton Abbey mantle. It's such a well-executed B-plot -- the longer the audience knows about the rats, and the longer Victoria doesn't, the more we're convinced they're going to pop out at any second and Indiana Jones their way through the palace. At the same time, the references to Victoria's upcoming birthday are so peripheral that it doesn't become obvious how the two will coincide until half a second before [ETERNAL SCREAMING] THERE ARE RATS ON THE ROYAL BIRTHDAY CAKE. It's not as literally juicy as Lord Grantham fountain-vomiting blood in the middle of the soup course -- maybe the only time Downton genuinely shocked me, and therefore among my fondest memories of that show -- but the effect is similar: an exhilarating moment of the unexpected in the middle of a highly mannered series about a highly mannered world.
Of course, "rats on the royal birthday cake" isn't just gross and exciting and a great set piece; it's also Victoria's Metaphor of the Week. Just as opening up the walls for the sake of better illumination brings literal rats out of the literal woodwork, Victoria's still-new status as Queen is attracting another kind of old-dude rat out into the open. Compounding the issue, Lord Melbourne sees that the writing is on the wall, and it says "you're losing support as Prime Minister," so he prepares to step down. Victoria responds like a high school sophomore who's been dumped at Homecoming and is too distraught to address the power vacuum that results -- for the time being, at least.
The Queen's own uncle, the Duke of Cumberland, begins spreading rumors that she isn't just young and inexperienced and infatuated with her only advisor; she's actually delusional (though, to his credit, even human rat king Lord Conroy shuts that nonsense down immediately...shortly before agreeing to force Victoria into giving up her power to a regent: himself). Ironically, nobody actually thinks the probable new Tory leader is a rat except Victoria herself -- he asks her to replace a few of her ladies-in-waiting with ones who are married to Tories, in accordance with custom. In response, the Queen goes full #squadgoals in refusing to get rid of her "allies," without whom she cannot possibly go into battle, and replacing them with his "spies."
Ultimately, both kinds of rats are pushed back into the walls where we found them and plastered in for the time being: Lehzen decides not to install gas lighting after all, and Victoria's death grip on her ladies-in-waiting forces a stalemate among the men jockeying for the Prime Minister spot. Melbourne reluctantly agrees to stay on as Prime Minister and Royal BFF, providing an extra layer of insulation between Victoria and everyone else. It's clear that this isn't a permanent fix -- neither the four-legged rats nor the two-legged ones actually went away -- but Victoria wins this round...with only a modicum of screaming her head off.