Netflix’s period drama series “The Empress” is based on the life of Empress Elisabeth of Austria. The series portrays her whirlwind romance with Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria and how her life changed after taking on royal duties. Elisabeth, or Sisi, as she was lovingly called by her family in Bavaria, was a romantic who refused to be tied down to perform womanly duties. She was empathetic and idealistic and would often make decisions that were not necessarily good for the Empire. Elisabeth defied society’s rules and regulations and was often seen smoking. She is remembered for her free spirit and unconventional approach to life. “The Empress” chooses to not take much liberty, and meticulously sticks to fictionalizing facts rooted in history. Even though the six episodes are nearly an hour long, it was a captivating watch.
Franz Joseph I was supposed to marry Elisabeth’s elder sister, Helene, but when his eyes met Elisabeth, he knew she was the one he wanted to marry. By choosing Elisabeth, he went against his mother, Sophie’s wish. Since his mother made most decisions for him at the royal court, he wished to have his say in his marriage. Franz fell in love with Elisabeth’s free spirit. She was unlike any other woman. She spoke frankly and did what her heart desired. Since Franz was an uptight man, the company of Elisabeth was soothing to him. Elisabeth had rejected two marriage proposals arranged by her mother. She wanted to marry someone she desired, and she knew that she had an immediate connection with Franz. When Franz proposed to Elisabeth instead of Helene, it broke Helene’s heart. Unlike Elisabeth, Helene was a natural when it came to presenting herself as a royal figure. She knew that she was better suited for Franz and had dreamt of their union. Even though the sisters later reconciled, Elisabeth could not completely trust Helene.
While Franz was the Emperor, his mother controlled most of the decisions he made. Since his poverty-stricken countrymen were dissatisfied with the royal family, Sophie thought marrying Franz would give the people hope and a reason to celebrate. The men were sent to kill all revolutionaries who dared speak against the Emperor. But Franz was not in favor of suppressing voices and instead wanted to genuinely help the commoners. He disagreed with his mother’s vision and hoped to build an empire that did not resort to showing strength by physically crushing its subjects.
After performing their marriage ceremony, Elisabeth was introduced to the commoners gathered near the church. She went closer to them than permitted, and the people were mesmerized, having seen her. While the royal family celebrated the holy union, the commoners were beaten to death for demanding necessities. Sophie wanted to create an example for those who dared to protest or conspire against the Emperor. Elisabeth learned of Franz’s affair with Countess Louise on their wedding day. She confronted him, and he confirmed that it was an affair long over. Elisabeth struggled to abide by the strict rules set for her. She was troubled by the consistent pressure to produce an heir since she believed her purpose in life was a lot bigger than that.
Maximilian was Franz’s younger brother, who eventually became Elisabeth’s friend. They were both liberal in their worldviews and despised the restrictive life in court. Maximilian was attracted to her when they first met. He could never completely accept Franz and Elisabeth’s relationship. He believed his brother chose Elisabeth out of jealousy. Maximilian was not Franz’s supporter; he always thought that Franz did not trust him enough to give him any significant role to play in the Empire. When Franz was chosen Emperor after his uncle, Emperor Ferdinand, abdicated the throne, Maximilian felt it was unfair. He wanted to become the Emperor, and to that end, he conspired to win favors. Since many were disappointed in Franz’s decision to stay away from the war in Russia and not to support the Tsar, Maximilian took advantage of it. Franz wanted to bring the Industrial Revolution to Austria instead of indulging in war and spending wealth on it. Both France and Russia were disappointed in him for not choosing a side. Maximilian wanted to create momentum out of the disappointment that the delegates felt. He later approached Elisabeth and promised to help her once things started to change. Maximilian and Elisabeth kissed, even though she regretted it the next minute. She had avoided the sexual tension between them from the day she entered the palace. But she would often go back to him when there was trouble in her marriage or when she felt a general resentment towards her life as an Empress. Their friendship would often bother Franz, as he knew that his brother was not loyal to him.
Sophie could feel the sand slipping out of her fingers when her son decided to marry Elisabeth. She believed that none of her sons were eligible enough to become an Emperor and that it was she who ultimately pulled the strings. But after marrying Elisabeth, Franz became independent and chose to not accept every opinion of his mother. He wanted to build a railway by taking a loan from the bank, whereas his mother wanted him to send their army to support the Russians at war. Franz found the war futile and, knowing the poor conditions in which the commoners lived, he wanted to help them. He spoke about peace and his lack of interest in expanding his empire.
His mother could not accept the growing influence of Elisabeth in his life. Especially when Elisabeth proposed taking the Tsar’s son, Alexander, on a hunting expedition for her husband to talk business. Even though it was Maximilian who had poisoned Alexander’s mind, Elisabeth was accused of ruining any chance of settlement. When a wild boar was about to attack Alexander, Elisabeth shot the animal dead, and that offended Alexander. He believed that he was given a faulty gun to make a mockery of. After the incident, Elisabeth’s husband accused her of not showing restraint even though he knew that she shot the boar to protect Alexander’s life. Sophie used this incident to ridicule Elisabeth and her ideas. She reminded Elisabeth that her only duty to the empire was to produce an heir and that she must focus on doing only that.
Sophie was married to Archduke Franz Karl, though they mostly lived away from each other. She had a lover, Prince von Vasa, who was indirectly indicated to be the father of one of her sons (going by available information, it was believed that Maximilian was the son of Nepolean II, with whom Sophie was in a relationship, though such rumors were never confirmed). The series also hints at Countess Esterhazy’s sexual and romantic attraction to Sophie. Sophie later chose a younger Countess to be by her side, speculatively for voyeuristic pleasure.
Countess Leontine Von Apafi was murdered as she was riding in her carriage by two revolutionaries. Ava, a commoner, along with her comrades, planned to destroy the monarchy by taking on the identity of the Countess. The idea was to become close to the new Empress and provide intel to her organization. The organization would accordingly plan its attack on the Emperor. It was not easy to become Elisabeth’s favorite considering ten Countesses were competing to win her trust. Ava’s ragged shoes made her stand out from the rest. Countess Amalia doubted it from the get-go. Leontine’s mannerisms were often not ladylike, and her dreams and goals were not similar to those of other unmarried women. She was attracted to the accountant of the court who did not have a royal title. It all seemed too strange for Amalia. But Elisabeth found a place of comfort in Countess Leontine, aka Ava. They were both free-spirited and would participate in activities that were unaccepted by most. Even though Ava had entered the royal palace to fulfill her duty and end the dynasty, she gradually started to doubt the idea. The Empress was not the snob that Ava thought she would be. During Elisabeth’s tough times, Countess Apafi was always by her side. She spoke on behalf of Elisabeth when the doctor practiced a test of chastity on her. Ava knew that Elisabeth had compassion and she could not bring herself to kill her and her entire family. She decided to side with the monarchy and informed the royal guards about the planned attack on the Emperor. Her companion was killed, and Ava lost her chance to leave the royal life behind, though living with her false identity was not that easy. She knew that if she escaped the palace, the organization would murder her and if anyone from the palace figured out who she was she would meet with ill fate. She had to keep the truth secret. So, when she noticed that Countess Amalia was snooping around in her room and found evidence to prove treason, she pushed her to death. Amalia had died on the spot, and her body rested on a puddle of blood.
With the constant provocation of the Russians at the border, Franz had to send his troops to defend it. He stood by his stance of not participating in the war, but at the same time, he wanted his soldiers to defend the borders if any harm fell on them. He wanted to send out his message loud and clear that he was not interested in going to war, but if anyone dared to step foot on his soil, he would not tolerate it. Sending the army to the borders was not something Franz had in mind, but it was a step he had to take owing to the circumstances. The bank refused to pay loans for railway construction once they learned that the Emperor was investing in sending men to the borders. The bank could not risk itself, and Franz’s dream project came to a halt.
Since the threat of war was looming, Sophie proposed that Elisabeth must win the trust of the commoners by visiting them. It was a token gesture to show that the monarchy sympathized with them and was by their side in a difficult time. Countess Esterhazy accompanied Elisabeth and Archduke Ludwig. They got off their chariot at the iron foundry, where they were introduced to their workers. Elisabeth was displeased by the physical condition of the workers and how they were forced to sacrifice their day’s wages in support of the army. Elisabeth noticed a little girl peeping from the inside of the foundry. She demanded to go inside and check the condition of the foundry by herself. Countess Esterhazy could not tolerate Elisabeth’s random idea. She believed it could be life-threatening for Elisabeth and little Ludwig, but Elisabeth refused to listen. She met the little girl and noticed that she did not have shoes to cover her feet. Elisabeth removed her shoes and gifted them to her. Even though Elisabeth wanted to walk her way to the carriage, the Countess dismissed the idea and called a guard to carry her to the carriage. An angry crowd had gathered around the foundry by then and attacked the Empress and the Archduke as they got on their carriage. Elisabeth was criticized for her ill judgment. She risked not just her life but also the Archdukes. Elisabeth believed that the crowd would not have turned angry if she was left to walk on bare feet. She always wanted to connect with the commoners and address their problems. While her solutions might not be long-lasting or sensible, she tried her best in the given situation. Sadly, the brother of the little girl to whom she gave her shoes was killed by the royal guards to control the agitating crowd. Therefore, her little gesture of love meant nothing in the face of the systemic exploitation of the underprivileged.
After the incident, Elisabeth took to drinking and partying. She barely had time for Franz, and their romance started to fizzle out. Sophie decided to punish Elisabeth for her outrageous ways. Either she had to live according to the rules that an Empress is bound to follow or leave her royal duties and live in Bayern. Elisabeth refused to annul her marriage to Franz and wanted to stay. She could no longer ride her horse or go on evening strolls. She could no longer have the company of the ladies in waiting and would only be accompanied by Countess Esterhazy. Only at appointed times would the Emperor come and spend time with her in the northern wing. She had to give up on everything she loved to become the perfect Empress. Elisabeth was given time to make her choice. In the meantime, she learned that she was a child. As she was about to share the good news with Franz, he ridiculed her for her involvement with Maximilian. He agreed with his mother’s decision because she was his biggest distraction. While she wanted more from her life than just being a pretty face, he wanted her to be content with her position. When Elisabeth realized that her husband no longer loved her for the person she was, she decided to leave.
That day, a large crowd gathered outside the palace to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the Emperor. Franz prepared his men to shoot anyone who made alarming moves. Even though the commoners were mostly unarmed, Franz was worried that if he did not show strength, he might fail to take control of the situation. He started to trust his mother’s instinct, believing that his ideas failed to take the shape that he desired. But in reality, his plans did indeed work, and the Russians were gradually leaving the border. Elisabeth was about to leave, but the gate was obstructed by the crowd. The royal guards asked her not to take any steps forward and to leave later, but she did not fear the crowd. She walked to the gates and asked the guards to open them. Elisabeth walked into the crowd and bowed to show her respect to them. She informed them that she was with a child, a glimmer of hope in the dark times. When the Emperor was informed of it, he rushed to the gates and walked up to her.
“The Empress” Season 1 ends with a strong potential to return with a season two. The first season was just the beginning of Elisabeth’s married life. Though by the end of the first season, she managed to win the trust of the commoners, and now that she is with a child, she will be brought back to the palace, but this time with respect. Sophie must be shattered by Elisabeth’s show of courage. While she wanted her son to believe that his wife was up to no good, Elisabeth did manage to control a raging crowd all by herself. By doing so, she has now proved her worth and influence. Though going by history, we know that Sophie will continue to spew hate over Elisabeth all her life. The fact that Elisabeth did not give birth to a son initially led to taunts and mockery. Elisabeth’s desire to be free will ultimately create a distance between Franz and her. Elisabeth’s life did not get any easier with time; she continued to feel caged in and was often melancholic. Her aim in life was to find herself and to live her life freely. The series might also introduce Elisabeth’s obsession with maintaining her physical appearance, to which she dedicated hours each day. The next season will also determine whether or not Ava’s truth will surface. Clearly, Sophie’s new countess is aware of some mischief at play. What is also interesting is that the series ends with a glimpse of Sophie’s youngest son, Ludwig, putting on women’s clothing. He was known to be homosexual and a crossdresser during that time. “The Empress” is a promising show that hopefully will return a second time.
“The Empress” is a 2022 Period Drama Series streaming on Netflix.
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'The Empress' Ending, Explained: How Did Elisabeth Win The Trust Of The Commoners? Will There Be A Season 2? | DMT – DMT