Just when you thought the coughing had passed, there’s a lot more coughing to be done.
In Episode 2, “Hyde Park Corner,” we open with Princess Elizabeth and Prince Phillip arriving in Kenya for the Commonwealth Tour. “The Crown” quickly reminds us that Phillip is not just a hunky dreamboat who looks great in tweed peacoat: He’s also really racist. Eeek. Elizabeth clearly wants to murder him for being awful, but we know later he’ll raise one of his nonexistent eyebrows and win her back with a loving smirk. Matt Smith is so good at making Prince Phillip sort of awful and also very attractive at the same time.
Meanwhile King George is still coughing and dying, but trying to, as his doctor suggests, enjoy every minute while he can. And he packs a lot into those last moments. He talks politics while duck hunting (and coughing). He explains how he’s not Albert Windsor anymore and he can’t tell Winston Churchill to resign, even if he thinks he should.
It should seem weird that people spend so much time talking about the symbolic significance of they things they do, but they’re the royal family: their lives are all about symbolic significance. And, like Edward reminds us in episode 5, it’s impossible to untangle all the meanings they symbolize.
But I get ahead of myself. In episode 2 Elizabeth is still a princess and she’s having a jolly good time on safari with her husband, who saves her from a CGI elephant and then feels great about how cool and masculine he is. Elizabeth uses their marital, post-elephant bliss to suggest they could go back to Malta, where he can be in the navy again. She’s constantly aware of the balance of power in their relationship (that’s why she kept the promise to obey in her wedding vow, even though it was meaningless). It’s both entertaining and sad to watch
They never go back to Malta. After a night with his family, and a moving duet with his daughter Margaret, the king dies.
The last to know is the new Queen, still on safari in Kenya. It’s Phillip who finds out first and must break the news to her. We see him tell her, but we don’t hear the words he says, or how she responds. It’s a really nice moment because it reminds us of the distance there — the show is offering a look into their private world, but there are some things too private for us to know.
Immediately everything is different. Elizabeth is bombarded with questions and duties almost immediately. The Kenyan people she was having fun with a few moments ago are now kissing her feet as she walks to the car. Phillip has to walk behind her when they exit the plane. When they bring her a black dress to put on before she disembarks, it feels like the scene in “Mulan” where she puts on the armor for the first time.
At the end of the episode, she gets a letter from her grandmother, Queen Mary, giving advice, which she desperately needs. She tells her to mourn Elizabeth Mountbatten, because the crown takes preference now. Mary warns that she saw “three monarchies brought down from failure to separate personal indulgences from duty” and if there’s any guiding principal for this monarch, it’s that one.
Episode 3, “Windsor,” starts by bringing us right back to the failure of one of those monarchies, namely King Edward VIII, who gave up the throne because he loved Wallis Simpson so so so much, or something (the show, unlike the Madonna movie, seems unconvinced in this greatest love of all). Queen Mary tells him to just get out of Britain and leave the country alone in its time of need, World War II, when he couldn’t, wouldn’t sacrifice.
Of course, in the present, he’s coming back to Britain for his brother’s funeral and, as he tells the press, to “comfort” his mother. Really,he hates his mother and can’t stop writing nasty, mean letters to Wallis about what a bunch of icy, crazy hyenas his relatives are. He’s the craziest hyena of them all and his relatives are much better at dragging him to his face. Mary laments how George “really was the perfect son” and Margaret and Elizabeth and the Queen Mum are perfectly cordial but chilly.
What Edward doesn’t see is how devastated they are. “The responsibility of becoming king killed your father,” the Queen Mum cries once Edward is gone. In that moment she forgets Elizabeth is there — because what does that mean for the new queen?
Meanwhile, Phillip wants their children to carry his name — Mountbatten, and his uncle, Dickie Mountbatten (portrayed by Greg Wise, aka Mr. Emma Thompson) is all for it. But since Dickie can’t keep his mouth shut, the plan leaks to Queen Mary and Edward, who know this can’t happen. Honestly, the two of them coming up with plans together is so much fun, I wish they could get along and hang out forever.
Phillip is livid he’s the only man in Britain whose wife and children won’t have his name and he’s also pissed he redid Clarence House for them to live in but now everyone wants them to move to Buckingham Palace.
It’s easy to hate him here, but I also feel sympathy for him. Everyone calls him “the foundling” because of his sketchy origins, his broken family. All this man wants is a nice nuclear family of his own. He’s wrong, but I understand.
Edward does too. When Elizabeth admits that Phillip is struggling, he tells her, “It would be weird if he weren’t.” That’s one of the sad things about this transition — the only other people who could really understand what they’re going through are dead.
She lays down the law in the end, telling Phillip that Buckingham Palace is the home of the sovereign. When he asks, “Says who?” she has the right answer: “Says me.” Damn.
This is her show. It’s her red box of documents: it finally says the Queen. At the end of the episode, she gives a declaration that her and all her descendants will carry the name Windsor, and she does it in front of a portrait of the first Queen Elizabeth, who never married, knowing a husband would drain her political power. Well.
Prince Phillip, in episode 4, “Act of God,” decides the way to take back his masculinity is flying. At least he looks good in the outfit. But that — and every other plan in the city — goes awry when a horrible fog of doom takes over the city of London. And so the coughing returns.
Besides Prince Phillip’s shenanigans, Winston Churchill is trying to keep his job. The old Parliament guys think he’s too old to keep doing the job, so they blame him for the fog, which seems like a little bit of a stretch. He tries to distract them by talking about how Phillip shouldn’t be allowed to fly, which he’s not even doing because of the fog! Maybe Winston is losing it.
Churchill seems set on not doing anything about the fog until one of his secretaries, who thought he was super amazing (it was weird), gets hit by a bus at dies. Then, at the hospital to see her body, he decides to announce more funding for the hospital and projects all the young, virile strength he’d been criticized for lacking.
He does it just in time, since the Queen was about to can him. As Churchill goes in to visit her, the fog lifts. She doesn’t fire him. And he lets Phillip fly.
Later, she talks it over with Queen Mary. She wonders what would have happened if the fog hadn’t lifted because it doesn’t feel right to do nothing. But Queen Mary tells her that doing nothing and being impartial is exactly her job, and the hardest job of all. I don’t know if I, or Elizabeth, agree.
While I watched this episode the fog problem felt very silly, but then titles over the last shot inform us that maybe 12,000 people died in four days. So then I felt bad for thinking it was funny.
But that episode, the worst episode so far (but still enjoyable), is followed by the best episode so far, “Smoke and Mirrors.” We start with another flashback, George preparing for his coronation with little Elizabeth watching. He tries on his crown while she watches, and she tries on hers in the present while Charles and Anne watch. Unlike her father, she’s known this would be her destiny for the last 17 years. But that doesn’t mean she was any more prepared.
Elizabeth decides that Phillip should be in charge of her coronation committee, which makes him angry that he’s “matronizing” her. Jeez. But then he’s immediately bursting with new ideas, and she reminds him that some things can’t be changed.
Meanwhile, Edward and Wallis are doing a photo shoot in their house about how wonderful their life is that really shows how pathetic their lives are, holed up in France doing magazine features. He shows Wallis and the journalist his private room, where all his things from Britain are — photos of himself, his bagpipes, and his last red box of documents. All the things he gave up.
He’s not gone from Britain for long though, since Queen Mary is dying. Again he writes to Wallis about how awful it is to be with his miserable. cruel mother, but in actuality they’re just hanging out, smoking cigarettes.
I didn’t get why his presence upset everyone so much, and vice versa, though, until he met with the Archbishop of Canterbury and Elizabeth’s Private Secretary Tommy Lascelles to discuss his role in the coronation — or rather, lack their of. When he walks in the room, they shift uncomfortably until he sits, and then they sit. That’s when it clicked: this is a world governed by protocol and tradition and respect, and Edward’s continued existence as the former king is a blow to all of that. They have rules for how to deal with everything, but not this.
Edward can’t bring himself to understand why they’re all so rude to him, why they won’t let him and Wallis attend, but that’s because he’s incapable of doing what Queen Mary urged Elizabeth she must: put his ego aside for the good of the country. Instead of accepting what he did, what he lost, who he hurt, he rages at his family like a spoiled baby. It’s great television.
Meanwhile, Prince Phillip has decided the coronation should be televised, which has all the old men very upset because of tradition. They get Elizabeth to talk to him, which turns into another fight. She tells him he doesn’t understand, and he’s mad that everyone only sees him as “Johnny Foreigner.” It annoys me that he’s ultimately right, since he’s being such a whiney brat about it.
She lays down the law again. He can televise it as long as he kneels during the coronation. This wounds his male ego too much, and he tells her it’s unattractive how much she loves authority. She tells him it’s unattractive how weak he’s being. It’s clear which one of them is right, and I love watching her tell him off, but maybe only because I know they’ll eventually make up.
And then it’s coronation day. Edward and Wallis host a party for their friends as they watch on their tiny black and white television, our only view was well. Again, this is a smart way to remind us of our distance from the characters and the events. Edward’s narration is both useful from an American perspective and truly heart breaking. Someone asks why the camera cuts away for the anointing, and he explains it’s because, “We are mortals.” He is mortal. He is not king.
But we do get to watch Claire Foy’s Elizabeth’s anointing, and it’s just as beautiful and holy as promised. “Who wants transparency when you can have magic,” Edward tells his friends, and then we see the magic happen.
And Phillip, thank God, kneels before the Queen as he recites his part of the ceremony, and then kisses his wife’s cheek. Maybe he’s starting to get it.
At the end of the episode, Edward stands outside his French house, playing the bagpipes, crying, a funeral dirge for no one. Or rather, for King Edward VIII and Elizabeth Mountbatten: two people wiped from existence.