As we continue our binge of The Crown, it continues to hit its big themes: the difference between Elizabeth Windsor and Queen Elizabeth, the conflict between modernity and tradition, and Prince Philip being a horrible husband. Let’s dig in.
In Episode 6, “Gelignite,” we open with Princess Margaret and Peter Townsend watching the newly crowned Queen and Prince Philip on television. The announcer calls them “the dashing, handsome couple,” but he may as well be talking about Margaret and Peter, the much more dashing couple.
Cut to some old newspaper guys. The journalists are eager for dirtier news about the Royal Family, and they’ve got it in Margaret and Peter. This leads to a debate about what’s OK to publish about the family and what’s not. The editor argues this is breaking all the unspoken rules, but another says The Crown rewrote those rules when they put the coronation on television. The show does a good job presenting what a game changing moment this was in how the press covered the Royal Family.
But first Margaret invites Elizabeth and Philip over so she can tell them that she and Peter want to marry. There’s a very funny bit of physical comedy involving Philip and soup, but otherwise it’s horribly awkward. How young and naïve Margaret is — she doesn’t think tactically yet. Instead she puts on a fancy dress to show how grown up she is. And everyone’s faces as she asks are so wonderfully perplexed and nervous and sad.
But Elizabeth says yes, before remembering that she’s supposed to give her permission as sovereign. She wants to just be a sister (and daughter and wife) but she can’t.
Philip sees the writing on the wall here, which makes me so mad because he’s so smug about it, all the time. He reminds her of the scandal that her uncle caused, and she says that was 17 years ago, the world has changed. He tells her she’s wrong and we, in 2016 know she is — look at Charles and Camilla. But Edward’s abdication comes up again and again in these episodes as a reminder and threat to stay in line and not rock the boat.
Elizabeth comes up with a solution — marry in Scotland, where she’s not head of the church — only to meet with her mother and Tommy Lascelles who explain some old British law that means Margaret needs Liz’s permission to marry Peter until she turns 25, and Margaret’s only 23. Peter and the Queen Mum tell Elizabeth to send Peter away and make them wait it out separately.
Margaret takes this horribly, because she is a baby with no patience. After fuming at her sister, she passionately rides her horse to meet with Peter for a secret rendezvous. I love this for three reasons. First, it feels like a cool gender-flipped Jane Austen movie. Second, throughout these episodes, horses represent freedom for all three of the Windsor women. Third, it reminds me of my favorite scene from The Princess Diaries 2: The Royal Engagement.
Anyway, Margaret goes to Rhodesia and Elizabeth brings Peter with her to Belfast, promising they can reunite before Peter is banished to Brussels. Elizabeth hoped the attention would fade away quickly, clearly not yet understanding the tabloid press Peter’s moments in the spotlight keep him and Margaret on the front pages, and the focus off the Queen, so she tells Tommy to cut him lose ASAP.
Peter tries to get Tommy to let him wait to see Margaret before he leaves, arguing “There is momentum for us, a sense of joy and celebration,” which shows how much he does not understand the Royal Family and Tommy Lascelles at all.
When Margaret finds out, she hysterically calls her sister, waiting an interminable length of time for her staff to even find her. She lashes out at her sister, who is wrong as a sister but right as a queen.
But Peter was right too: the tabloids are on their side, writing of the cruelty of the monarchy. Edward and Wallis Simpson joyfully read this, because they are literally monsters, and Philip runs off to hang out with his bros, because he too is a selfish baby.
Speaking of people acting like babies, in episode 7, “Scientia Potentia Est,” Winston Churchill and his likely successor, foreign minister Anthony Eden, are both gravely ill and hiding it from the Queen. This is especially dire because the Russians are testing nuclear weapons and no one trusts the Americans to deal with it, because their diplomacy amounts to a big stick and a loud voice. I did not enjoy listening to this on November 9th.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth is worried that she doesn’t know anything, except how to drink tea politely and some inane information about the constitution. She hires a tutor to teach her more. In addition, Tommy Lascelles is retiring, and she wants Martin to take his job, but Tommy tells her this other boring guy is next in line.
She calls Churchill’s secretary, who used to work for her, to get his opinion on the matter of Martin’s promotion. But he assumes she’s calling because she heard about Winston’s strokes, and he immediately spills the beans. She talks it out with her tutor — she has no power, there’s nothing she can do. But he reminds her that’s not true. No one knows the constitution better than she, since it’s literally the one thing she learned.
She calls the men in to give them a good dressing down. Particularly, she doesn’t let ailing Winston sit while she rakes him over the coals, and it’s awesome. Later, when she returns to her bedroom and finds Philip, he tells her she looks a little taller. And we can see it too. She’s smart and she’s in charge and she’s good at it. Making an appointment wait until tomorrow so you can have sex with your trophy husband is the ultimate power move.
But just in case you thought Philip and Elizabeth were really clicking, episode 8 “Pride & Joy” cracks that short-lived illusion. Elizabeth and Philip are finally going on the Commonwealth tour, and he is determined to be miserable.
First, though, they’re unveiling the statue of George VI, and the Windsor women are fighting over who should give the speech. The Queen Mum was his wife and head of the family and Margaret was his favorite, but Elizabeth is the new head of the family, so she will do it.
And then Philip and Elizabeth take off for half the year to convince the world that the Commonwealth isn’t actually the dregs of a racist empire, but its own cool, fun thing that everybody totally loves being a part of. Philip whines the entire time.
Margaret gets to do the Queen’s duties while she’s away, and that too could go better. She fights with Martin, explaining that she needs to bring her personality to the role, which, as was emphasized in every episode, everyone believes is the downfall of the monarchy. Predictably, Margaret offends people, makes jokes at Philip’s expense, has opinions, and shows up everywhere late.
Meanwhile the Queen Mum is having a mid-life crisis in Scotland where she hangs out with this old guy who owns a castle and doesn’t recognize her. She explains to her friends that she feels purposeless, with a dead husband she always guided and two grown daughters. Just as she goes to buy the castle, she gets called back to clean up Margaret’s mess. Reunited, they embrace as they watch Elizabeth smiling on television, a success.
The television doesn’t tell the whole story. Philip and Elizabeth get into a huge fight when he goes to smoke, which freaks Elizabeth out, and he says getting cancer would be better than this and accuses her of only going on this tour to get her dead father’s approval. It’s horrible. She chases him away screaming, only to realize a camera recorded the whole thing. Elizabeth, with gloves and fresh lipstick, goes to talk to the cameraman. He quickly, willingly hands it over. I imagine this moment will be mirrored in later seasons, with very different results.
At least the tour is almost over, with one of the last stops, Gibraltar, in peril because of death threats against Liz and Philip. Everyone, Philip most of all, tries to tell her what to do, but again, she gets the last word. “I am surrounded by people who think they could do the job better … but for better or worse the crown has landed on my head.” That’s the central conflict of the season.
When she returns home, Elizabeth and Margaret fight it out. Elizabeth wants her to apologize to the people she offended, explaining that the monarchy is all about stability and silence. But Margaret sees herself as the “evil sister,” the mess everyone hates. When she asks Elizabeth to try to make the occasional mistake so she’ll not be “so conspicuous a failure,” who cannot relate? Surely, her sister Elizabeth does. But Elizabeth her queen needs her to write those apologies.
Episode 9, “Assassins,” explores Elizabeth’s and Winston’s two big loves: horses and painting. Elizabeth reconnects with her horse-training friend Porchey, who everyone wanted her to marry, and Winston gets his portrait done for his 80th birthday while giving his own tips on painting ponds.
Elizabeth and Porchey’s plans to mate her prize horse to every other horse in England as Philip, who never liked horses, watches feels like a metaphor for how the nobility treat their children. Elizabeth and Porchey are a match someone dreamed up, but, like the horses, there are other factors that made her love Philip instead. Philip, ignoring her for his friends, alcohol, and (maybe) women, refuses to understand or connect or act in any way mature or kind.
Winston gets into his own fight with Anthony Eden, finally recovered from the world’s longest gallbladder surgery. Eden wants the PM job, recognizing that Winston is in no shape to lead anymore. Winston tells him he’s in bad shape too, and Eden literally pulls out a clean bill of health he keeps in his pocket.
Winston plans on holding on for dear life though. When he finds out a English modernist, Graham Sutherland, is to paint him, he remarks that he accepts German and Italian modernists, because of their recent history, but why would an Englishman want to change? That’s why he shouldn’t be prime minister anymore in a nutshell. He gives Sutherland lots of orders, telling him he’s not just painting a man but the prime minister, and all the dignity of that office. But there is no dignity in being PM, as Elizabeth would remind us. Dignity is for the crown.
He and the painter connect, despite Winston’s constant interruptions and critiques. But when the painting is unveiled, he’s embarrassed, humiliated: he looks like a tired old man. Sutherland tells him it’s the truth and it’s art. It’s not personal, and that sounds like what the makers of this show would tell the Queen as well.
Seeing himself in his true, fatigued, diminished state gives him the final push to retire. His last audience with the Queen is touching. They needed each other — he so old, she so young. But now they move on.
Before Winston’s birthday dinner, Elizabeth confronts Philip. “The only person I have ever loved is you and can you honestly look me in the eye and say the same?” He does not.
Elizabeth’s toast at the birthday dinner is intercut with mute shots of Elizabeth and Philip fighting and Clementine Churchill (a real gem) burning Winston’s portrait. Again, we’re distanced from the intimacies of the royal marriage. There have been rumors of Philip’s infidelity, but The Crown neither confirms nor denies. Clementine burns her husband’s weaknesses, allowing him to become ensconced in memory not as the weak old man but as the strong leader who defeated the Nazis. She would do anything for her hero, and Philip will do nothing for his.