The second season of The Crown has something of a difficult act to follow.
The first season, despite having a wealth of recognised talent in front of and behind the camera, and being the most expensive TV series ever commissioned by Netflix at a whopping £100 million, nonetheless was a gamble nobody expected the streaming giant to falter with. The Royal family can entice both loyalists and those who find the monarchy an outdated institution, so the fact it almost certainly garnered strong ratings alongside plenty of critical buzz, meant The Crown got off to a romping start, making an instantaneous star out of Claire Foy as a young Queen Elizabeth II, and receiving plaudits and awards all over the place. Season 2, therefore, needed to keep up the pace.
Peter Morgan, writer of all ten scripts, plays the second season—set roughly between the years 1957 and up to the assassination of JFK roughly in 1963—as very much the second act of an opening two-part, aka two-season story. The Crown of course, famously, is planned to have six seasons which will replace the entire cast with age appropriate actors every two seasons. Season 3, therefore, won’t have Foy as Elizabeth, or Matt Smith as Prince Philip etc… should it happen (as of yet Netflix haven’t greenlit a third run but the chances are very high). These first two seasons of The Crown, consequently, are the first chapter in the life of Elizabeth and Philip, and if Morgan’s second run makes anything abundantly clear, this is very much the story of them both.
The story of a Royal marriage around which everything else pivots.
Many critics in reviewing Season 2 of The Crown have suggested there is too much Philip. It’s a double-edged complaint, in truth.
Yes, Philip is given a lot of material this season, more than in the first, but given how Smith—previously best known, bear in mind, as a scatty incarnation of The Doctor in Doctor Who—breaks out in the first season as an irascible, arrogant and often difficult partner to the Queen, you can hardly blame Morgan for throwing him more to do. Equally, the very arc of the entire second season is concerned with the price of marriage, the cost of attempting to have a traditional relationship while being bound by honour, faith and duty. While the story may heavily develop Philip, there’s a sense developing Elizabeth would have been much harder without doing so.
Their marriage is front and centre from a chilly opening scene in the first episode, until the very final scene in the last. Arguably Morgan takes a little too long in spiralling back to that opening scene, in which Elizabeth literally asks Philip what being married to her will take, but it provides a clear structure and framework on which to hang a season filled with not just personal but moral, social and political change. The years focused on here are riven with a wealth of not just British but global world events which add to the broader context The Crown dealt with over the course of its first season – the death of Empire and the end of colonialism. Elizabeth & Philip’s marriage serves, in many respects, as a metaphor; if it can’t survive, is that not just the end of monarchy, but of Britain as we know it?
These are questions which play out within The Crown. The second season builds upon themes of colonial powers looking to stretch their wings and break free – the Suez Crisis thanks to the Arab spring in Egypt, and later a colonial rebuke from Ghana, a central African power looking to chart their own course away from the Commonwealth. The difference in how Elizabeth deals with the problem into the 1960’s compared to the 1950’s is striking; instead of conducting stiff, vaguely racist and disrespectful speeches about the legend of Empire, she goes there personally, dances the foxtrot with the Ghanian leader, and charms them back under the British yoke. This is a monarchy beginning to adapt to an age where deference is earned, not merely given.
The power of the counter-cultural revolution thanks to new American influences and a growing economy isn’t touched on perhaps as keenly as you may imagine given the time period, and given The Crown looks set to edge deeper into the 1970’s, this may either be explored later or to an extent be skipped over, but there are indications of how the country is changing around Elizabeth and her family. One of the best episodes, ‘Marionettes’, almost exclusively focuses on Elizabeth’s humanity in the face of her people, following a disastrously stilted speech which insults the working class she’s in truth trying to praise. Harsh lessons are learned about how the people aren’t simply going to follow and respect a monarchy who doesn’t understand them, and Elizabeth adapts accordingly – the Christmas televised speech is born out of concerns her people don’t know who she is.
This is a key point about The Crown, and the power of Foy’s performance (also why she’ll very much be missed in the role). Elizabeth in the first season was coming to understand the significance of being Queen, of a role she was unexpectedly thrust into far younger than she ever expected. This season continues to explore how Elizabeth as a woman finds her place in her position; Philip especially often suggests she has ‘disappeared’ into her duty, that a schism has formed, and Foy superbly contains a great deal of emotion in Elizabeth’s face and expression as she pushes down desire, puts up barriers to becoming more open in the eyes of her public, and grapples with her own faith as a Christian when confronted with great moral challenges.
A key episode dealing with that, again one of the best—Vergangenheit—brings back Alex Jennings as abdicated King Edward, Elizabeth’s uncle. Jennings was one of the standout performers in the first season, and he continues imbuing Edward with an oily, mercurial, venal sense of his own position; Edward is the ultimate expression of modern ‘fake news’, a liar who constructs his own truth, and when files come to bear revealing his strong sympathy for the Nazi High Command, files suppressed by Elizabeth’s father and Winston Churchill after the war, Elizabeth is faced with a personal choice: forgive Edward, as Christian teaching would venture, or banish him as a disgraced traitor. The fact she chooses the latter sets her on a course which reflects the course of her country.
Most interestingly, Elizabeth consults an American tele-evangelist, Billy Graham, about this dilemma and he encourages her to forgive. She now, however, has a keen eye on what the newspapers, the growing media influence, and the continued evolution of her people may say. War wounds have never entirely healed in Britain, even today – some of the old, innate fears and prejudices about certain foreign powers persist, and if Brexit proves anything it’s that the British distrust of ‘the foreigner’ has merely lain dormant, even in the face of mass immigration and egalitarianism with Europe. This isn’t to say if Elizabeth had shown more Christian value in forgiving Edward all this would have changed, but her choice not to forgive the sins of war reflect a nation moving away from Christian values and influence in modern life.
We also see this reflected in Margaret, and the continued saga of her life.
Much as Foy is the soul of the piece, and Smith cuts through scenes with razor-sharpness, the real star of The Crown undoubtedly has been Vanessa Kirby as the troubled Princess. Margaret is easily the trickiest role in the ensemble; a beautiful firebrand, capable of cut glass coldness and disdain, but enormously vulnerable and not a little tragic, Kirby does a spellbinding job of making a difficult, complicated woman likeable. Her relationship with louche, equally disdainful, egotistic and devastatingly handsome socialite photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones (Matthew Goode, on roguish form), underscores both the growing counter-cultural influence and the decay of moral values in Britain; scandal surrounds Tony in the form of threesomes with married couples, homosexuality and illegitimate pregnancy. He is the embodiment of a changing world, and not necessarily for the better.
Yet at the same time, the push and pull of the old world continues to exert itself on a family struggling to retain its place in a world of change, mainly around Philip. Much of the first half of the season concerns Elizabeth’s frustration at Philip’s determination to exert his own independence, to live the kind of roguish, playboy lifestyle he sees other men with wealth and influence doing, only to become embroiled in scandal involving extra-marital affairs. The season finale, Mystery Men, brings this full circle back to the point – his role in the Royal marriage. Morgan never goes as far as suggesting Philip has been unfaithful, but there is more than a hint he probably has been, and one senses this will remain a mystery the show will never directly commit to.
One of the more interesting episodes, the penultimate Paterfamilias, concerns Philip’s own childhood and his own unresolved issues which have a somewhat devastating effect on the young Prince Charles. We see a great deal of Philip’s life as a young man, living in the shadow of the burgeoning Nazi state in Germany before a level of tragedy and a great deal of rough seasoning at a Scottish boarding school. Philip’s own failings as a father provide the show with a level of cyclical storytelling, of Philip refusing to break cycles, and it further plays into the central theme of the Royal marriage. Everything swirls around that relationship, from childhood trauma to scandals such as Profumo, even to the effect a visiting Jackie Kennedy has on Elizabeth as a woman and a Queen.
The fact The Crown holds this central question, the price and sacrifice of marriage in the face of duty, at its core is why the second season does manage, on the whole, to work. Though oddly enough, it feels a stronger piece of work when exploring key elements to Elizabeth’s reign and how they effect her character, rather than focusing on infidelity, scandal and marriage; how she deals with haunting wartime revelations, how she changes her perception in the public eye, or how she copes with a fluctuating government structure made up of weary, ailing old men such as Anthony Eden or Harold Macmillan, all part of an old guard rapidly growing irrelevant; the season finale even sees Macmillan watch himself being lampooned on stage by Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and the ‘Beyond the Fringe’ retinue of edgy, scornful comics who wanted to expose their father’s generation for what they were: history.
What The Crown, in its first two formative seasons, has done a good job of is exploring the post-WW2 modern evolution of Britain from a world of courtly deference and community respect, through to media savvy, technologically advancing, egalitarian, European self-interested population, with a sense of their own individualistic manifest destiny. It depicts the place of an institutionalised but constitutional monarchy within a world where free market economics, Christian decline, and new ways of thinking about morality and equality are creating a Britain where people would rather sing ‘God Save the Queen, a fascist regime’ than ‘send her victorious’. That world is coming. The shadow and ominous spectre of it exists, especially in this second season.
It will be interesting to see how Elizabeth, going forward as reputedly portrayed by Olivia Colman as a middle-aged woman, faces the challenges of this modern, liberal England in future seasons, and how she qualifies that with her marriage, her children growing into adults, and governments facing their own unique conundrums. The Crown may at times be as steadfast as Elizabeth herself, and certainly seems often more quietly pro-monarchy than the opposite, but it could ultimately serve as a well-made, prestige depiction of the grand span of modern British history.
Long may it reign.
★ ★ ★ 1/2
DIRECTORS: Philip Martin, Stephen Daldry, Philippa Lowthorpe, Benjamin Caron
WRITER: Peter Morgan
CAST: Claire Foy, Matt Smith, Vanessa Kirby, Victoria Hamilton, Matthew Goode, Alex Jennings