I’m an Anglophile. Maybe it’s my mostly-British blood, or that I dig the English and their outward emotional constipation while a storm brews underneath, or just that I’m kinda, sorta, okay a lot, obsessed with the English monarchies; the up and coming king and his wife, not so much. Could not care less. Have they brushed shoulders with Winston Churchill? I think not, thus I don’t care. But the history of the British throne? From Alfred the Great to Elizabeth II, I am so there.
So, in honor of season two of The Crown coming in December (I won’t be available to chat that day, just so you know; I will be on my couch with my cats and a box of chocolate while I no doubt shed a few tears over whatever angsty drama season two has in store for me), I thought I would bore all of you with my thoughts on the previous episodes. Or not, since you won’t read this, much less comment, so I may as well say what I think, right?
One of my friends (I’ve decided to keep her, despite her questionable taste) commented that she thought this series wasn’t “emotional enough.” I raised my brow and thought, “Gosh, she really doesn’t know the Brits, does she?” Because to me, the first episode teems with emotional resonances; Philip struggles to find his place as a husband without a purpose other than as arm candy (much loved arm candy, but arm candy nonetheless); though she never says a word, Elizabeth’s concern for her father and mounting fears about taking his throne shines out in her eyes, in the fearful glances, in the emotion that clogs the back of her throat; her father is quietly coming to terms with his impending death, and as he stands amid his family in their Scottish home, with a bunch of children singing to him, you can see it in his eyes that he knows this is it, their last Christmas together. His mother, the strong-willed Dowager Queen Mary, grinds her teeth in the background, but shows fear in her eyes as he goes under the literal knife for surgery. The bloody marvelous “Mrs. Winston Churchill” lets her smile falter as they approach Downing Street. She follows her pleased-as-punch-to-be-the-boss husband inside, and says, “I hoped to see the back of this place.” She’s sick of politics, and suffering in silence because she knows her husband needs England, though he argues the reverse (England needs him!). There’s the wariness on the next prime minister’s face as he watches Winston come into the cathedral amid a literal choir of boy’s voices, and says, unhappily, “He still thinks he’s the father of a nation.” Oh, good sir, it will be your turn to muck it up soon enough; but I understand your frustration. It’s hard to stand in a dragon’s shadow.
Then too, is the silent suffering and longing glances of Margaret toward Peter Townsend, who, as her sister points out, “is already married.” The entire episode has a sense of emotional resonance to it, a contrast between a new, youthful, ambitious and ill-prepared monarchy and the exhausted “old guard” who lasted through a war and are not too sure what they think about the up and coming ranks. “You’ll notice Philip’s sisters aren’t here,” Winston grouses to his wife, “because they’re married to bloody Nazis! NAZIS!” And she almost rolls her eyes as she snaps, “Oh, do shut up.”
Some of these characters are legends in their own right, and when you bring them to life, you must make them human, real, personable, likable, but flawed… and here, in the first episode, we see the ‘origins’ of later problems; Elizabeth’s fears about becoming the queen; her grandmother noticing her quiet but determined methods in getting what she wants without much fuss; Churchill denying (much to his wife’s exasperation) that he is old and tired; Philip’s chronic unhappiness at being utterly useless, and the profound moment on the boat when Bertie (the king) stares at him and says he has the most important job of all—Elizabeth. “Loving her. Protecting her.” You can see the weight settle onto Philip’s shoulders, in the grim turn of his mouth as he says, “I know.”
The show is clever, because it says so much without words, in looks and glances; Philip never warns Elizabeth her father is dying, but it’s in his expressions, his eyes as he walks into the surgery room and stares at his father-in-law, unconscious on a hospital bed; as he watches him from the corner of his eye on the train, as the king stares at the floor, his brow furrowed, and coughs discreetly into a handkerchief; in his awareness as the man breaks down at Christmas, and in their little squabble over “leaving the children for months” on tour. It’s not about that for Philip; it’s because he knows their time with the children is about to end, that the king isn’t well enough to travel, and may die before they return; they should be in England. But, of course, he can’t tell her that.
The contrast in this episode falls between Bertie and Churchill; both recovered from temporary setbacks, Bertie one of his health and Churchill from being called to stand in the election. They watch each other in their official meeting like two old dogs, sizing one another up; Churchill suspects the cancer that is eating away at the king, and the king wonders if the old man is up to the job of Prime Minister. Neither one wants to give up the reins of the kingdom but both know a change is in the wind. It’s a slow, gradual burn in the first episode as it tries to introduce us to everyone, to give us flickers of their characters, while also painting a sense of them for the audience.
Perhaps the most poignant moment is when Bertie sends for Elizabeth to come to his office, “it’s most urgent,” and confesses, “I had nothing particular I wanted to say to you; I just wanted to spend time with you.” The shy, pleased smile that blossoms on Elizabeth’s face is familiar to anyone who has ever adored her father; yet, it is also a moment of profound sadness as she sees him cough… and cough… and cough. The joy of a shared laugh turns to a glassy-eyed stare, as she watches the foundations of her life crumble and knows soon, she will sit behind that desk, in front of that box, and flip over the contents so she can read “what they don’t want me to know.”
It may not be a show of grand, operatic gestures or wild bursts of passion, but it seethes with emotion under the surface; it bleeds through the cracks, it appears in the all-too-familiar methods the characters take to cope with their problems, and live in denial… as Margaret indulges her fantasies, and Queen Elizabeth (the elder) summons Peter from his work simply to ask, “What shall I do about Christmas?” because she does not know what the doctors do, that it will be his last.
The Crown is raw, and complex, and altogether human, and as the first episode draws to a close, and Elizabeth sits behind her father’s desk while he’s out shooting with Philip, you can sense the suspense in the air. Soon, these responsibilities, the “loneliness” that comes from being a monarch, will be hers.