Black screen, coughing. Then a man in a rather dingy looking mid-century bathroom coughing up blood. Yes, my dears, we’re going to cover the first season of The Crown this month as we prepare for the second’s premier. This show is of a different ilk than ITV’s Victoria which we covered earlier this year and certainly a different animal than The White Princess which I tried to cover (and then gave up, because, you know, I have my limits). I think you can safely call it prestige television and enough of its references and allusions are so subtle as to likely go over the head of viewers who don’t know much about this period of time – or this family for that matter.
But it attempts to do something that television and films haven’t yet done correctly, which is to show the humanity of Queen Elizabeth II. It’s a bold task, really, considering she is alive and well in London as we speak and this frank portrayal of her early years as monarch, her marriage and her relationship with her family is uncomfortable when you consider the possibility that she’s seen it. I’ve no idea whether or not the Queen watches this sort of thing – a part of me rather hopes that she doesn’t. And Claire Foy, the actress who currently plays her, has certainly stated as much in interviews.
Nevertheless, here it is – a series that means to chronicle Elizabeth from the day before her wedding in 1947 until, well, modern day, I guess. I have a feeling it might stop with the Queen handing down some of her duties to Prince Charles, ending where the series began – with a monarch facing their own mortality and safeguarding the succession, arguably the most important and archaic part of the job.
But before we get there, we start here. I watched this season when it originally premiered back in November 2016…and then I watched it again (and now a third time) because it’s just so damn good. The show itself and also the points it raises on how they’ve chosen to portray certain characters. No one is a saint and everyone’s a bit of a sinner, which is very in keeping with our modern day mentality – there is no black and white, just shades of grey.
The man in the bathroom is King George VI and it’s November 20, 1947, the day before his eldest daughter is meant to marry. It’s a stark introduction to king because there are no trapping of monarchy. This is a man by himself – there aren’t any signs of wealth or power. In fact, quite the opposite. He composes himself and marches from private to public. Specifically, he walks into a room where Prince Philip of Denmark and Greece is renouncing his foreign rights and assuming the simpler (hint: British) moniker of Lt. Philip Mountbatten.
And finally you see her, a 21-year-old Princess Elizabeth pacing outside the room nervously, waiting for it all to play out. It’s jarring to watch the moment Philip kneels before George VI, particularly in light of the real Philip’s recent retirement. We’re so used now to seeing him as the patriarch of this family, of images of him alongside his grandchildren, and yet there was a moment when he was the young buck. It’s startling, if you take the time to think it through, how wildly the monarchy has changed over the course of Elizabeth’s reign, not least of which is who we now see standing on the balcony of Buckingham Palace.
When it is all over he walks out of the room to Elizabeth who scolds him about his smoking and he says, “I love smoking, but like a great many other things, I’m going to give it up for you.” And here we have a central plot point for this season – a very independent, proud man fitting himself into an institution for the love of his wife. Putting his own ambition second, a dynamic that was most definitely abnormal in the 1940s and 1950s.
On their wedding day Philip and Elizabeth stand at the alter in Westminster Abbey and Elizabeth starts to grow emotional while saying her vows. He pulls small faces at her when the Archbishop says “in sickness and in health,” “for richer or for poorer,” prompting a smile from the bride. She regains her composure. She steadies herself. It’s a beautiful scene for a great many reasons, not least of which because it perfectly illustrates how central this marriage has been to Elizabeth’s success as monarch. He offers her reality and levity; he keeps her on course. Without this marriage and Elizabeth’s reign would look radically different than it does today and I think this moment is accurate – I think it captures something very true about that relationship.
But the heart of this episode is not really about Philip and Elizabeth as much as it sets up their dynamic – they’re the long burn. The real meat is the health of George who has lung cancer, undergoes an operation that removes one of his lungs, is lied to about his health and then is told that he likely has months, not years, left to live. No one in his family is told, but the new Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, learns about it before the King. The King’s body, you see, is not personal – it’s a matter of state. There is a cold moment when Philip and Elizabeth are summoned back from Malta in 1951 (the year in which the majority of the drama takes place) where they have been living with their children and George undergoes surgery from within the Palace. The family is told that he is recuperating and Philip wanders from the sitting room to the operating room, seeing George’s body beneath a sheet while one of his damaged lungs is wrapped up in newspaper.
In that moment the first thing that ran through my mind was all that is said about what help and support the late Princess of Wales and the Duchess of Cambridge were given – or not given – when they married into the Royal Family. Take a moment to contemplate how little was done to ease Philip’s way into it a generation or two before. How frankly strange and weird so many of these customs here, how daunting the King’s mortality would have been for what it meant for himself and his young family. The King’s life equaled Philip’s freedom and that was rapidly coming to an end.
The final scenes in which George knew he was going to die are gut wrenching. Watching his struggle to breath and shaking with coughs while he poured himself cocktails and lit cigarettes are hard to watch. Harder is to see him struggle with emotion during Christmas at Sandringham, looking at his wife, mother and daughters and knowing it will be his last with them there. But he thinks about the succession because he puts duty first and looking forward, even at blackness, is easier. The future is Elizabeth, so he summons his daughter to him without reason, telling her she can ask whatever she wants.
Her questions are timid and nervous. She is clearly a bit in awe of her father, admires him. She warms up the most when she can describe the renovations Philip is making at Clarence House. She asks her father to take him shooting and he, relieved, agrees that that is some sort of solution. And perhaps it is, for George is his most candid speaking man-to-man; he doesn’t quite know what to do with a young woman except treat her as just what she is to him: his daughter. Not a peer, not a successor, not a person necessarily suited for the task at hand – and that’s a bit terrifying to contemplate. So instead he sits on a boat before a shoot with Philip and says to him very sternly, in what amounts to a plea:
“You understand the titles, the dukedom – they’re not the job. She is the job. She is the essence of your duty. Loving her, protecting her.”
There is no greater act of patriotism, he says. Or love.
I understand, Philip answers.
“Do you, boy?”
And Philip only looks rather pained.
I remember reading reviews after this show premiered in which this hunting scene was criticized for being too long. That so many images of the men in tweed on the water shooting were unnecessary. I disagree. I think this is one of the most lovely in the entire series and an important one too. Because watch George during it – watch him shaking in rage as he struggles not to cough up blood and shoot his gun, mentally willing his body to physically perform the trappings of normalcy. He is riding towards his death and the scene is interspersed with shots of Elizabeth alone in her father’s office, stepping behind his desk and fingering the red boxes, his papers. She assessing her future and she’s daunted – and she has no idea it’s coming so quickly. That right there is the point of the entire episode.
So, what else? In the midst of all of this we see a rather cutting portrayal of Churchill coming back into power. We see him as a cunning politician who knows how to play a room and pause for his photo-op. We see him truly believing his is the answer to all Britain’s problems. That, once he knows the truth about George’s health, it’s his God-decreed duty to stay in power so he can make sure that quiet girl no one’s really thought about can keep the ship on course. He keeps referring to Elizabeth as “her” when he describes the situation to his wife. “Who?” she asks. “Her!” “Oh, her.”
There is a moment at the beginning of the episode after Philip and Elizabeth’s wedding where Queen Elizabeth (Elizabeth’s mother) and Queen Mary (George’s mother) are whispering to each other barbs about others in the room. Mary says they have to give Elizabeth credit for bringing about a marriage no one wanted. “You overestimate her,” Queen Elizabeth says. “You underestimate her,” retorts Mary.
Yes, btw, guys, a warm and cuddly depiction of the Queen Mother this is not.
And then there is Peter Townsend, who I was surprised to notice in this third viewing shows up on screen before Princess Margaret, George’s younger daughter. They make eyes at each other during the wedding ceremony. Margaret innocently suggests Peter join them for Christmas at Sandringham. All the signs are there even in the first episode, which matches the reality of their actual relationship.
Finally I would note how many men are in this episode and the extent to which they dominate the action. This isn’t accidental and it’s necessary – this particular sect of the British world was masculine. This was the environment in which Elizabeth was not raised as a woman, but the landscape on which she stepped foot as a queen. The difference between it and her and the extent to which she is unsure of herself in its midst is purposeful. There is a point to that juxtaposition and we’ll see it play out as the season unfolds.