Ten months have passed since George VI’s funeral and it’s December 1952. The episode opens as it closes, with Philip in an airplane being taught to fly by Margaret’s secret boyfriend, Peter Townsend. But this episode actually has very little to do with anyone except Elizabeth and Winston Churchill, though they share roughly the same amount of screen time with the other characters. It’s the Great Smog and behind closed doors it’s the first almost battle royale of Elizabeth’s reign.
The two most important scenes take place near the beginning and end of this episode and they are both conversations between Elizabeth and her grandmother, Queen Mary. She tells the new sovereign that Philip is in no position to advise her because what does he know? He’s only the offshoot of a “new” monarchy and has no grasp of an institution that traces its roots to Henry VIII and Edward the Confessor. More importantly, his informal, modern brand of monarchy does not capture the reverence of the British style, in which the coronation is a religious ceremony and the Queen’s pledge with God.
It is against this backdrop that the Great Smog hits London. The air is so dense it’s impossible to see, making driving, rail and even walking around nearly impossible. The hospitals are quickly overrun by injuries and people suffering from illness brought on by the air quality. And closer to home, Philip is literally grounded from continuing his flying lessons.
Elizabeth mentions this last point to Churchill offhand and he’s livid – that the monarch’s spouse is taking his life in his own hands is a matter of state, in his opinion. He means to ban Philip from flying, or at the very least ensure that he has to ask Parliament’s permission before he pursues his hobby. And given that Philip is bored, isolated and chafing within the Palace system, this is not an ideal situation for Elizabeth.
Churchill’s preoccupation with Philip’s new hobby is such that he brings it up at a Cabinet meeting. Not the smog, mind you, which he dismisses as a minor weather event about which everyone is being dramatic. His opposition sees their chance, for London is in chaos and there is a paper trail of government officials warning this was a possibility due to nearby coal facilities and yet all Churchill cares about are the loftier matters of state like the rights of monarchy and foreign affairs. Domestic issues, quite simply, bore him.
Clement Attlee means to stage a bloodless coup by putting indirect pressure on Elizabeth to ask Churchill to step down. He does this by reaching Philip’s uncle, Dickie Mountbatten, who goes to Buckingham Palace and lays out the agenda to the young queen. She argues she’s powerless to do such a thing, it would betray the Constitution. Not so, he counters, for she has the right to advise and step in when it’s imperative.
She turns to her private secretary, Alan “Tommy” Lascelles (by the way, this is actor is literally picture perfect in capturing the real Lascelles) and asks him what she should do, what she can do. He tells her that Anthony Eden made a similar plea to her father the year before and her father refused. She’s relieved; she thinks this means the answer has been laid out for her. But, Lascelles warns her, that was a different situation and a different monarch. The decision is up to her. It’s actually very good advice and Lascelles is wildly unappreciated.
In the midst of all of this we have Venetia Scott, a 20-something blonde woman working at Downing Street who idolizes Churchill. She would rather spend her evenings reading his writing than going to bars with her roommate to socialize with “unremarkable” young men. When she has to take her roommate to the hospital in the middle of the Smog, she ends up leaving her there to go charging back to the Prime Minister after a doctor calls her “delusional” for saying she’ll put in a good word for the hospital to receive more aid. And then she’s run over by a bus.
Her death jars Churchill into action and he goes to the hospital, views her body and turns it into a photo-op where he steps in as PM to provided financing and a formal inquiry into air quality. The next day the fog lifts and when Elizabeth summons Churchill to follow through on the plan (presumably?), there’s nothing left to say – they talk about seating arrangements instead and Churchill, wise to the plot, plays along, laughing about it later to his wife.
And then Elizabeth is back with Mary asking how it can be that her entire job is to do nothing – that’s not a job, after all. No, Mary says, that’s the hardest job of all, for it means being barely human and the more Elizabeth can embody a sovereign and not a woman, the better she will be at it.
Then you see Elizabeth walking down a hallway, the camera close to her face. She’s wearing pearls and a cardigan and she looks like a housewife. She doesn’t look like the queen of the United Kingdom in that moment, but she also doesn’t feel like it either. The question is posed, both by this series and by each episode, who is Elizabeth? The answer, of course, is that she has no idea, she never had a moment to figure it out. She was a daughter and then a wife and then a mother. She became queen at age 25 before her father had fully had a chance to teach her. She feels unprepared because she is unprepared. And what kind of preparation could truly make you feel ready for that role at that age when we live in an otherwise meritocratic society?
The only other thing I will note is that I’ve no idea what to make of the role of Venetia Scott. Is it supposed to shed light on Churchill – that he was genuinely chuffed and bemused that a girl that young and pretty could find him so fascinating? Is that really remarkable? Perhaps she is just meant to represent his pure opposite at this stage of his career – all energy, all optimism, all scrappy ambition. I’m not sure, but given she dies by the fourth episode and I can’t land on a firm answer I’m not sure that storyline fully panned out the way it was meant to.