The Crown S1: Smoke and Mirrors

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We open, once again, in a 1930s flashback, only this time it’s May 1937 and George VI is about to be crowned king against his will thanks to David’s (aka Edward VIII) abdication. He summons 11-year-old Elizabeth to his apartments because he wants her to read the lines of the Archbishop of Canterbury as he practices his lines. She can’t pronounce “inviolable” and he translates: “It means to make a promise you can never break – a very serious promise indeed.”

Then there’s him trying on the crown itself, which he says is heavy – about five lbs to be exact, not to mention the symbolic weight. As far as scenes go, it’s a bit heavy-handed, but there’s a broader point the writers are driving at and they are apparently not going to let the denser of their audience miss it.

Then we are back to the adult Elizabeth trying on the crown for the first time. It’s March 1953, three months since the last episode. Charles and Anne are watching her, but silently – again, I can’t help but notice the lack of maternal attention the show seems to keep highlighting, subtly but regularly. She’s not pulling her heir, Charles, forward and using this as a teaching moment. She asks an aid if she can “borrow” the crown to keep practicing. The answer might be my favorite from the whole series: “Borrow it, Ma’am? From whom? If it’s not yours, whose is it?”

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But at the moment Elizabeth has more pressing concerns. She can’t find her husband because Philip is always off flying. When he returns he underlines that he intends to complete his training faster than anyone ever has in England, which in theory should work considering he has literally nothing else to do. Well, not quite – Elizabeth asks him to chair her coronation committee. “There’s no need to matronize me,” he answers – and I take back what I said earlier because this might be my new favorite line. Or perhaps it’s Philip asking what he’s supposed to be doing with his time – “Sit around and wait for you while you’re queening?”

No one else is really on board with Philip becoming the chair, including Philip himself. The Duke of Norfolk has historically held the position and Elizabeth has to put down Tommy Lascelles and the Queen Mother in order to force him down everyone’s throats. As for Philip, well, he’s only interested in the position if he can make it a modern ceremony and one key aspect of it is televising it. Yes, the current queen’s coronation was the visit to be televised in history, while Princess Margaret’s later wedding would be the first to be televised a few years later. It was a landmark decision, but one very much weighted in the debate between affording the ceremony the religious solemnity and respect it warranted with transparency and including the British people in their own history.

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Winston Churchill raises the issue during one of their one-on-ones, posing this all as a great reckoning of what role the monarchy will have in the modern world. “What say you?” she asks. “No, ma’am,” he says with force, “What say you?” Indeed, it’s time to deferring to everyone else’s authority, Elizabeth, because you are the monarchy, but of course this is the story of how one 20-something became the image synonymous with royalty the world over.

It reaches a crescendo right in the middle of an empty Westminster Abbey in the days leading up to the coronation when Philip and Elizabeth hash it out in the nave. She will let him have his way, but he has to kneel before her during the coronation, an act he has been pushing back on and she has caught wind of courtesy of Churchill. He argues that in having the consort kneel to the monarch is archaic – that theirs is a marriage of equals and as such he should stand beside her as her husband. He asks her, which is she? His wife or his queen? Both, she answers. But he only wants to be married to his wife. He asks her to make an exception and she refuses. The conversation ends with Philip leaving her in the Abbey.

The line she uses doesn’t ring true to me – that a “strong man” would be able to kneel without exhibiting this level of insecurity, but that sounds so terribly 21st century. I don’t think the real Elizabeth would have said it, and frankly, I don’t think it’s fair to the fictional Philip. There’s a larger conversation about the role of men versus Elizabeth that this show prompted that bears discussion, but I’d like to save that for once we’ve made our way through all of these episodes. Suffice to say, I am not – and have never been – wholly convinced that Philip is the villain of this series.

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And our B plot is David, because of course it is – the king who was never crowned. In France with Wallis, they’ve agreed to pose for photographs and participate in an interview for a magazine at their home. He offers sartorial advice and her hostessing; they both give a tour of the house they’re leasing just outside of Paris. He shows the reporter a small attic room where he keeps photographs and mementos from his time in England, including images of him when he was king. When she asks why he isn’t wearing a crown, he answers – slowly, because he clearly finds her dull-witted – that he never “made it that far;” he never had a coronation.

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He is summoned back to England because Queen Mary is dying. He is shown sitting next to his mother on her bed, lighting a cigarette for her. They don’t speak, but it’s still incredibly sad. After all, Mary has made it clear she doesn’t think much of him, yet it’s him there with her in the end. Whatever she thinks of him, she does still love him as evidenced by her, “Don’t leave.” I’m not going anywhere, Mummy,” he responds.

His words there are in sharp contrast to the nasty letter he writes back to France, telling Wallis that he hopes that she dies so that he doesn’t have to return to England twice and his seething rage that she wasn’t invited. Once again, you are left to wonder which is more honest. Well, we finally get our answer at the end of this episode.

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In the meantime, Tommy Lascelles (at the behest of the increasingly petty Queen Mother) and the Archbishop of Canterbury summon David to urge him not to attend the coronation. They don’t want him there and when he insists that he will attend as the queen’s uncle, they inform him they don’t intend to invite his wife, thus making it impossible. Tommy and David both call the others embarrassments and it’s one of the uglier scenes in the entire show. It ends with news that Queen Mary finally died.

Now June, it’s coronation day. David and Wallis are hosting a viewing party for their friends, but we can tell David’s heart isn’t quite in it as he dresses for the event beforehand. It’s painful, of course, to watch everything you gave up – and that “everything” is quite a bit more than family, power and wealth as we find out. The scenes cut between David narrating for a group of Americans and Elizabeth actually being crowned. The juxtaposition works well and it almost makes up for the otherwise unsubtle language in earlier scenes, because without that build up, yes, it’s possible that what’s happening wouldn’t pack as much punch for the uninitiated.

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The screen goes dark and one guest asks what happened. David explains she’s actually being anointed, the most holy moment of the entire ceremony. He explains the transformation from human to crowned monarch and the idea behind it. “It’s crazy,” the American guest says. “On the contrary,” David responds, “It’s perfectly sane. Who wants transparency when you can have magic? Who wants prose when you can have poetry?” He says that a woman of “modest ability” has just been made a goddess – who can argue with that? So, the question is then asked, why would you give up being a god? He says that he gave it up for something greater still, but doesn’t say what. “Love?” asks Wallis. He doesn’t answer.

In the Abbey and you watch Elizabeth as she’s anointed become stone. She looks absolutely terrifying and, at moments, terrified. You also see Philip’s face as he goes through a range of emotion – what the actual cadence is, I couldn’t tell you, but my read of it is that he accepts something bigger than himself happened. He kneels before her, like she asked, but he also kisses her cheek, a thing no one else in that Abbey will be doing when they homage. She remains stone, for in that moment she is not human.

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The last scene is David in France after the guests are gone. He’s outside playing his bagpipes, which Wallis told the reporter earlier he only does when he’s homesick. He’s playing and he’s crying, looking out over the chateau’s “backyard.” So, what did he give everything up for? Love, maybe. Acceptance, more realistically. Does he regret it? Yes, probably, but not because he wouldn’t do it again. His regret is that he was forced to choose at all – that everything that he knew and everything that he loved rejected him and his choices. He will never see it the way the Queen Mother and the others see it, for to him the greater crime isn’t that he walked out the door, but that the door was closed behind him.

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