We begin with a flashback – are you sensing a pattern? It’s 1940 and World War II is in full-swing. The 14-year-old Princess Elizabeth is visiting Eton College for her regular lessons with the Vice Provost in which he teaches her about the constitution. Really, he’s teaching her the monarch’s purview, but as we later see, her “lane” is never contextualized or grounded in a holistic, comprehensive education that prepares her for the nuance or expertise of the issues and politics by which she will be surrounded as queen.
There is some debate over the education of the real Elizabeth II, and question as to how learned she is. The answer, perhaps uncomfortably, is that there is little evidence that she is particularly intellectually inclined, a fact which isn’t out of place with how upper-class British girls (and men, to a lesser extent) were educated until fairly recently. The Royal Family in particular has always had a rather uneasy relationship with education and not all monarchs – or their relations – have been what we might call “bright.” This varies by generation and time period, but certainly as of when Elizabeth was growing up, intellectual curiosity was not something encouraged or expected.
That is not, however, to say that Elizabeth herself is “dumb.” She isn’t – she couldn’t do her job if she was. But intelligence is different from educated and while her education was better than the show implies, it still fell short of what many people might assume she received as a girl everyone knew would one day “ensure proper governance,” as the show puts it, for the United Kingdom.
Back in August 1953, the fictional Elizabeth becomes frustrated and goes to her mother with her concerns. “I know almost nothing,” she complains. The Queen Mother responds airily (and icily), “You know when to keep your mouth shut.”
But this comes to a head when the Soviet Union detonates their first hydrogen bomb and Winston Churchill is adamant that the British should lead these talks – not the Americans. As such he has deployed Anthony Eden to Washington, D.C. to meet with President Eisenhower. Elizabeth, however, can’t keep up with the conversation. She can’t intuit why it’s so bad for Eisenhower, instead of Churchill, to be seen as leading bilateral conversations. The sensitivities of the issues – and the egos – are lost on her.
She engages a tutor to fill in the blanks, but their first conversation is painful. He wants to get a sense of where her education ended, but the truth of the matter is she has no real certificate. She read some literature, she speaks French and she knows the constitution. Angry, she returns to her mother, who is not having it. “We taught you how to be a lady, a princess,” the Queen Mother retorts. And, she reminds her daughter, no one wants a bluestocking for a queen. It’s more than Margaret ever received. Besides, she says with some menace, no one advised that we should give you more, including Eton’s Vice Provost – the clear implication being that no one thought much of Elizabeth’s aptitude. She urges her daughter to accept her “limitations.”
Tellingly, she is upset Elizabeth would question her decisions as a mother given her own shortcomings. “I hardly see you blazing trails in that department,” she says. And once again we are shown two scenes this episode that depict Elizabeth as an utterly absent parent – her children are in the next room while she reads, blurry figures of whom she is barely aware. Later, she smiles watching them play in the gardens, but they are playing with footmen. Her children are being raised by staff and nothing about this bothers her. This, my friends, is not a show about a woman struggling with work/life balance.
Churchill and Eden both fall seriously ill, the former suffering from strokes and Eden undergoing an gallbladder operation in the U.S. Elizabeth is kept completely in the dark. Instead, she is asked to host a state banquet for Eisenhower at Buckingham Palace because Churchill is hopeful that by the time Eisenhower gets to London he will be feeling better. When Tommy Lascelles brings the issue to Elizabeth she’s downright rude to him, saying it’s inconvenient because she was planning to go to Sandringham. Is she really too dense to understand that this is more urgent? Or is she just insecure about hosting the president?
Presumably the latter because she summons her tutor and asks him to brief her on Eisenhower. She’s told that his primary interest in the military industrial complex and its impact on democracy. Not quite the answer she was looking for. In the end, she’s off the hook because Eisenhower ends up not being able to come, but through it all she eventually finds out what her entire government was hiding from her – for a brief time the leader and deputy leader were incapacitated and she had no idea. Her tutor tells her to take them to task, because all British men secretly love being scolded by Nanny. Sure.
Like the stone “goddess” she became two episodes ago, she summons her ministers and reads them the riot act without once raising her voice. It’s a master class in shame and she humbles Churchill as he stands before her. But while he apologizes, his main takeaway is something else – Elizabeth is finally fulfilling her role. She’s ready and therefore he has “discharged his duty” to her father.
Back in her private apartments and she bumps into Philip who she apparently hasn’t seen in days. He’s dressed in white tie for a state banquet that’s already been cancelled and has no idea. Unlike her relationship with her children, she shows by far more angst over the state of her marriage.
And in the background of all of this is the debate over who should succeed Tommy when he retires. His successor is Michael Adeane, but Elizabeth wants Martin Charteris, her private successor from when she was still a princess. In the end, Tommy gets his way, raising that all deviations from protocol are “rot” and “rot” is what led to the abdication. Elizabeth might be able to face down Churchill, but she apparently still can’t dictate her own staff without significant push back. Frankly, you can’t help but feel a little sorry for Tommy, despite the fact he is so “correct” as to be utterly lacking in imagination. He’s been doing the RF’s dirty work for years, but he is not beloved by the new queen, merely trusted. He knows Martin is a personal preference in reaction to him and it’s hard to watch. Even so, the final score is Tommy: 1 and Elizabeth: 0.