The Crown S1: The Assassins

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The main plot of The Crown’s ninth episode centers around Winston Churchill in the months leading up to his 80th birthday and eventual resignation from the post of Prime Minister. It’s one of the episodes that has helped garner criticism of the series for focusing more on the men in Queen Elizabeth’s life as opposed to her, but I have to say when I look back on these episodes it is both this episode and the one preceding it, Pride and Joy, which come to mind. I want to save the question of whether the male characters overshadow Elizabeth for another time, but I will say now that when you are faced with the inclusion of Churchill as a character, how could you make him a bit player when he was in fact so incredibly significant to the early years of the Queen’s reign?

As acknowledged in the end notes, this episode is based in reality (read the details and see the real portrait here). There was a portrait commissioned of Churchill for his 80th birthday, however he began sitting for Graham Sutherland in August 1954 and when this show begins everyone is bundled up in coats and Philip and Elizabeth are in London not Balmoral. Thus, I’m not sure what time is meant to be portrayed here, but let’s assume it’s roughly autumn 1954 since Churchill’s birthday was on November 30.

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The sittings between Churchill and Sutherland are illuminating, mainly because they illustrate how Churchill sees his role and the importance of presentation. We’ve seen this throughout the series, from his stately and perfectly-timed entrance into Westminster Abbey back in 1947 to how he played the press to his benefit after the fog debacle in 1952. “I never let accuracy get in the way of truth,” Churchill tells the painter, by which he means that the “truth” of his position as Prime Minister and his own personality in the annals of history may not reflect him accurately, but it is founded in something that exists. Put another way, he means for his picture to be of the Prime Minister, not an 80-year-old man.

The most poignant moment comes from their last sitting when Sutherland asks him why he continues to paint a pond on his estate. Churchill claims that it’s a technical feat – the water, the light, the fish beneath the surface. But Sutherland is able to question him around to the truth, which is that the pond was put in shortly after the death of Churchill’s youngest daughter. He is painting the pond over and over again not because he, an amateur painter, wants to hone his skills, but because his psyche is drawn to a reminder of a very human moment of pain. The look on his face when that dawns on him – and his displeasure and surprise that Sutherland worked that out – beams out from the armchair and is captured in the final portrait. A very old man, tired and vulnerable.

The painting is unveiled before members of the House of Lords and Churchill hates it, glowering at Sutherland from the podium. “A fine patriotic piece of modern art,” he growls and when the room erupts in laughter, Sutherland is humiliated. Elizabeth is watching from the television and shakes her head, but frankly it’s unclear to me whether that was over the painting or Churchill’s comments.

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When Sutherland hears Churchill has rejected the portrait, he goes to him and asks why. Churchill calls the image cruel. “Age is cruel,” the artist responds. “If you see decay it’s because there is decay. If you see frailty it’s because there is frailty.”

That evening Churchill tells his wife that he is ready to resign. He means it this time, he tells her, he’s tired.

In his last interview with Elizabeth, you might notice that he is sitting – a notable change of pace from their first when he admonished her for asking him to take a seat. He has bowed to her, for by his own words, he has nothing left to teach her.

In the background, a man named Lord Porchester proposes to his girlfriend. Before she says yes, she asks him to promise he “doesn’t still hold a torch for ‘her.'” The ‘her’ is Elizabeth and Lord Porchester, or Porchy, is a long-time family friend whom many believed the Queen should have married. They share a passion for horses, he is thoroughly English and seemingly more agreeable than Prince Philip.

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Philip, of course, is seen coming home drunk at all hours of the night and the series vaguely points to the question of whether he was also unfaithful. When Margaret points out that her sister and Philip have nothing in common, Elizabeth says, “He has other interests.” “So I hear,” Margaret retorts, taking bitter pleasure in causing the woman who has kept her from Peter Townsend pain.

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When Philip finally takes direct jabs at Elizabeth and Porchy, questioning why he has been allowed a direct phone line to her, the couple ends up having an angry argument in a car outside the stables. As they get ready for a final dinner with Churchill at 10 Downing Street, Elizabeth says:

“I have nothing to hide from you. Nothing. Porchy is a friend. And yes, there are those who would prefer me to have married him. Indeed, marriage to him might have been easier. Might have even worked better than ours. But to everyone’s regret and frustration, the only person I have ever loved is you. And can you honestly look me in the eye and say same? Can you?”

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Apparently he can’t, because he stands there silently. As Elizabeth stands gives a toast to Churchill that evening the episode shows silent flashbacks of her and Philip yelling at one another, while Clementine is pictured having the Sutherland portrait burned. In the end, Philip mouths “I’m sorry” across the table, but forgive me if that seems like too little too late.

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Why are these images juxtaposed together? My read is that both women are in similar position, which is the extent to which reality is taking away their husbands. Clementine might be happy Churchill is resigning, but the man she married is not one who is scared or frail or tired. The portrait wounded him and so Clementine destroys the portrait to keep Churchill, or “Churchill,” going – for his sake.

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Philip, on the other hand, is trapped within an institution that he despises and he’s floundering. The flying lessons, his last name, the move from Clarence House – Elizabeth has tried and failed to let him have the small things that let him feel like his own man. As a result, Philip is miserable and their marriage is curdling. A mouthed apology across a dinner party is some respite, but it certainly hasn’t addressed the crux of the issues.

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