And so we are back. It’s February 1957 and Elizabeth and Philip are locked in some guest accommodations in Lisbon, free from the Palace and their children, to have their Come to Jesus moment. Divorce isn’t on the table, but Philip likens their life to a prison and Elizabeth is exhausted by his whining.
After the credits we’re back in the autumn of 1956 and things are a little rosier. A year has ostensibly passed since the finale of the first season and Philip has made his peace with his five-month international tour – a tour that, as he tells Elizabeth, will begin in Gibraltar and end in Lisbon. Oh, Lisbon. Things are going swimmingly between the two – even as they have to attend a diplomatic reception – but come to a screeching halt when Elizabeth looks to pack a love note and a gift in his briefcase and comes across a miniature of a ballerina.
The implication is clear – to us and to Elizabeth – Philip is apparently having an affair with the Russian ballerina Galina Ulanova, then performing in the West End. With 24 hours left until her husband leaves, she goes full on ice queen, walking out of their last meal together and leaving him the world’s most awkward goodbye which pretty much amounts to her stuttering and then saying, “Keep well.” When Philip eventually does find her note it’s not the longer screed we saw her penning earlier, but a simple, “Always remember you have a family.”
Two family luncheons – with Dickie Mountbatten and Margaret – bring forth that Philip and Elizabeth haven’t been speaking since he left. We’ll cover off on Margaret in a moment, but the conversation with Dickie is slightly horrifying. He recounts the humiliation he felt when his wife, Lady Edwina, was conducting highly public affairs during their time in India and that he had considered leaving her, but life without her would have been dull. By then the audience has been gifted a scene that captures their chilliness and dysfunction better than an Oscar Wilde play ever could and we know they have an open marriage.
Frankly, I thought it was all worth it for Elizabeth telling him, “The older and grander you get, the more common you become.”
It doesn’t matter, for Elizabeth is off to showcase a stunning display of masochism by watching Ulanova perform. Her skill, beauty and grace no doubt call into question every insecurity Elizabeth has ever had. The evening ends with Elizabeth trying to read in bed, the knowledge that her husband’s empty bedroom is just across the way taunting her. She responds by closing the door.
In the middle of all of this, the Suez Crisis begins. President Nasser and the Egyptians take control of the Canal, prompting a furious response from the British, with the support of the French and the Israelis. New(ish) Prime Minister Anthony Eden is firm that the only proper response is force, but there are others who argue, Dickie Mountbatten included, he may be more focused on personal vendettas and trying to step outside of Winston Churchill’s shadow. He informs Elizabeth of his plan for a decisive military attack, but when she asks whether he has colluded with Israel and/or informed Parliament and the United Nations about underground brokering, his response is, how do you say, insufficient. He asks for her support and she answers, “The Prime Minister always has the support of the sovereign.”
Not quite the same thing.
Earlier in the episode, Eden learns of the Egyptian attack while delivering a speech at his alma mater, Eton College. Standing in front of them, he argues that filling a government with Eton graduates – the best of the best – is a good thing, never mind criticisms that the post-war world should perhaps be one of greater equality and diversity. I do love that this speech is being delivered in 1956 – just wait, dolls, you’re in for a wild ride. And as for the speech itself, yes it’s some nice heavy-handed irony as another pillar of the British Empire comes crashing down.
So, Britain is in crisis and Elizabeth’s marriage is crumbling – what is Margaret doing? Staying out until 4 am and showing up to luncheon still a bit drunk, of course. When Elizabeth tries to call her on it – and her drinking – Margaret raises the very subject her sister would like to avoid. She is drinking because she is unhappy and she is unhappy because she is unmarried and she is unmarried because she was forced to give up Peter. When she learns in this conversation that Elizabeth and Philip are strained she is downright delighted. Margaret is out for blood.
And in the background, we meet Mike Parker and his wife, Eileen. Mike is serving as Philip’s private secretary, but unlike Tommy Lascelles last season, his work has a bit of a different spin and it’s clear that he’s a neglectful husband and father, as well as a bad influence on his royal boss. And by “bad influence” I of course mean adultery.
There’s a lot to delve into here, but for the purposes of this post, let’s instead pause on what has likely sent thousands googling – Philip and the ballerina. I find it fascinating that the series chose to name a specific woman instead of a fictional amalgam of everyone rumored once upon a time. It’s unlikely that Philip and this particular figure ever had an affair and it feels slightly unfair to tarnish the woman’s reputation by making her Becky with the Good Ballet Slippers so blithely. That said, it’s the first episode – let’s see where they go with this story line.
All in all, it’s good to be back and if the name of the third episode, “Lisbon,” is as on the nose as it sounds, we’re in for some excitement.