This episode was easily the series’ most heartbreaking – and also quite possibly its best. Elizabeth was all but a nonentity in it, save one rather tense scene, but Charles springs forth for the first time as a central character, albeit not one who reflects on his parents well. As we have done for the last few recaps, we’ll capture the gist of what happened and then delve into how much of this is accurate. Spoiler alert: this episode and the next one have garnered some of the series’ most significant criticism for its depictions of moments involving Philip.
The episode doesn’t make it clear exactly when all of its events are meant to be taking place, but as we discussed in the last post, the goings on are likely meant to be considered in the background of the Kennedy drama. In reality, Prince Charles started at Gordonstoun in the spring of 1962, so let’s assume we’re right around there.
It’s time for Charles to begin secondary school and the assumption for many in the Royal Family is that his parents will send him to Eton College. Historical, impressive and close to Windsor Castle, indeed, it would have made a lot of sense. It’s the first choice of Elizabeth, who takes the time to show Charles from a window at Windsor how nearby he will be – and how often he can come home to see his family. She is personally relieved by the choice after learning that Charles’s time in primary school wasn’t a huge success and he’s been bullied by other children. Perhaps the most illuminating moment in all of that, however, is that Elizabeth is learning all of that for the first time after he’s primed to leave the school.
Eton also makes sense to Louis Mountbatten, who himself played an active role in the education and care of Philip in his own youth. Relishing his role of the “fun uncle” he takes Charles to his favorite tailor to get him all the uniforms he’ll need at Eton, which run the gamut of actual uniforms to ensembles that personify the word “dandy.”
The only person not on board with this plan is Philip, who is outraged when he learns because he views Charles’s education as his domain. He means to enroll him at Gordonstoun, a boarding school situated in Scotland to which he himself went. The scene in which Elizabeth and Philip argue over where to send Charles is dark – Elizabeth isn’t on board with Gordonstoun, but Philip essentially threatens her with divorce.
Now, it’s generally said that Elizabeth left Philip as much purview as possible when it came to raising their children so that he still acted as the head of the family despite her position as monarch. I have never heard anything about Philip threatening divorce and unless I hear otherwise, this doesn’t ring true to me. Philip, too, has a sense of duty and the likelihood of him carrying that through are slim to none – and the likelihood of him making empty threats would be wildly out of character. So, I didn’t much care for this scene, though I guess it’s meant to set him up as the villain that we’re about to humanize.
He takes Charles to Gordonstoun by plane, flying him there just as he was once flown from Germany. Via flashbacks we are shown a young man who is fresh from a German estate, has no surname and little desire to leave home. Present-day, he is warmly welcomed back to the school like a returning hero. Even more, Philip’s push for Charles to be treated like any other pupil has a harsh undertone when the headmaster responds that they fully understand their remit.
The rest of the episode essentially shows two young boys put in the same situation, except only one flourishes. Philip, in the 1930s, is completely alone. When he is picked on it makes him stronger. He fights back. He tests his own endurance. When his sister is tragically killed in an airplane crash and his father blames him for it (we’ll return to that shortly), he internalizes his anguish and throws himself into manual labor until he is forced to rely on the school – and his fellow classmates – for help. Gordonstoun becomes his home and its people his family.
Charles doesn’t flourish and there are a few reasons for that. For one, he has a different temperament than his father. He isn’t a fighter. He’s sensitive and creative and a dreamer. His father wants to toughen him up, but Charles isn’t alone. He has parents and siblings alive and well and the choice to separate him from the very happy family of which Philip was deprived is cruel. He and Philip came from different circumstances and Philip’s strength was built on necessity. Charles doesn’t have the same need.
Philip sets his son up to disappoint him and he does. He is bullied and doesn’t fight back. He loses tests of physical endurance. Philip tries to tell him it’s okay and his effort is all that matters, but Charles’s fear and his seeming inability to exhibit strength is infuriating to Philip because weakness only makes him more aggressive. Charles crying in the airplane is too reminiscent of his sister. He snaps. It’s more than a bad parenting moment – it highlights how damaged Philip is, and how incapable he is of doing anything except damaging his eldest son.
So, what is real? Well, broadly the story is true. Philip was the one who insisted that Charles be sent to Gordonstoun and the latter floundered there. He was bullied and he hated it for the entirety of his five years there. Some of that bullying, however, came from the fact that he was the future king and not necessarily anything he did or didn’t do. Those five years probably tell us more about Charles than just about anything else – from how he approaches his work, to his marriages, to his own role as the Prince of Wales. I’m planning on covering what really went down in a separate post because it’s worth consideration, but for today we’ll move on.
The other aspect of this episode that misses the mark on accuracy is the presentation of Philip at his sister’s funeral. Yes, the slow walk down the roads of Nazi Germany is true – and didn’t it remind you of a certain walk 60+ years later? But the moment of Prince Andrew, Philip’s father, standing up and shouting at his son that his sister’s death was his fault is wide of the mark. That didn’t happen. And Philip’s sister wasn’t flying to Britain that day because of anything Philip did. It’s a dramatic creation and one that’s in rather poor taste, to be honest. You have Nazi Germany, a gory plane crash and the convergence of Europe’s royal families – surely there’s enough there to work with without making up interludes that didn’t happen to people still living?
But in weighing the episode itself, it’s beautifully done. It may be the single best episode of the entire series – or at least in the top five. What it didn’t have was Elizabeth, but we’ll return to that later.