Before the premier of The Crown’s second season, I addressed some of the controversy caused by its first, primarily criticism that the show didn’t focus enough on Queen Elizabeth, but rather went off on tangents on the men in her life. And while it’s true that Season One spent a lot of time covering Prince Philip, George VI, Winston Churchill and Edward VIII, I also argued that the split in screen time was mostly logical and Elizabeth was still well-covered.
I stand by that when it comes to the first season, but I’m feeling a little less charitable about Season Two.
Having gone through all 10 episodes – and a few of them more than once for the purposes of recapping the show here – I’m hard-pressed to point to anything Elizabeth actually did. The most agency she showed was, what, asking Philip what it would take to shut him up in the first and third episode? We see her discover her husband’s infidelity in the first episode. We see her confront him about it in the tenth (or seven years later, if you’re keeping track). We know that she decided she wanted more children and gets them, but we only know her supposed reasoning thanks to Philip telling someone else offhand. There’s quite a bit going on with Charles and Anne, but we don’t know any of it from Elizabeth – and certainly not from her interactions with them.
The Profumo Affair was a watershed moment for Britain, but the only time Elizabeth appears to invest in it is when her husband might be wrapped up in the scandal. Her feelings are hurt by Jackie Kennedy and in a rare moment of humanity she lets it push her to show true courage in a trip to Ghana, but linking the two is borderline contrived nonsense.
The problem, to me, is less that the show is more interested by its male characters, but the fact that the show is afraid to touch the Queen. Consider the opening sequence of Philip working out in the finale, or the scene in which Margaret drunkenly trashes her bedroom – the writers are incapable of taking such liberties with Elizabeth because she is, well, the Queen. Opening Elizabeth up means dabbling in honest to God fiction because there is so much we don’t know for sure, but while the show has the gumption to do it with every other member of the Royal Family, they (somewhat ironically) quake before the actual crown.
Season One did some admirable leg work in establishing Elizabeth’s insecurities as she wrestled with her new position. In my opinion, Season Two added nothing to her character’s narrative. And I liked the second season! What it did, it did well. But what it didn’t do was grow its central character.
The second half of that issue is what they felt comfortable showing, which was delving into the pathos of Philip. Much more so than last season this felt like it became his show at the expense of Elizabeth. But what was shown was also unfair to the real Prince Philip, because it’s a one-sided depiction. For all that the series is sympathetic to some of his supposed weaknesses by way of flashbacks to his childhood, it also shows a man that spends the majority of his time drinking, going to his lunch club and complaining. In reality, Prince Philip spent much of these years building and working with the charitable foundations which he still patronizes today. This is but nodded at this season thanks to a reference to the World Wildlife Fund, and even then there’s the question mark of whether he’s lying.
Margaret and Philip are fascinating figures – arguably both are more compelling for writers thanks to the number of times their personalities shine through their role. Such is not the case with Elizabeth, but that central point, which the series did such a good job of explaining in the first season, was simply taken for granted this round. Beyond a woman frustrated by men, we’ve no real idea of who The Crown’s Elizabeth was between 1956 and 1964, so here’s to hoping they get a bit more comfortable with their subject matter in Season Three.