The next two episodes of The Crown turned out to be completely different creatures, with episode 4 sinking into dull melodrama before episode 5 arrived to make everything so much better. In fact, they showcased the weaknesses and strengths of this drama quite neatly in just two hours.
Episode 4, “Act of God” went into full metaphor mode, using the famed Great Smog of London in 1952 to bluntly illustrate struggles under dark times. It focused mostly on Winston Churchill, and his battle for power and clashes with Elizabeth, which felt like a slight cheat – after all, we’re here for royal drama, political drama isn’t quite as fun.
There was also a very odd subplot, where a young girl at Churchill’s office became something of a fangirl, and consequently became a victim of the opaque conditions outside. She was a flimsy character from the off, clearly written as a plot device and shoved messily into the narrative of the last few episodes only to elicit emotions from the prime minister himself. Her demise was about as surprising as the Queen’s choice of coronation headgear, and took us away from those plotting royal relations.
Despite the plodding and heavy-handed nature of this episode, we did get one wonderful quote that I felt summed up the modern Queen very neatly. Speaking to her grandmother, Elizabeth lamented her powerlessness in helping the public, to which Mary of Teck replied –
‘To do nothing is the hardest job of all and it will take every ounce of energy you have. To be impartial is not natural, not human. People will always want you to smile, or agree, or frown, and the minute you do, you will have declared a position or point of view – and that’s the one thing as sovereign that you are not entitled to do.’
How many times over the years have we complained about the monarch looking miserable? Yet Queen Mary is right – her role demands defying scrutiny and pressure.
This was also the episode where I twigged that the theme tune was composed by Hans Zimmer (Pirates of the Caribbean, Inception) and as a self-professed film score expert, I should’ve been able to spot this much earlier. Anyway, it’s wonderfully distinctive once you notice, giving a regal update to his usual dramatic melodies.
With the fog mercifully lifted, The Crown found its footing again with the lighter episode 5. Elizabeth’s coronation and the return of the Duke of Windsor formed the drama, with Elizabeth and Philip’s marital tussling again coming to the forefront as he sets out yet more terms. Their arguments may have been fictional but whatever the truth, Matt Smith and Claire Foy continue to have fantastic, believable chemistry as the pair. We even get an appearance by the lovely Jared Harris as King George again in an adorable flashback.
However, as seems to be the pattern with The Crown, Elizabeth remains something of an elusive figure surrounded with much more exuberant characters. This episode allows Alex Jennings to fully fly with his portrayal of the Duke of Windsor, who has returned to the UK without his American spouse in a torrent of bitterness.
It also gives us an amazing look into their lives as the exiled king when he returns, as Edward and Wallis desperately do the sort of things that we’d recognise as the repertoire of modern celebrities, from interviews and photo-shoots to cheesy product endorsements. In a modern world where celebrity dominates and influences more than ever before, it’s easy to see that they were ahead of their time. It’s not hard to imagine the former monach and his wife among today’s gossip press, dishing out exclusives for great wads of cash.
Nevertheless, in a surprisingly heartbreaking moment, the episode diverts from the gaudy displays of faux wealth and beautifully dives headfirst into Edward’s inner conflict as he copes with watching the coronation of a new monarch on a tiny screen across the sea. It’s easily one of the best moments of the drama so far, combining Jenning’s fantastic performance with a delicately shot scene.
It was the best of times and it was the worst of times as The Crown hit the mid-season episodes. Without any more foggy moments and an emphasis on the right people, here’s hoping it doesn’t trip up again.