After glowing reviews and a very long year, The Crown has returned to Netflix with season two, and it’s already making quite the statement.
The first season was a masterclass in top quality television, its huge budget put to very good use with gorgeous production design and a fantastic cast. Focused around the young Queen Elizabeth in her years before and just after her coronation, she was surrounded by dilemmas, from a restless husband to a bullish prime minister and a heartbroken sister. It was all stirring drama, with Peter Morgan’s screenplay taking the historical events that we know and imagining all the conversations that we didn’t see behind the scenes.
Clearly aware of how very present its two central inspirations still are, it was cautious too. The rumoured affairs of the Duke of Edinburgh were implied with just the slightest of hints, and they sidestepped the risk of causing controversy by focusing a large chunk of time on verifiable political clashes.
The same cannot be said for season two, beginning in 1956 and jumping straight into the topic of (in reality, speculated) infidelity. It’s definitely up for debate as to whether this new boldness in the face of its subjects is fair – after all, the royal family may find this choice disrespectful – yet no one can deny that it makes for higher stakes and in turn, even more engrossing drama.
We’re first presented with a pre-credits scene, in which Elizabeth and Philip are having an angry discussion following his five-month tour abroad. In just a few minutes, the D-word of Divorce is already thrown out and dismissed, acknowledged as impossible for them. It’s notable that this scene provides a perfect contrast to the pre-credits scene in season one, where Elizabeth and Philip are newly in love and in the midst of a flurry of wedding preparations. Here, the fairytale is definitely over. Now, the work in their marriage begins.
It’s difficult not to have sympathy for the Elizabeth of The Crown. Philip is portrayed as a chronic complainer, who occasionally redeems himself with a charm that is utterly winning but so very unpredictable. You can see that she loves him and will do anything to make it work for them, and you can’t help but empathise with the suppressed pain that his behaviour leaves her with. Marriage is hard work, but it’s super hard work when you’re married to someone like Philip. All Elizabeth can do is bargain, stating –
‘What will make it easier for you to be in, not out?’
As is consistent with her husband, that comment is met with the standard defensive scorn.
Following this terse conversation, the show pulls us back to five months earlier, directly after the events of the season one finale. It’s a much happier picture of their marriage at first, until Elizabeth finds a miniature portrait of Galina Ulanova, a famed Russian ballerina, in his briefcase. She doesn’t confront him but pushes down all her turmoil and distress until he leaves for his tour. Claire Foy is as fantastic as ever, silently burning with rage without ever giving her true emotions away. The direction by Philip Martin is effective here too – from the moment that Elizabeth discovers the picture, the camera rocks and shifts, becoming agitated in a series that tends to rely on strong, static shots.
For those interested in historical context, the real life rumours about Philip’s fidelity didn’t generally extend to Ulanova. She visited the UK just once in 1956 and the Queen did indeed go to see her perform. Nevertheless, there wasn’t really speculation about her and the Queen’s husband, although the press did make claims that the royal marriage was in trouble following Philip’s tour. In fact, the big tabloid headlines that did get everyone talking were eight years earlier, when Philip took actress Pat Kirkwood out to dinner among the public, causing a stir in the media. The Crown‘s choice of potential lover here might be another side effect of their cautious approach in season one – or perhaps, they didn’t want to rock the fictional portrayal of Elizabeth’s marriage too soon for viewers.
Either way, we’re now left wondering how much further the show will push their active acknowledgement of old rumours, and how far they’re willing to take a risk for the drama. Meanwhile, we also meet Margaret again, still heartbroken and now sleeping off numerous hangovers. Greg Wise as Philip’s uncle gets a surprising appearance here, in an affecting scene that acknowledges the publicly known facts around the Earl of Mountbatten’s own marriage.
There’s also some political stuff in there too, if you’re actually watching The Crown for that. Ok, just (half) kidding! You can’t have the story of the royal family without the politicians that run the country, of course, and it does provide some solid historical context. Here, we’re instantly plunged into the Suez Crisis, as a hopeless Anthony Eden works to improve his own political reputation, as well as settle some petty grudges at the same time.
The Crown‘s season two is off to a rollicking start, bringing in the big guns when we would have still pleasantly enjoyed lower stakes. I’m not complaining – it’s going to be that much more fascinating for that courage, not least in continuing to provoke debate in their decisions when dramatising of the lives of the royals. Now, time to start episode two.