The past returns to haunt the royal family in episode 6 of The Crown, as the Duke of Windsor attempts to return to British society. Starting with a flashback to 1945, where everybody’s favourite Jared Harris makes a small, but affecting appearance, a buried box found in a German forest finds its way to Buckingham palace. The contents? Revelations that the abdicated ex-king had attempted to bargain with the Nazis during World War II for his own reinstatement to the throne.
King George rightly states that the ‘British public will never forgive us’ if they found out. They did, but gradually, with revelations still appearing in books released in 2015. This episode toys with the idea that Elizabeth found out much, much earlier, when the effects of the war were still somewhat raw. She doesn’t have to worry about the complete story reaching the papers, but she does have to make a personal decision about whether to forgive her uncle and let him back into the fold.
The Crown, for all its stately glory, can’t resist a little bit of comedy. I never expected to see a birthday party for a pug called Trooper in this series but that’s what we got in our brief snapshot of the fabulous lives of the Windsors. Champagne appears to be their drink of choice wherever they are off gallivanting and they dress in ridiculous outfits for celebrity photoshoots. Nevertheless, to the Duke this still appears to be a meagre existence, and he decides to go back to England to get a role ‘working’ for his old country (aka – the most glamorous role he can get without too much labour required).
Alex Jennings is such a joy as the Duke. Bitterness personified, his letters sent back to Wallis read as cutting remarks that many would dream of inventing. However, he’s also a pitiable character, living in a constant state of victimhood that stops him from truly being happy. That pity is tested by the grim revelations known by his ex-private secretary Tommy Lascelles. The real-life photos of him in Germany during the war, introduced at the end of the episode, are almost startling in how incriminating they are. It’s no wonder that these were covered up so effectively for so long, although it does trouble me that in The Crown’s portrayal, literally everyone important in the royal household knew about this before the Queen did.
It’s also a very damning portrayal of the Duchess, Wallis Simpson, who may have been passing on state secrets through an affair with the German ambassador. She’s a maligned figure in British history for a number of reasons, but this feels like the biggest offence. Madonna even tried to redeem her in the snore-a-thon W.E. (2011) but of all the historical figures in need of redemption, Wallis Simpson is not one of them. At least The Crown recognises that.
The episode links the Duke’s story with Elizabeth’s new fascination with American evangelical preacher, Billy Graham (Paul Sparks). Their connection is unexpected but affecting, with Sparks bringing a genuine, understated portrayal in one that could have been so overwrought. In the end, he hands Elizabeth the golden loophole for Christian forgiveness – she decides to ask for her own since she is unable to redeem the Duke.
The fury with which Elizabeth greets the Duke is glorious, held back in clipped, damning statements. Her final remarks are so cutting that they threaten the Windsors’ dominion over sharp remarks, biting:
‘There is no possibility of my forgiving you – the question is, how on earth can you forgive yourself?’
It’s an exceptional line, delivered perfectly by Claire Foy, and forces the Duke to truly face his actions. Well, face it without making any penance, but he certainly won’t be trying to break out of his life in exile now.
After an episode that deals with Nazis, family betrayals and Christian forgiveness, writer Peter Morgan throws us a bone again with a little levity. Like Trooper’s birthday party, the idea that Prince Philip, the Queen Mother and Tommy Lascelles got drunk together to celebrate Elizabeth’s decision is definitely a bit of joyful fan-fiction, rather than drama. Nevertheless, it was just what we needed after all that intensity.