The Crown took us to the very distant past in episode eight, recounting the events of an American president and his first lady visiting Buckingham Palace without complete embarrassment. Of course, these days, the American president is too terrified to visit the UK because a bunch of angry British people will briefly leave behind their repressed nature and show intense displeasure in the form of shouting and no biscuits over tea. Anyway, I digress – back to semi-fictional drama!
The guests in this episode is John F. Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy, played respectively by Michael C. Hall and Lia Williams. The emphasis is on Jackie, but it’s still a jarring portrayal by Hall. Many people have taken on the role of the young president before but Hall doesn’t even seem to try and resemble such an iconic figure, completely flubbing the accent for good measure. At this point, you can just chalk it up to his very brief appearance – perhaps just a few days on set didn’t warrant much careful study in the actor’s eyes. It’s distracting – still, Lia Williams does a little better with what she has, showing a real vulnerability in the first lady.
This episode was more languid than the ones before it, focusing on a smaller detail that was rumoured to have occurred during the president’s visit. Elizabeth is instantly put out by the way in which Jackie has made such an impact abroad, and by the overly-keen attention shown to Jackie by her subjects and by her husband. She searches for a dress that will match the first lady’s on-trend style, and whisks her off around the palace on a tour in the hope of sussing her out. When they do get a chance to let their guards down, it seems as if they might have more in common than previously thought.
There’s a major issue with this story – the idea of pitting woman against each other through jealousy and mean barbs is a tired trope, and one that only perpetuates harmful stereotypes. We don’t actually know for sure whether there was friction between the two woman, so making it the centre of an episode is a risky choice. Certainly when Jackie follows her visit by loudly insulting the Queen behind her back at a party, it becomes incredibly uncomfortable to watch the wedge be driven between them again. That it spurs Elizabeth on to an unconventional act of political intervention is a disappointing (and speculative) incentive for her to have.
That said, the drama does redeem itself slightly by recognising how the men in their lives have used the stereotypes about women to suit their own ends. Jackie Kennedy in The Crown is treated so generously by the English court because of her looks, while her catty comments delight her husband who sees it as a political advantage that only a woman could have thought of. When she accidentally takes up too much attention however, he becomes jealous and abusive.
Likewise, Elizabeth is expected to act as a figurehead and nothing more, even when prime ministers come hopelessly into her office to complain about the latest diplomatic crisis. It must be frustrating. The women’s connection is such that in the environment that they both wield their power, their power is only dictated by the men around them. This is something that The Crown ensures that we recognise, but it doesn’t emphasise the point strongly enough.
Perhaps part of the issue that also makes this episode feel so languid is its wide steps around what we know for sure. Other episodes could rely on accounts that have been out in the media for years, but short of a photo at their one dinner, the interactions between the Queen and the Kennedys is still rather mysterious. The costuming is spot on, but everything from the feud to the Queen’s Guard that trots ostentatiously past Jackie’s little car at Windsor has a real mark of fiction. Fiction is undoubtedly what The Crown largely is, of course, and not a documentary, but the basis is still on real people. When an entire episode is centred around a single large speculation, it doesn’t quite feel right or fair. In short, episode eight definitely felt like one miss in a series of hit episodes.