The Crown waited until its penultimate episode for the series gut-punch, as ‘Paterfamilias’ explored the relationship between Philip and his son, and the traumatic childhood that he left behind. I do occasionally complain that this series focuses too much on Philip, who is portrayed in The Crown as pretty unbearable at times. Episode nine justified that focus though, with heart-wrenching scenes and phenomenal acting. That’s part of the reason for this slight delay in episode reviews – after all, an hour like this needed a little space.
When we begin, young Charles is a sensitive child who has lived a sheltered existence in the palace. Moving up to senior school is a scary prospect but his great-uncle Dicky (Louis Mountbatten) dotes on him, getting him ready for a comfortable schooling close to home at Eton. Philip has other ideas however, insisting that Charles go to Gordonstoun, a boarding school in the highlands of Scotland. Within a term, Charles is being bullied and has given up on fighting back, calling the school ‘Colditz with kilts’.
Philip bullies his wife to keep the child at school, callously threatening the well-being of the marriage after a sensitive few years. His actions seem impossibly cruel and The Crown introduces flashbacks to give us an inkling as to why he’s so determined to fight this battle. According to the series, Gordonstoun was the home and family that he had when he’d lost everything else, including his sister and her family in a tragic airplane accident.
The flashbacks are done with so much attention to detail that each scene is sadly memorable. From the large scale funeral procession along a Nazi-occupied street, to an imagined scene where a traumatised Philip walks through the aircraft wreckage situated hundreds of miles away, every scene carries the tragedy that surrounded the Greek prince’s childhood. At the centre is young actor Finn Elliot, who is astonishing as young Philip. He perfectly captures the character’s resilient shell that in the end, is simply hiding a scared, lonely child. Elliot marks himself out as an actor to watch, and will also be starring in the Colin Firth film The Mercy next year.
After two seasons of being frustrated at Philip’s frequent callousness, this episode throws in unseen complexities late in the game. For example, funeral scene reminds us of how close members of his family were to Nazi Germany. In that view, it makes his decision to fight on the Allied side all the more fascinating, although this episode doesn’t go that far ahead. It also raises questions following episode seven, in which the Duke of Windsor’s dealings with Hitler earned Philip’s thorough and deserved condemnation. It makes sense of course, given his allegiances, but also makes you wonder how strange the battle of the sides must have felt when splitting loyalties across his family.
None of this truly excuses the way he sometimes treats the sensitive Charles – after all, his son can’t truly understand his father’s perspective from many difficult years of a life lived. One of the final scenes of the episodes sees Philip flying a plane home from the school, with Charles sitting nervously in the cockpit beside him. Philip tries to make him understand why he must stay at the school, saying:
‘The struggle is a gift […] you put the work in now and you won’t have to struggle in the future.’
Turbulence starts to hit and his son gets anxious, which frustrates Philip. It’s a direct contrast to an earlier scene, where a very young Philip sits beside his nervous older sister on a plane and gently calms her down. From that painful memory of his sister to a developed, self-protecting anger, a multitude of ideas could be the provocation for Philip losing his temper. In any case, all hope of mutual understanding is lost in a moment. It’s an uncomfortable scene but carefully, devastatingly done.
Unexpectedly, episode nine of The Crown is easily one of its strongest of season two. It carefully brings a difficult plotline to life without emotionally manipulating or masking any character flaws. It also firmly reminds us of a now-accepted idea – that television has beaten film in approaching certain stories. Leaving a thoughtful exploration of a character’s past until we’ve already spent 17 hours with them is a risk but in this case it pays off well, with plenty to consider long after the closing scene.