Warning: This contains mild spoilers for the first four episodes of The Crown Season 2.
“Always remember you have a family.” So reads the note handed to Philip (Matt Smith) by Elizabeth (Claire Foy), as he prepares to go on a tour of the Commonwealth. A five-month voyage designed to give the royal couple some space, after their relationship has crashed into a brick wall, Elizabeth’s note is simultaneously an endearing token and an ominous instruction. The fact that Elizabeth is saying this to someone else, after people told this to her in Season 1, sums up the nature of The Crown’s sophomore run.
Netflix’s period drama is as sumptuous as ever, a beautifully shot and handsomely mounted portrait of our country’s still-reigning monarch – a woman who has endured through thick and thin. It’s a shame, then, that she doesn’t quite get the billing she deserves, as her largely ceremonial position continues to leave her unable to dictate events, create laws or, moreover, shape the narrative in her own TV show. Season 2 doubles down on that central paradox, as the series expands its scope beyond her ascendance to the throne, taking in more and more of the Royal Family – with six seasons expected, it’s no coincidence that creator Peter Morgan has called this The Crown, rather than ‘The Queen’. It’s testament to just how well made the drama is that it remains as compelling as ever.
Indeed, The Crown’s second season arrives at a time when economic inequality has never been so notable in Britain, and the notion of feeling sympathy for well-off characters who are finding their privileged lives difficult seems rather daft. And yet the show repeatedly manages to absorb in what is, in many ways, a posh soap opera, an extravagant EastEnders or a classed-up Corrie. Affairs, arguments, divorces, lies – all can be found behind the lush curtains of Bucky P, and The Crown loves to mine these fancy halls for maximum melodrama.
But there’s much more intelligence and art to the programme than that would suggest, and the second season’s opening episode makes that immediately clear, as we’re dropped into the Suez Crisis – a complex international situation that sees Britain covertly coordinating with France and Israel to thwart and Egyptian coup to seize control over the eponymous canal. It’s a delicate, thorny issue, but at no point in The Crown do we feel like we can’t keep up, because Morgan’s scripts are so elegant at balancing exposition and emotion, facts and feelings; it’s a superb balancing act throughout Season 2’s opening episodes, which efficiently drip-feed history to us without lecturing or getting bogged down in the details – easy writes the pen that wears this crown.
The details, rather, come in the background, almost unnoticed, as throne rooms, men’s clubs, cabinet meetings and dining halls are all recreated with a stunning accuracy that feels entirely real: for a programme about the need to maintain a certain facade for the public, The Crown never once reeks of artifice or contrivance.
That it’s so easy to take the production for granted, despite its exorbitant price tag of around $100 million per season, is testament to the design team’s fine work, as well as director Philip Martin, who helms the opening three instalments with an immersive eye for lighting, style and atmosphere. It’s also, though, testament to the cast, whose sterling work uniformly brings depth to each member of the ensemble, whether they’re on screen for minutes or hours. “No one wants complexity and reality from us,” scorns Queen Mary (Eileen Atkins) at one point – but nobody in the show seems to have got that memo.
Jeremy Northam as Prime Minister Anthony Eden is a fascinating figure, particularly after the bullish, dignified mass that was John Lithgow’s Churchill, a man who sucked in everything around him. Northam’s performance as the drug-addicted career man is simultaneously vulnerable and slimy, plotting his way into power (and into hanging on to it) while entirely failing to handle the Suez situation correctly (or, for that matter, legally). He’s balanced by Anton Lesser’s Harold Macmillan, a successor waiting in the wings with youthful relish, despite being no younger in years. Both pale in comparison to Claire Foy’s Elizabeth, ships passing briefly in the night in the face of her steadfast reign. “I was sorry to see you lie to the House,” she tells Anthony, calmly, before politely reminding Harold later that he was much responsible for Suez as his predecessor.
Suez is only the start of The Crown’s Big Problems, though, as we soon hear of Eileen Parker’s (Chloe Pirrie) intent to divorce her husband, Mike Parker (Daniel Ings), Philip’s private secretary. After their luncheon club shenanigans in Season 1 sparked a rift between Philip and the Queen, Eileen smartly decides she’s had enough of her unfaithful louse of a husband – a decision that has ramifications for everyone, given the impunity it would also place upon Philip’s loyalty to his wife. Chloe Pirrie, who impressed in such indie films as Shell, is remarkable as the crumbled, crushed but fiercely resilient Eileen, just as Ings is convincingly loathsome as the caddish player, who enjoys his time sailing with Philip too much.
All the while, Will Keen quietly steals scenes as Michael Adeane, the Queen’s private secretary, who finds himself shuffling back and forth between Parliament, the Parkers’ mess and the Palace, delivering bad news with every return trip.
One of the MVPs of the show has long been Vanessa Kirby’s Princess Margaret, whose tragic romance with Pete Townsend shaped some of the most moving moments in Season 1. Perhaps the best thing about Season 2’s wider scope is the added screen-time it means for her, and Kirby shines as the shunned sister. Still mourning her failed relationship, she’s the raw, bitter pill to Foy’s upbeat, composed balm – a side of her that sparks an intriguing bond with photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones (a gorgeous Matthew Goode), who has a knack for drawing out the unseen side of people. If he perhaps plays to her self-resenting streak, he’s a stark contrast to her friend Billy, another potential suitor who only reinforces her sense of self-worth.
Margaret is key to establishing the ongoing theme of Season 2: that of the suffering wallflower, forever stuck in the shadow of Elizabeth Regina. It’s a frustration that has come to define Philip, played with an indignant anger by Matt Smith. Smith, who was one of the least predictable Time Lords in Doctor Who’s history, is just as electric here, capable of turning a line on its head or adding a fresh physical spin to a scene; we open with a flashforward to a serious confrontation between husband and wife, in which his stillness only reinforces the awkward, oppressive tension.
It’s a relief, then, to flash back to the present and see him unleashed on his world tour – a journey that allows him to grow a beard, speak freely and joke with his fellow naval men. He’s a completely different person to when he’s in husband mode, where his larger-than-life character mostly comes out in an irritated tapping of his foot. Is he unfaithful to Elizabeth? It’s a question that the show never answers, although we catch a glimpse of a suspicious photo in his briefcase, as Morgan instead focuses on his wish not to be infantilised; a grown man, he’s outranked by his young son, but his strong sense of family pride is intrinsically linked to a heritage that includes Nazi-supporting sisters. The idea of perpetually being number two is unthinkable for him, and the show gives Philip the room for us to understand that.
But, crucially, The Crown never lets Philip become the main character. Smith’s performance humanises a man who has mostly become a caricature to modern audiences, but Morgan doesn’t ask us to sympathise with him; he’s presented as the very human, very flawed love of Elizabeth’s life, but also the thorn in her side, the one who is risking to ruin both the country’s royal family and Elizabeth’s job over a petty sense of entitlement.
In the lead, Foy remains impeccable, impossibly subtle at conveying her own frustrations and heartbreak with the smallest of gestures and expressions. And it’s the fact that she’s in a position where she can’t display her feelings openly that makes the drama so engaging and effective – doubly so, as the narrative begins to move away from her to spend more time with the supporting cast. She’s not really the main character: The Crown is, and Season 2 establishes Netflix’s show as a chronicle of all those stuck in its orbit, for better or for worse.
By widening its horizons, The Crown’s second season gives us a better sense of Elizabeth as a Queen: she emerges as the voice of common sense in a hall full of men who are in power and out of control. While she may not have over-arching authority, she often takes opportunities to chide politicians for their mistakes; she can show compassion towards successful and failing Prime Ministers, but can also distance herself from her sister and husband and be imperial and regal when required. That composure sometimes falters, as she becomes preoccupied with her marriage as the Suez crisis first unfolds, but she calls out collusion when she sees it, and never shies from putting the eye-rolling Philip in his place. If it’s sometimes frustrating that our supposed protagonist doesn’t let rip every hour, that slowly becomes the point: there is no line dividing woman and Queen anymore, because there can’t be. (With Olivia Colman set to replace Foy for Season 3 onwards, though, you can bet we’ll see more of that internal struggle in the future.)
It’s telling that Season 2’s opening half climaxes in two memorable compositions, neither of them of Lillibet herself. The first sees Philip finally gain his “Prince” title, a concession by the Queen to keep him satisfied – and as he takes his chair next to his wife, complete with garishly coloured robes and outdated tassels, the petulant man has never looked so childish. The second sees Princess Margaret caught on camera by Armstrong-Jones, a photo that is hidden from our view until the very end – and promises to become a scandalous sensation. Always remember you have a family, Elizabeth cautions her husband. The more The Crown reminds us, the more vivid and complex its portrait gets.
The Crown is available on Netflix UK, as part of a £7.49 monthly subscription.
Photo: Robert Viglasky/Netflix