The Crown Season 2: Claire Foy dazzles in a stirring portrait of endurance
Ivan Radford | On 22, Jan 2018Reading time: 11 mins
Warning: This contains spoilers for Season 2 of The Crown. Not caught up? Read our spoiler-free first look review.
“The age of deference is over,” journalist John Grigg (John Heffernan) tells Queen Elizabeth (Claire Foy) in Season 2 of The Crown. It’s a stark warning to the monarch in a series that emerges as a study of changing times. Compared to Season 1 of the royal drama, this sophomore run is larger, more ambitious and more aware of history’s turning pages: it spans almost a decade in the Queen’s life, from 1956’s Suez Crisis to 1963’s Profumo affair.
With the years rushing past at an increasingly fast pace, it’s so easy for Elizabeth to seem like a passive onlooker to major events, rather than her own protagonist – and taken at a gallop, binge-watching the drama can reduce her to what appears to be a minor, passive role. But that’s to underestimate just how good the show – and Foy – are. After Season 1’s coming-of-age vulnerability, our Liz is more sure of herself, just as Foy is more comfortable in her skin: she’s a regal figure who makes a point of being stoic, reserved and polite; a perfectly mature contrast to Matt Smith’s petulant Prince Philip. His droll, witty delivery is inherently charismatic, and Foy allows you to see the swooning affection she has for him, but it’s offset by her calm, cool exterior. And yet there are times when that composed surface slips, when she laughs, stifles a cry or smiles wth generosity, or – increasingly in this second season – fights to suppress her anger.
It’s so easy to see how she can seem out of touch with the world, and creator Peter Morgan deftly explores that detachment through Elizabeth’s relationship with her sister. Vanessa Kirby’s Princess Margaret remains one of the best things in the show, and it’s such a joy just to see her bitterly lounging around the lavish sets, surrounded by cigarette smoke. Putting her together with Matthew Goode’s photographer, Anthony Armstrong-Jones, is a masterstroke of pure chemistry, and they sizzle effortlessly together, even as their relationship takes on a sour note.
Margaret pressures him into marriage, after discovering that Peter Townsend (remember him?) is engaged to a much younger woman – and that act puts a strain on her bond with him (“Don’t bore me,” he asks. “Don’t hurt me,” she replies.) but also with Lillibet. She, you see, is pregnant, which means that no other announcements can come out of the royal household until the baby pops out. Margaret’s irritation at what she sees as her being overshadowed once again is heartbreaking twice over, in one of the best scenes of the show so far, as Elizabeth calmly tries to reconcile the gulf widening between the sisters, both envious of the other’s lifestyle.
Margaret, of course, does get hitched, despite the royal household’s discovery that Armstrong-Kones is having relationships with several other people, including his male friend, and that the wife of said friend is also pregnant with Tony’s child. They keep that news from Margaret, an act of both kindness and cruelty, and so we’re plunged into their extravagant, expensive nuptials (Elizabeth has, by then, given birth to Andrew) – a celebration that climaxes with a party held by the Queen, in which Tony’s friends decidedly lower the tone. The sight of them conga-ing around the opulent living rooms, while shocked older relatives look on, is a deliciously precise distillation of the generational divide.
Margaret’s distance from her elder sibling leads us poignantly into an examination of The Queen’s relevance to the future – one explicitly called into question by Altrincham, who attacks her in the press for belong to another age. He appears on TV and gives an eloquent, effective criticism of the monarchy, arguing that he’s not against the royal family, but that they need to adapt to post-war and post-Suez Britain. It’s a point driven home by the shockingly tone-deaf speech delivered by Lizzie at a Birmingham factory.
“Many of you are living uneventful, lonely lives,” she observes, in what is presumably meant to be a sympathetic gesture of understanding. “Perhaps you don’t understand that on your steadfastness and ability to withstand the fatigue of dull, repetitive work depends in great measure the happiness and prosperity of the community as a whole.”
Foy is marvellous at delivering the point as flatly as possible, before reeling in genuine sadness at the effect her words have; she’s a queen who never lords it over people, who doesn’t take her birthright for granted, but also expects the reverence she shows the crown to be shared by her subjects. But, where that might be the end point of many dramas, The Crown is interested in more than that: we see Liz invite her critic to a private meeting, where she takes on board two of his suggestions; firstly, to open up a ball to some members of the public and secondly, to televise the Christmas Speech. And so we see a meticulous recreation of the 1957 televised address – a triumphant display of a leader unafraid to change and take on board criticisms to stay relevant. (The Queen Mother and Philip, though, still mourn the dwindling power of the royal family and tradition – a subtle nod by Morgan to the fact that the trend continues even to this day.)
While that might be all you expect from The Crown, a prestige, state-of-the-union drama, Netflix’s series really shows off its substance in this second season by also considering the Queen’s relationship with past. And, of course, it wouldn’t be the past without dear old Edward turning up again, ready to simper and snivel at everything that crosses his path. Alex Jennings stole scene after scene in Season 1 as the pathetic abdicator, and he’s just as good here, as historians unearth a box dating back to 1945. We follow its lead and jump back several years in a flashback sequence that’s directed with stunningly convincing detail (and compelling heart) by Three Girls helmer Philippa Lowthorpe. There, we see what’s in the documents: details of Edward’s relationship with the Nazis, as he sought to negotiate with them to avoid peace. Jared Harris briefly re-appearing as King George (and John Lithgow as Winston Churchill) is a pleasure, but it’s topped by the confrontation between Elizabeth and Edward that eventually follows, as she reads the secret files and decides not to grant Edward’s request to return to the UK and seek employment. Ever the nuanced drama, The Crown allows Edward a chance to voice his sincere desire to broker peace with Germany (the episode’s title, Vergangenheit, means “the past”), but Elizabeth is rightly having none of it.
While she looks to bury the past, Prince Philip is busy reliving it, as we fast forward to 1962, where young Prince Charles is old enough to attend boarding school. Philip puts his foot down and insists he doesn’t go to Eton but goes to his old school of Gordonstoun – a decision that prompts more flashbacks into his own time there. For a show to have one sumptuous flashback sequence is impressive, but it’s testament to The Crown’s ability to execute its hefty budget that Season 2 manages to deliver double flashback duty with total success. Philip remembers such harsh punishments as having to rebuild the school’s front gate in the cold winter, but it’s the loss of his sister in a plane crash that really hits home – not least because Philip’s dad blames him for it. It’s no wonder that history repeats itself to some degree, as Philip’s own fatherly relationship with Charles becomes notably strained: Charles struggles just as much at the school, only for Philip to fly him back him, where he delivers a tough speech about being “bloody weak”, while they’re rocked back and forth by turbulence. Smith’s ability to turn a visible wound into barely concealed machismo is put to brilliant use here, and Julian Baring as the sensitive young heir to the throne immediately has your pity.
Philip’s growing role in Season 2 is a testament to how good The Crown’s supporting are, and how rich the drama is as an ensemble rather than a sole character piece. But that widening scope also feeds into the show’s theme of the Queen’s position on a larger canvas – and that connection between the Queen and the present is gorgeously summed up by her interaction with Jackie Kennedy.
Jodi Balfour plays the First Lady with a delicious note of glamour, just enough to make you believe the way every man (Philip included) falls to the floor in front of her – Michael C Hall’s portrayal of JFK is generous enough to let her shine. The US couple are invited to Buckingham Palace in 1961, a wryly amusing visit that sees the Queen unsettled by how little regard their guests have for tradition. They’re a breath of fresh air in a stuffy, historical room – and Jackie is ungracious (and young) enough to say so in a party the next day. Lizzie invites her back to Windsor Castle, and they share a pointed cup of tea, in which Jackie apologies for her comments. Foy is fantastic, showing just as much vulnerability in the wounded way she doesn’t expect someone to be unkind towards her; this is a woman who doesn’t let her guard down often, but is no less honest when she does. To see her quietly accept Jackie’s apology without saying a word, only politely stirring her tea, is a fist-punching-the-air moment of victory without moving a muscle.
Inspired (and intimidated) by Jackie, she then launches herself into the global scene by solving Britain’s complex relationship with Ghana. As the UK fails to find importance and power post-Suez, she gamely wins back President Kwame Nkrumah (Penny Dreadful’s superb Danny Sapani) on side (and away from the Soviets) by breaching all decorum and protocol and dancing with him. “What is she doing?” the palace asks. “The foxtrot,” comes the reply. It’s a brief glimpse of the vivacious spark Lillibet so often keeps under wraps – and, by the time she’s offering condolences to Jackie several years later, we begin to appreciate that it’s not because she can’t express herself, but that she chooses not to.
That understated agency comes to the fore most of all in the rousing climax, which tackles the Profumo Scandal with typical aplomb. John Profumo, the then Secretary of State for War, has his affair with model Christine Keeler exposed to the public, a revelation that brings the whole royal household into disrepute, thanks to Philip’s social connection to Stephen Ward – the man who hosts the boisterous, sexist lunch clubs that sparked Profumo and Keeler’s affair. The sordid, seedy atmosphere of the club is sadly all too relevant to modern society, and The Crown takes care to show us the consequences it has for Ward’s wife and family, as well as Ward’s friendship with Philip – and, finally, Ward’s own life.
Philip, ultimately, reaffirms his commitment to his wife – “You are the essence of my duty,” he says, in a decidedly Philip-like way – after she takes time to rest in private, away from the news headlines. (She is pregnant and ready to give birth to their fourth child.) But while their marriage remains a focal point for the drama, The Crown has also moved wider, beyond Philip’s difficulty in overcoming his own self-concern to support Elizabeth: the crux of the show emerges as an encounter between Lillibet and her Prime Minister, Harold Macmillian (Anton Lesser – a studied performance of diminishing authority), who resigns from his post (a scene in which he goes to the theatre to see comedians mocking him is marvellously observed). He claims it’s due to ill health that he wants to step down, but she’s having none of it.
And so those 10 years of Season 2 come into focus, as all that time passes by – and, despite the grander scale, the wider family drama, still the Queen endures. In more than a decade, this one monarch has seen three Prime Ministers come and go.
“All of them ambitious men, clever men, brilliant men. But not one of them lasted the course,” she proclaims, matter-of-factly. “A confederacy of quitters.”
It’s one of the many times we get to enjoy Claire Foy’s ruler call out a man in her inner circle for being an idiot, but it’s also a reminder of how rare it is for a ruler to persevere for so long. It’s not a question of being timid, or passive, but of taking small steps to stay up-to-date and relevant. She listens to those around her, she takes on board other people’s views, and then she steadfastly follows something through, both professionally and personally. Compared to current political leadership, she’s a uniquely impressive figure; a Queen who often seems outdated, but only in the way that she values respect and decency above all else.
“The age of deference is over,” her fiercest critic tells her. “What is left without deference?” she responds. “Anarchy?” 50 years on, that anarchy is (just about) still being kept at bay by Her Royal Highness. Whether you’re a royalist or not, long live Netflix’s drama to continue this accomplished chronicle of her reign.
The Crown is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
Photo: Robert Viglasky/Netflix