This final episode of The Crown’s first season is exactly what the series has been building to all along. It’s a showdown between all of the personal and thematic tensions we’ve seen from the start. It’s individuality versus self-abnegation, desire versus duty, promises to family versus vows to country, and one person’s happiness versus (perceived) national stability. It’s also, not coincidentally, Elizabeth versus Margaret, Elizabeth versus Philip, Elizabeth versus her private secretary, Elizabeth versus the prime minister, Elizabeth versus Parliament, and Elizabeth versus the Church of England.
That list makes sense. When you rack it all up like that, the outline seems like it would make for a pretty impressive, whizz-bang finale. And it is, to a certain extent. Finally, the plot with Margaret and Peter is brought to a conclusion rather than perpetually bumping along in the background. Elizabeth’s marriage feels like it’s reached a point of real crisis, as Philip gets himself basically banished to Australia for five months to see if he can sort himself out. (Not holding my breath!) And after many false starts, Elizabeth is forced to actually confront the question we’ve been asking all along: Is she going to stand up to the institutions that want to hold her back from action? Is she going to resist the parade of middle-aged white men who march through the palace to tell her what she can’t do?
Except that does not happen. Elizabeth listens to her advisers; she takes council from her immediate family and her estranged uncle; she consults Parliament and the Church. At the end, she decides it’s better to disappoint her sister than it would be to go up against the collective machines of cultural and governmental conservatism. This is not the way it would work if this were pure fiction, of course. If it were fiction, Elizabeth would double-down on the promise she made to her father, tell the Archbishop of Canterbury to jump off a cliff, and call a press conference to announce that she’d be performing Margaret and Peter’s wedding ceremony right there and then. The corgis would be ring bearers, and Peter would collapse of a heart attack just as the ceremony began, and there’d be a sudden international crisis. You see, fiction likes it when stuff happens.
The Crown does not have the narrative luxury of historical freedom. Instead, “Gloriana” does its best to build Elizabeth’s decision as a real crisis, something deeply painful and wrenching. It’s pretty successful at that. The finale begins with another flashback to Elizabeth’s childhood, this time to the moment of abdication when Edward VIII tells his brother he will be stepping down from the throne. It’s not a subtle bit of emotional management. We see George gripping his young daughters’ hands and asking they pledge to never let one another down, and to never put anything above each other. They swear, with all the solemnity of two very serious little girls. To no one’s surprise, it’s the completely unhidden Chekov’s gun of promises, reappearing to taunt Elizabeth and guarantee the breakdown of her relationship with her sister.
It’s not like the Margaret-and-Peter plotline is bad or unworthy of being told, though. The performances are solid, especially Vanessa Kirby’s slow-motion discovery that Elizabeth is truly going to deny her the right to marry Peter. It’s more that The Crown’s ten hour-long episodes have given so much time to a story with a foregone conclusion. Once this final blow hits, it’s tough to treat it with the sadness and surprise it deserves. As a result, the eye is more drawn to the smaller bits surrounding this major set piece. It’s difficult to focus on the two sisters sitting on a sofa, savaging each other.
For instance, we’re abruptly introduced to the brewing drama between England and Egypt, as Anthony Eden tries to negotiate with Colonel Nasser about the Aswan Dam, a project related to the perpetual political morass of the bigger Suez Canal issue. When Nasser showed up at an English embassy party in full military uniform while everyone else wore evening formalwear, it was enough to make me sit back and say “ooooOOO” like a middle-schooler who’d just heard a sick burn. The whole business with Eden’s Arabic is fascinating as well, and the story is given a frightening and well-earned gut punch with the scene of Eden passed out on a table thanks to a morphine dose, while the newsreel melts behind him. Eden briefs Elizabeth on some of this, and she nods briskly and expresses concern. Great! But this seems so much more interesting — or at the very least, more novel — than Margaret and Peter’s plot.
Even the Philip story line gets more color than it has in previous episodes. Just in case there was any question about his feelings on the proper role for men and women, Philip bullies and chides his young son into fishing like a man, railroading over any of his “sensitivity.” Later he asks Elizabeth whether she’s ever noticed that their children are “the wrong way around” — their son is a “girl,” and their daughter is a “boy.” This is one of the things about historical dramas that can feel smug; with the benefit of many decades of hindsight, it’s very easy for us as an audience to see Philip’s view as the horribly reductive, gendered nonsense it is. But The Crown saves itself from that “old times were so unenlightened” self-satisfaction. Unlike some of its other stories, the episode does not linger on this idea excessively, or give it the melodramatic musical underscoring of a major revelation. Instead, it’s left to float in the air, a terrible unchecked indictment of Philip’s character.
And even more to the point, Philip’s gender essentialism is a useful reflection of the bigger story The Crown has been telling about him all season. If he finds his son’s squeamishness unacceptably feminine and finds his more adventurous daughter boyish, it’s not hard to extrapolate about why Philip might have some trouble with power dynamics in his marriage. It’s hard to believe a trip to Australia will do much to fix that.
Throughout this season, The Crown has aimed for a nuanced, complex portrait of Elizabeth. She’s a woman caught between several rocks and a matching set of hard places. Her quietness and resistance to drama makes her enigmatic. She comes to power in a liminal, transitional moment, somewhere between an older world and something unforeseeably new. More often than not, The Crown succeeds at this portrayal, and the final sequence of the episode, with its heroine standing there in full, lonely Elizabeth Regina majesty sells that story well.
It’s hard not to come away from the first season of The Crown with a different contender for “most interesting character,” though. For my money, it’s not Elizabeth. It’s her uncle. Edward, Duke of Windsor, is one of the nastiest, least sympathetic, most selfish people on this series — and, arguably, in historical fact. The best thing about Alex Jenning’s performance (and writing of his character) has been the mercilessness of both his cruelty and his sadness. As Edward passes off the throne to his brother, he once again echoes the thing we’ve heard him say over and over. This is for love — what higher calling could there be? He simultaneously assures George that as long as he gets enough money, he’ll disappear without a complaint. It’s the same when Elizabeth calls him for his council on the Margaret question. More than anyone else, he understands her dilemma. At the same time, he tells her to force upon Margaret exactly the choice he refused to pick for himself. And it’s easy for him to say. He got money when he left. Margaret would have none.
So that’s the takeaway from this first season. The Crown succeeds at being what I imagine most of its audience wants. It’s a beautiful costume drama, it’s an engrossing portrait of a moment in time, and it’s a behind-the-scenes look at famous people whose inner lives are hidden from the world. But it also struggles with Elizabeth, whose slippery, elusive, purposely hidden personality sometimes evades The Crown as well. She stands there, proud and alone at the season’s end, while the minor characters are the ones who really shine.