The Crown Recap: The Great Smog

The Crown

Act of God
Season 1 Episode 4
Editor’s Rating *****
John Lithgow as Winston Churchill.
John Lithgow as Winston Churchill. Photo: Netflix

In case anyone needs to brush up on their British history, the Great Smog of London was a real event. As we learn at the end of this episode, the smog caused many thousands of deaths and led to air-pollution reform in the years that followed. The remarkable cinematography of this episode is no exaggeration: Heavy blankets of greasy brown fog choked London for days. There was indeed a crime spree, as police officers were unable to see what was happening ten feet in front of them. Hospitals were overwhelmed.

Initially, there was governmental resistance to doing anything about the pollution. The Clean Air Act wouldn’t be passed until 1956, and there was a general sense that “pea-soupers” were a way of life in London, not something that government could effectively change. After all, smog as a result of burning coal has been a problem in England since literally the 13th century. In this regard, “Act of God” feels quite true to history and what the smog would do.

But as for beautiful Venetia Scott, her poor coughing roommate, and Winston Churchill’s overwhelmed response to her death and his own age … well, this seems like the “inspired by real events” part of The Crown. (I will be happily corrected if anyone can find me a source that says otherwise.) From what I can tell, the entire Clement Attlee plot is hard to nail down as historical fact. I imagine any political opposition would’ve been similarly opportunistic about the lack of governmental response, but reports suggest that no one really knew what a big deal the pollution would be. A doctor who lived through the smog disaster recalled that there was “no sense of drama or emergency.” So what’s going on here? Why did The Crown create this Churchill-obsessed, proto-millennial youth, only to knock her over with a bus?

First and foremost, the Great Smog is exactly the sort of thing that seems in retrospect like a very big to-do. The event was a tragedy, to be sure — thousands and thousands of people died, there was looting and mayhem — and it makes for a great narrative foundation. It could so easily be the story suggested by the episode title, an “act of God” like a hurricane or an earthquake that initiates government response and handily brings together the themes The Crown has already been brewing. It’s a collision of an Old World understanding with the increasingly hard-to-ignore realities of post-WWII life. It could be another conflict between Elizabeth II and Churchill in the early days of her reign. It’s a useful meditation on the limits of the queen’s power and the frustration of being stuck as an unbiased, personality-free national symbol.

But the real smog has no easy historical narrative arc to it, not unless you’re going to reach forward to 1956 and tie in the Clean Air Act (which “Act of God” tries to do with its closing captions). Enter Venetia Scott, whom The Crown uses to give some shape to its smog story, and also to create stakes and poignancy for Churchill. Without her, this episode essentially reads as follows: The smog descends on London, major characters dither but ultimately do nothing at all, and four years later, actual legislation is passed to address the issue but it has nothing to do with these characters. As it is, “Act of God” is an episode about people making the choice to do nothing. With Venetia, the smog can be a moment of reckoning for Churchill. For this particular event, it redeems him in the eyes of history by giving him a retroactively appropriate response to the tragedy. And let’s not forget this series is also about a very old prime minister who has trouble finding respect for his very young queen. For Churchill, Venetia becomes a parallel for Elizabeth.

To its credit, the episode dramatizes the difficulty of doing nothing fairly well. Elizabeth’s meeting with Queen Mary feels like a thesis on the entire project of modern monarchy. (And Queen Mary’s little chat with her maid also provides a nice rundown on exactly how to deal with so many queens running around the palace. Queen Mary is George’s mother. Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother is George’s wife. The actual queen is Elizabeth II.) Privately, to her grandmother, Elizabeth expresses doubts about monarchy as a calling from God, a relevant topic given the smog’s “act of God” description. Queen Mary tells Elizabeth that whatever Philip might think, monarchy is indeed “God’s sacred mission to grace and dignify the Earth, to give ordinary people an ideal to strive toward, an idea of nobility and duty to raise them in their wretched lives.”

For a modern audience — especially for a modern American audience whose idea of a separation between church and state is given a bit of lip service — this speech sounds unbelievably antiquated. The idea that some select people have a God-given power that makes them better than everyone else is anti-democratic, to say the least. It’s clear Philip would agree with that, although Queen Mary’s icy-hot “family of carpetbaggers and parvenus” burn is pretty devastating. Nevertheless, it’s crucial to The Crown’s depiction of Elizabeth to capture this turning point in England’s monarchy. Does she truly understand herself as an instrument of God? And if so, what does that mean at a moment when she’s been stripped of so much of her power?

In “Act of God,” it all comes down to a question of action. Should she follow the opposition’s advice, as signaled to her through Dickie Mountbatten, and ask Churchill to resign? At what point does the national interest outweigh the precedent her father set in never interfering with democratically elected leaders? That question is taken from her in this case, thanks to Churchill’s dramatic “write a speech on a prescription pad and order some last-minute money for hospital staff” bit of public-relations savvy. But the underlying problem remains: According to her grandmother, God’s anointment means that Elizabeth must be inhumanly unbiased. She can have no feelings or opinions or personal input into daily politics. The less she exists, Queen Mary tells her, the better.

Which is, as Elizabeth points out and as Queen Mary readily admits, a real bummer for the person who actually has to do it. “Where does that leave me?” Elizabeth asks. It’s not a question the episode answers, except to make clear that Elizabeth does allow herself to have human feelings in one area: her marriage. If nothing else, the small action Elizabeth maneuvers out of the governmental drama is ensuring that Philip would be allowed to keep learning how to fly. And that’s great! Good for him. Matt Smith looks nice in an airplane, and Elizabeth will be happier if Philip has something to do with himself.

But when the Princess Margaret issue comes up, and when Elizabeth is actually forced to take a position on something, Queen Mary’s insistence that she stay impartial will come back in a real and frustrating way. And I have a feeling Churchill won’t be particularly helpful.

The Crown Recap: The Great Smog