The first several episodes of The Crown have been what you’d expect in your standard historical period drama. The storytelling is straightforward, if sometimes a tad slowly paced; there’s ample time to look around and appreciate the sumptuousness of the settings and costume and design; conflicts build and events follow like dominoes stacked in a row. None of this is bad, but neither does it do much to set The Crown apart from other stories about the monarchy. Its choices haven’t felt much like choices. It’s just hitting the marks we expect it to hit.
“Smoke and Mirrors” is the first episode to make a distinctive choice about the way it tells its story, and it is the first one that works really well. From the opening of the first episode, we’ve been leading up to the moment when Elizabeth would be crowned in her big coronation ceremony. It’s been brewing all season, with lots of themes being pulled together to accompany the big day: Philip’s resistance to his role as consort, Elizabeth’s personhood within her position as queen, tradition versus modernity, and most important, the question of what the monarchy even means in the mid–20th century. And thanks to the way “Smoke and Mirrors” presents the coronation, we get all of the historical-drama goodness we want (so many costumes, so much choral music, ceremony and ritual to feast on for days), plus an actual pointed exploration of the series’s big questions.
To be specific, I’m talking about the episode’s decision to split the presentation of the coronation into two, giving us the actual ceremony in Westminster while also showing us David Windsor’s coronation-viewing party at his home in Paris. I don’t know that it was necessarily the obvious choice, but it’s an incredibly smart one, and The Crown squeezes that decision for every last ounce of theme-defining goodness.
First, just the logistics. Elizabeth’s bid to get Philip involved in this whole business is to put him in charge of the coronation committee. He’s initially underwhelmed, and then inevitably discovers he has strong feelings about what the coronation could be. He wants to modernize it, depart from many centuries of tradition, and make a nod toward what he hopes is a more egalitarian, democratically minded monarchy. Obviously he’s going to fail in most ways. But his one success is in convincing Elizabeth and the committee to televise the ceremony. It’s a huge change, not entirely different from printing a Bible in colloquial language so that common people can actually read it. Elizabeth, ever the patrician, is not excited about people watching her be crowned while they sit at home “with their dinners on their laps,” but she agrees in the end.
David Windsor’s viewing party lets us see that all-important side of the coronation service — not just what it was like for the rarefied few in Westminster Abbey, but what it was like to watch the service on someone’s television at home. The coronation was a major event in TV history, too, one of the earliest live-broadcast events that defined what event television could look like. It’s useful for the series to show us what it would’ve looked like from the outside as well as from within.
The familiar choice wouldn’t be David and Wallis at home smirking, though. On a more traditional show, we would see common Londoners clustered around TVs pointed toward the streets, or families sitting on their sofas serving drinks, or someone riding a bike and then pausing to watch though another family’s window. Instead, we get commentary on the event from the most poisonous, jealous, wounded, conflicted, iced-out character in the series, a man who just called the Archbishop of Canterbury “Auld Lang Swine,” who refers to the new queen as “Shirley Temple,” and who tearfully plays his bagpipes on the front lawn when he’s homesick.
In this way, The Crown gets to have its “monarchy is akin to magic” cake and eat it too. David snickers and sneers throughout the ceremony, but his reading of it is essentially fair. “Who wants transparency when you can have magic?” he asks. If you pull away the veil, you’re left with Elizabeth, a quiet unassuming woman who is not especially remarkable. And David, by standing there in front of a TV and wearing a lame carnation in his jacket, is the embodiment of pulling back the veil. He would’ve been the anointed one up there, and nothing about that ceremony would have changed him from the selfish man with the impressive vocabulary he is today. He can pick apart the silly ritual while also recognizing its effects, answering the American who points out that the whole thing is “crazy” by explaining that it’s perfectly sane. Perhaps inadvertently, David reinforces Elizabeth’s own argument about the ceremony: People look to the monarchy to be inspired and be moved toward a higher ideal. David may look down on those who want that, but he absolutely understands it.
So while David watches at home and strips away the magic, The Crown still gets to retain its coronation enchantment. The TV broadcast cuts away from the live footage when Elizabeth is anointed with the holy oil, but we still get to see it — her eyes closed as the archbishop blesses her, the golden oil dripping languidly from the pitcher. We get exactly the kind of intimate close-up Philip assures the committee won’t be available on camera, tight on Elizabeth’s expression as she takes the oath. We know it’s all ritual and tradition, we know that Elizabeth is still just a person, but the cinematography does a remarkable job of maintaining a negative capability. The magic otherworldliness of her coronation is both reified and taken apart.
It helps that this is also the most I’ve liked Elizabeth in the series to date. Philip, despite being on the right side of history with his promotion of the TV broadcast and his work to make the ceremony more egalitarian, is also being a giant baby. How much do you want to bet that if he were the one being crowned king, he’d be shocked — shocked! — if Elizabeth put up a fuss about kneeling before him? The exact source of his outrage is not hard to locate. It’s not really about being an equal, it’s about the fact that he’d feel like “a eunuch” kneeling before his wife. But whether that comes from a sense of her God-chosen worthiness or simply her awareness of her power, Elizabeth is having none of it.
Her coronation, she tells Philip, has “released a weakness and insecurity” in him that she hasn’t seen before, and she is completely right. She’s right, too, that if Philip were more secure in himself, he’d be able to kneel before her as both wife and queen in this circumstance.
It’s hard to read Philip’s face in that coronation scene. Does he feel overwhelmed by the ceremony, newly convinced of Elizabeth’s monarchical status? He certainly doesn’t play the kneeling sequence with any sudden equanimity — the kiss he offers her is formal at best. (And passive-aggressive at worst.) It’s much easier to read David Windsor’s face as he stands outside his home in Paris, bellowing into his bagpipes. He and Wallis have suffered the indignities of letting the press into their homes. They can still cling to their comforting and self-protective “we did it for love” defense. His reading of the pomp and circumstance of the monarchical project is not wrong, and the episode is with him on that. It’s called “Smoke and Mirrors,” after all. But he’s stuck standing there, homesick and weeping and bagpiping. As he said in his first appearance on the series, it’s hard to know when you’re in with this family, but you’re never mistaken about when you’re out.