The Crown Recap: Painting Mr. Churchill

The Crown

Season 1 Episode 9
Editor’s Rating *****
John Lithgow as Winston Churchill, Claire Foy as Elizabeth.
John Lithgow as Winston Churchill, Claire Foy as Elizabeth. Photo: Alex Bailey/Netflix

At the beginning of The Crown, I wrote about my frustration that the series often places Elizabeth inside a narrative framed by men. In the episodes since, we’ve seen Elizabeth working within, being influenced by, and generally stuck in a hypermasculine world. Of course, that’s just history: Elizabeth has been operating within a male sphere her entire life.

But there are other ways to tell this story, which is something The Crown has failed to do on a number of fronts. A story can be about a masculine world without necessarily re-creating the power dynamics of that world. A scene that depicts Princess Margaret’s terribly uninformed speech about British imperialism in Africa doesn’t also have to suggest the same basic orientation in the series as a whole. For the most part, though, The Crown has avoided many of those missteps. The more of Elizabeth we see — the more she grapples with the issues she’s inherited, the media, and her family — the better this story gets. The series is especially strong when it depicts Elizabeth’s self-abnegation as a choice, as a point of agency. It’s hard to make someone’s inaction look like a willful act, and The Crown has done so remarkably well.

But then we get an episode like “Assassins,” which knits together a lot of appealing stuff in a way that I still wish it wouldn’t. Lithgow’s performance of Churchill is pretty much everything you could want. He bounces nimbly from nostalgia to fury, alternately raging against the unavoidable ravages of age and sinking into them with resignation. His portrait sittings are themselves a fascinating portrait, and you can watch his face shift from politeness to reluctance, then into sorrow and anger. The whole business with Churchill’s obsession with painting the goldfish pond and his grief for his daughter is done well, too. The most important aspect comes through clearly: Churchill couldn’t understand his own preoccupation with the pond, a reminder that others see us much better than we do. It’s a pretty nice sequence.

It would have been an excellent sequence for a series about the life of Winston Churchill, or Churchill’s latter days, or the prime-ministership, or maybe even Parliament after World War II. It is not particularly effective as a portrait of the monarchy, or Elizabeth, or even a broader portrait of leadership. And it takes up a huge chunk of this episode, occupying a great deal more space than Churchill’s relationship with Elizabeth. The thematic relationships are there, I suppose. The Crown is all about the transition from one outdated paradigm into something more modern, and much of this season has focused on Elizabeth’s struggle to take up the mantle of an ancient tradition that doesn’t fit a modern context. Churchill is a dinosaur. We already had an entire episode about him realizing he’s well past his prime, although The Crown needed to literally kill a bright young woman to bring him to this revelation. (R.I.P., Venetia Scott, by the way. We’ve heard nothing at all about her since, even in this episode designed almost entirely around Churchill’s self-reflection.)

You could say that this is just padding. The Crown is a lengthy series about a monarch whose primary action is choosing to do very little, so … yeah. They’ve got to find something to fill the time.

Except the problem also lies in how The Crown chooses to spend its time. While Churchill sits there in an easy chair, ruminating on saving the free world and grief and how the future belongs to the young, Elizabeth’s story is about her friendship with Porchey, who runs her stables and always had a crush on her. She has a successful racehorse, Aureole, and now she needs to decide whether to continue his racing career or put him out to stud. She’s close to Porchey; she clearly likes that they meet on equal grounds intellectually, and that he treats her as a human. Philip, ever threatened by Elizabeth’s status as the more powerful one in the marriage, frets that she and Porchey are more than friends.

This prompts a blowup, which hilariously comes to a head in a scene where Aureole gets it on with his very first lady-friend horse. (It’s a weirdly popular year for horse sex on TV.) We learn about Philip and Elizabeth’s big argument inside their car after the fact, as a silent montage, while Churchill burns the Sutherland painting he hates so much. What we do get is Elizabeth, in full formal get-up all ready to go to Churchill’s retirement dinner at Downing Street, stalking regally over to Philip and stating her position. Porchey is a friend, and although marriage to him might have been easier, and although no one actually wanted her to marry Philip, she has only ever loved him. When she asks if he can say the same about her, he has no answer.

Allow me to summarize: While Churchill’s story is about his dignity, his futile fury with the irreversible destruction of time, his increasing irrelevance in a changing world, and the self’s inability to see itself … Elizabeth’s story is about her love life. Again. It’s not even a story about the more interesting gender dynamics and power imbalances that the era would indicate, although that is all embedded in Philip’s incredibly unattractive insecurity. It’s about whether Elizabeth regrets marrying Philip, and whether he cheats, and whether she does. Forgive me if I am uninspired.

In any event, the painting is revealed. Churchill hates it. Even after he stares at it and comes to see the truth, he cannot stand to accept the vision of himself it represents, and he burns it outside his house at Chartwell. This is a slight departure from the probable history of the painting — Churchill did hate it, and it was destroyed. It’s unlikely that he burned it himself; either Clementine Churchill did it or her secretary did it at her suggestion. It’s not clear if it was destroyed before or after his death, but the painting is certainly gone.

So that’s episode nine, and the season only has one more chance to make me feel like Philip is a figure who deserves any goodwill at all. On a broader note: It feels a little odd to be recapping a costume drama about the English royal family at a time when the real world can feel like it’s falling to pieces. Of course, television can be a comfort or an escape, something that helps you feel good when it’s otherwise hard to do. I hope this relatively stakes-free Netflix show can do that for you.

But if you’re looking for something else, it’s worth noting that The Crown is not entirely divorced from some incredibly pertinent issues. Most significantly, the series grapples with how media changes what we look for in leadership. It’s about how a leader looks chilly and distant when we see her on TV. Watch The Crown for the escapism and the visual pleasure, if you’d like. But also watch for what it tells us about individuality, representation, and the things we find entertaining versus the things we actually need in a leader.

And horse sex, I guess. You can also watch it for the horse sex.

The Crown Recap: Painting Mr. Churchill