Throughout episode two, I wavered on how to feel about this Actually Philip Did Have a Hard Time sympathy tour. The episode gave us evidence of his adultery and asked us to judge his inability to stay loyal to his wife, but it also wanted us to sympathize with his neglected, traumatized childhood and the fact that he was forced to give a speech he didn’t want to give. Together, it was supposed to add up to a nuanced portrait, but it felt more like a mixed bag.
Having dispensed with all of that, episode three is free to present a more effective image of Sad Philip than the season has in its first two installments. It does this by electing to just shut up and let Matt Smith’s angular cheekbones and wounded, squinting eyes do most of the work. His pained expression while accepting Mike Parker’s resignation is great. His pained walk down the hallway of the Britannia so he can receive a thorough dressing down by the admiral is good. His lengthy shaving scene is another winner, and it seems expressly designed to cover Matt Smith’s face with beard and shaving cream, and then cut to the reveal of his bone structure, like the episode is opening a present for us.
The best wordless scene is the final one, where Philip accepts the Letters Patent that turn him into His Royal Highness Prince Philip. It finally codifies his position of power within the royal structure and frees him from the apparently untenable role of having a lower status than his 8-year-old son. Through the whole dreamy, slow-motion ceremony, as Elizabeth buries him in a series of increasingly absurd royal accessories (hat! Scepter! Goofy cape!), Philip gazes at her. He is furious that she demanded that he give her a price for his loyalty, and he’s begrudgingly triumphant that he finally has a title. He hates himself for needing the title, and he realizes it won’t actually fix anything, but he still wants it anyhow, and hates himself for that, too. Elizabeth is equally resentful and frustrated, and it plays across her face in her refusal to meet Philip’s eyes. He shouldn’t need any of this, but apparently he does, so now she’s forced to try to fix their marriage with a gruesomely public display.
Here’s the big question, though: How much does The Crown want us to sympathize with Philip? I will never stop yelling, “He signed up for this! What did he think this whole thing was going to be!” But if it does want me to feel like Philip is a sad, unfortunate soul whose conception of marriage and masculinity is fundamentally at odds with the role he’s stuck with — if I’m supposed to believe that he’s a guy who just wants to be loved — the best route is to stage over-the-top coronation scenes where Elizabeth and Philip glare at one another. Bonus: Philip getting new portraits taken with all of his new royal accoutrement and looking completely incapable of pulling off “Why, Yes, I Am Wearing 17 Pounds of Royal Order of Whatsits Medals” as a look.
The other strength of this episode is its portrait of Eileen Parker, which culminates in the scene between her and Elizabeth in her home. The meeting with Tommy Lascelles in the park is a little more forced — yes, Eileen, obviously Lascelles wasn’t just hanging around on random park benches and stumbling into you by happenstance. But in her home, with Eileen putting the kettle on and handing Elizabeth the all-too-telling letter to the Thursday Club, Eileen is exactly right. “While some women may put up with that sort of humiliation, I have too much respect for myself and my children to bear it,” she tells Elizabeth, before swooping in for the critical hit: “I’ve had enough of favors to you people. My entire adult life has been favors to you people.” Eileen’s fury and frustration and sadness are so palpable and righteous, and when Elizabeth tentatively asks if she could just hold off for a little while longer, the question comes off as astonishingly tin-eared. Not selfish, not cruel, just utterly clueless.
It’s no real surprise that minor characters like Eileen Parker are coming through with remarkable detail and attention. Eileen is sketched with firm, clear lines; we see how frustrated she is, and we understand exactly her motivations. Tommy Lascelles, drawn in from retirement, is precise and easy to understand: He protects the Crown, he tames the press, and he quells scandal. We understand Michael Adeane, too, never quite living up to the legacy of his predecessor, and shaving his mustache for reasons that must be completely mysterious to him. But that’s how his life goes. Even Mike Parker makes sense, and Elizabeth’s mother feels fully formed.
And then there’s Elizabeth. Is she truly clueless, or does she choose to not know things? Is she really so sheltered? The scene where she reads aloud from Philip’s letters and stares lovingly at the footage of him from the South Pole is so, so sweet, and she’s obviously hurt to discover evidence of his infidelity. Had she forgotten about the ballerina? She tells Philip that the last weeks have shown her more about humiliation than she’d ever care to know, but we see little of it. We get glimpses of her political acumen in those meetings with the prime ministers, staring pityingly at Anthony Eden and admonishing MacMillan for dodging his responsibility in calling for war. But we see nothing of her frustration that the country was driven into an economic crisis, and she doesn’t seem to mind all that much that Britain’s international reputation is now trash. Does she not care, or does she truly not get it? Has she come to accept how little power she has to change anything, so she just shrugs and moves on?
The best, dishiest, most insightful details are about the workings of the Crown itself: Philip has a fit and Adeane ends up shaving his mustache, the marital relations of a private secretary end up sparking rumors about the royal marriage, the onslaught of secretaries and the minute balances of power and Charles having closer proximity to the crown than his own father, and so on. But it still hasn’t quite pulled off an intimate portrait of Elizabeth. The Crown aims to be a private depiction of her life, but she is all mask and no interior. The closest we get is that fight with Philip aboard the royal yacht, and even then, it’s more a negotiation of how they’ll keep up the mask than it is how they’ll keep loving one another.
We just don’t get much interiority from Elizabeth. Instead, we get suggestions and probing assessments from the outside. The episode closes with Philip’s final, sad meeting with Mike, whose idiocy and carelessness has gotten him kicked out of the royal service, but who seems to be on a path to redemption anyhow. (See: Philip’s line about how there’s no room for “humanity” when he asks for Mike’s resignation, and also the entire conversation where Mike is suddenly given a chance to be surprisingly thoughtful.) Elizabeth wants to have more children, and Mike suggests that maybe she’d like to have some kids who didn’t represent her own death and the continuation of the royal line. What a fascinating observation! Wouldn’t it be nice if we got some of that from Elizabeth herself? All we hear from her on the subject of parenting is that it’d be nice to put a portrait of Philip in the kids’ room so they remember what he looks like.
The kids may not get to spend much time with Philip, but viewers of The Crown sure do! And yes, Matt Smith and his cheekbones are great. It’s just fascinating that the show is so much better at telling stories about people proximate to the Crown, yet struggles to tell stories about the woman who wears it.