The title of The Crown’s season-two premiere is “Misadventure,” which is such a perfectly British summary of the situation that I can hardly handle it. (“Mmm, yes, there have been some misadventures lately. It’s been quite unfortunate.”) Philip is off on a world tour and seems to be in the middle of an incredibly humiliating affair with a ballerina. The Egyptians are seizing control of the Suez Canal in a crisis that feels like the death rattle of European imperial power. Prime Minister Anthony Eden is bungling the whole thing in a remarkably thoughtless manner. And our dear Elizabeth is stuck in the middle of it all, essentially powerless to do much of anything except to try to grip the hoary, staid image of monarchy she inherited from her father as hard as she possibly can.
Last season, it took The Crown a while to get its shoes on. We spent some time in the preparatory stages, as Elizabeth’s father died, she married Philip, and they dealt with the overwhelming events of the coronation. A lot of that stuff was great, but it also meant that the show had to figure out if it wanted to be a series about becoming Elizabeth, or being Elizabeth. (Or, with pretty frequent regularity, if it wanted to be a show about Winston Churchill. Which was fine, but not necessarily the show I wanted to watch.)
Season two is off to a more eventful start. It’s February 1957, and we leap right into a humdinger of a fight between Elizabeth and Philip, which we later learn comes at the conclusion of his five-month grand tour. They are absolutely at odds with one another, with Philip lashing out at having been “sent away” and Elizabeth completely disappointed and disgusted with him. He calls their marriage a prison. She tells him they can never get divorced. Just in case you didn’t pick up on the tone of it all, there are highly pointed peals of thunder rolling under every loaded rejoinder. And if the thunder isn’t enough, we also get the metaphor of the monarch on a literal boat in a storm. It’s a boat that creaks ominously from side to side while Elizabeth and Philip spit accusations at one another, so yeah, things are not looking good for Britain.
Let’s just make this clear from the get-go: I understand that Philip is in a tough position. His own father was a nightmare, and he’s been raised with a muscular Christianity that translates into literal exercise routines in the morning and a need to dominate everything he sees, so playing sidekick to his more powerful wife is a hard row to hoe. I’m sure it’s frustrating to have your whole life dictated to you by ancient traditions. But Philip, you pursued her from a young age. You chased her. You were well-positioned to know precisely what you were getting into. You married her! Your complaints about how trapped you are — when you’re out at your he-man lunch club and while you’re packing ballerina portraits into your luggage — well, those gripes are never going to convince me. You married the queen, buddy. Get with the program.
These scenes set the stage for how The Crown is going to frame Philip’s infidelity. First, they’re happy. Elizabeth invites Philip into bed to do his star jumps with her, and Philip cheekily kisses her neck in public, but then Elizabeth finds the ballerina’s photograph in his briefcase and the whole thing falls apart. She cannot focus on his mansplaining dinnertime conversation about how hard it is to pilot through the Suez Canal. Her meal with Lord Mountbatten should be sending up alarms about Eden’s thirstiness for war with President Nasser, but instead all she can think about is the little monologue Mountbatten delivers about his own martial discord. Elizabeth cannot keep her eye on Suez and scold her prime minister like the petulant child he appears to be, so the disarray in her personal life spills out into chaos on a global scale.
Obviously that’s not fair to her. In the real history of events and in the story as it unfolds in this episode, there’s ample evidence that it’s not a simple one-to-one correlation. Philip is not responsible for the revolutionary fervor in Egypt; Elizabeth is not powerful enough to handle the Suez crisis. As distant and out of touch as she may be, Elizabeth cannot take the credit or the blame for President Nasser’s takeover of the Suez Canal Company. It’s looking like The Crown will nevertheless hold those two ideas in parallel, so prepare to watch the British Empire finally fall into shambles while the royal marriage also crumbles to bits. In the episode’s best moments, though, the causal relationship between personal and political cools off, showing us how Elizabeth is stuck in the middle of both tangles and lacking in power to change either.
“Misadventure” does a really effective job of laying out the whole Suez situation, Elizabeth and Philip’s marriage, and the general state of the monarchy, but I want to highlight a few separate scenes. We get a return of Princess Margaret, who rolls out of bed just in time for a fantastically barbed lunch with Elizabeth. Part of the brilliance of Claire Foy’s performance is how much she manages to load into all the silences and understatements and euphemisms that make up Elizabeth’s dialogue — and the great thing about this particular scene is Margaret’s refusal to operate on the same chilly level. The result is two women who seem to be speaking two different languages, but who are actually going at it like they’re in a fencing match. It’s all vicious attacks and unflinching parries, and in this case, Elizabeth ends up more wounded than Margaret, but neither of them walks away whole.
There’s a similarly intense battle between Lord Mountbatten and his wife, Edwina. The Mountbattens are remarkable creations: The Crown is exquisitely good at creating this kind of aging, unbearably privileged, fantastically cutting man who’s got enough power to be dangerous but not so much that he’s not deeply insecure. The fight between Mountbatten and his wife — which basically boils down to “who’s less faithful to this marriage, me or you” — is like something out of an Oscar Wilde play if Wilde dialed up the animosity.
It’s also worth highlighting the depiction of Anthony Eden, who’s achieved his destiny of being a sad, useless prime minister bumbling his way into a stupid collusion with Israel by exerting British control over a country that wants to rule itself. He’s completely not up to the task, and in case you still feel some sympathy for him as he sadly swallows his many pills, he also gives a speech at Eton. The Crown often avoids being too wink-wink, nudge-nudge about modernity and the way its audience will watch these characters, and it rarely gets snide about it, but this speech is an exception. It was so over-the-top obvious that I don’t even care how self-congratulatory and glib it was. There’s Eden, standing in front of a crowd of young privileged white men, delivering a speech on how awesome it is that Britain’s ruling class is made up almost entirely of the minuscule, wealthy white male population of a few elite schools. While he delivers this fantastic paean to the one percent, you can hear the stomping boots of frantic underlings running into the lecture hall to whisper to Eden that the last colonial outpost is going up in smoke. It’s pretty on the nose! I still liked it.
Finally, as always, it’s vital to highlight Foy’s performance. Yes, it’s a little annoying that Elizabeth is preoccupied by jealousy and fury over Philip’s unfaithfulness. (At least she manages to look up at her TV and put two-and-two together about Eden’s Israeli side plot.) But when Elizabeth takes the delightfully petty step of going to the ballet to check out Philip’s ballerina, Foy plays her barely contained anxiety attack with impressive depth. The show has its faults, but it’s very easy to forget all that when Foy is so good at making you want to sit and watch Elizabeth remove makeup from her face.
All in all, I am so glad to be back in the world of The Crown, even though I’m afraid the episodes will still be too long and I’m gathering my strength to spend the next nine hours yelling at Philip. I suppose it’s just a bit comforting to fall into a historical moment when the worst that’s going to happen is a long, slow diminishing of power.