Claire Foy as Elizabeth, Jared Harris as George VI.
For a series that will ostensibly be about Queen Elizabeth II, the first episode of The Crown spends very little time on the big questions. We don’t really learn who Elizabeth is, what she thinks and feels, or how her distinctive personality will shape the events to come. Instead, the Netflix series opens with an extended framing of Elizabeth inside other perspectives.
This first episode is defined by two men: King George VI, Elizabeth’s ailing father, and Philip Mountbatten, her fiancé and soon-to-be husband. The opening scenes are of Philip renouncing his foreign citizenships in preparation for marriage, and of George VI ominously coughing blood into a conveniently white basin. I’m going to rag on the gender politics of this framing in a little bit, but I will offer one concession right from the top: It’s tragic that George VI died so young, and he seems like he was a nice guy. Still, I was not sad to have a costume drama feature a man weakly coughing up blood for once. Here’s how you can tell what a traditionally female trope that is: The Crown then instantly has George be comforted by dirty limericks as a masculine gender corrective.
Anyhow, male framing. We begin with the heavily foreshadowed departure of Elizabeth’s father and some similarly telegraphed intimations about Philip’s wounded feelings. After all, he’s giving up his identity for her. (And also smoking.) Later, Philip’s sensitivity over his unmasculine role bubbles up again. His naval career is at the mercy of Elizabeth’s regnal responsibilities, he’s stuck in the most masculine version of “homemaker” he can cobble together while Elizabeth is out doing princess stuff, and he’ll soon be dragged along on a mostly ceremonial Commonwealth tour during which he’ll be nothing but Elizabeth’s escort for months. His feelings and the way Elizabeth’s role curtails his own career are at the forefront of the episode.
The other dominant male force in Elizabeth’s life is her father, who seems to want to do his best for Elizabeth, but who’s hampered by an unbelievably oppressive mid-century Britishness. He cannot tell her he has cancer, or even admit that he’s basically on his deathbed. (Of course, none of them can even say “cancer,” which is less the fault of Britishness than of the unbelievably secrecy and stigma cancer still held in the middle of the century.) He cannot be open about his fears and hopes for her. He certainly cannot talk about how difficult and different it will be for her to rule than it has been for him, and about the unique challenges a female monarch will face in the modern era. Nor do they have open conversations about the changing role of the monarchy in Britain and what it means to be an empty figurehead who’s stuck representing an entire national identity.
The best George can do for Elizabeth is give her some useful advice about always starting at the bottom of her briefing box, and to hope that she’s married a good partner. And of course, his best option for addressing that element of Elizabeth’s future is not to speak with her about it, but to agree to participate in the most traditionally male pastime any of them can think of — duck hunting.
Meanwhile, other male influences creep into Elizabeth’s life and future. Her wedding, her father’s illness, and the early shadows of her reign are also defined by Winston Churchill, who’s played with crotchety and cantankerous gusto by John Lithgow. He uses her wedding as way to emphasize his standing in the national regard. He considers stepping aside for a younger representative of the party after his election, in part for the sake of his long-suffering wife. But Churchill feels like he needs to stay in power for Elizabeth’s sake, and his wife’s response is a useful summary of the episode’s larger placement of Elizabeth in history. “The party needs me. The country needs me. She needs me,” Churchill tells his wife. “Who?” his wife asks. “Her!” “…Oh, her!” It’s enough to make you wonder if Elizabeth were born with the name Ann.
There are moments when Elizabeth herself glimmers through it all. During the post-wedding festivities, her mother and grandmother discuss the way she negotiated all the royal hierarchies to accomplish her love match with Philip: “She turned us all on our heads, and barely opened her mouth in the process.” And Claire Foy does quite a bit to signal Elizabeth’s agency within a relentlessly demure façade. Her eyes dart from face to face, reading the room. With her chin tipped down, she looks up at her husband and father, quietly assessing. In the wedding scene, Foy plays Elizabeth’s shaking nerves with something that you could read as virginal panic, or possibly, as overwhelming consciousness of the full meaning and burden of the decision she’s made.
But you need to accept a lot of outside perspectives to actually find Elizabeth at the center of this episode. The penultimate scene encapsulates this problem quite efficiently: Knowing he’s about to die, George takes Philip out hunting at Wolferton Splash, a game reserve he created after a German Zeppelin shell destroyed part of the landscape around Sandringham in World War I. George has got to make sure Philip truly understand what he’s signed up for. “She is the job,” George tells Philip. “Doing this for her — for me — there is no greater act of patriotism or love.” And then they glide through the mist, killing birds.
This scene, which gives the episode its title, is what The Crown will need to escape if its depiction of Elizabeth is going to become more than beautiful costumes and sharp glances. She’s there at the center of it, of course. She’s the whole purpose for this conversation, and the only thing they talk about. But she’s completely absent, both in her physical presence and in any acknowledgement of her agency. Philip should set aside his noble pursuit of a career for Elizabeth, but he should do it for the country and for his father-in-law. Elizabeth is mostly beside the point.
This isn’t just a task The Crown will need to take on for the sake of its own success. It will need to do that, of course, because a series about Elizabeth’s reign where she remains entirely defined by other people will have an unsatisfyingly absent center. But this is the central task of any account of royal life, and it is crucial to the tension at the center of Elizabeth’s reign. The Crown takes place at the moment when the British monarchy has been utterly reduced from the power it once held — it is, essentially, only a crown now. As such, the primary appeal and the fundamental conflict it needs to address is the friction between Elizabeth as a human being and Elizabeth as a national mascot.
At this point I have every reason to hope The Crown is staged to accomplish that, and it’s completely sensible that it would need to begin with an overt, heavily male perspective in order to differentiate the person Elizabeth will become. While the men are complaining about how tough it is to set aside their own desires so a woman can have a job, Elizabeth sneaks into her father’s office and sits behind his desk. She’s imagining his death, but she’s also imagining her own future life. She looks at the red briefing boxes. She sits back regally. She’s preparing.