There’s a dreamlike quality to this second episode of The Crown, which moves with methodical slowness toward the death of King George VI, and then with equally staid deliberateness after his death. I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing: There are points when that leisurely quality feels earned and welcome, but those moments lose some of their specialness when it feels as though every moment is drawn out beyond the full extent of its dramatic utility.
We see Venetia crouching at the bathroom door as Churchill’s bathtub water sloshes under the threshold, and Anthony Eden being urged to take the prime minister’s chair during a meeting after George’s death. We get Elizabeth’s advice about how to fix a Jeep, Philip facing down a rampaging elephant, and Elizabeth writing the world’s most unfortunately timed letter to her father. Together with Elizabeth’s extensive wildlife photography, George’s final duet with Margaret, and Elizabeth’s painstaking, slow-motion steps out of the Lodge as her first public appearance as queen, the whole thing feels like it’s mired in an anxiety to represent all of the available history. The really affecting, meaning-laden bits — like Elizabeth turning her back to the press after Philip tells her about George’s death, the conversation about her regnal name, the Queen Mother bowing to Elizabeth for the first time — get lost in the weight given to everything else.
It’s not hard to see why. First of all, by all accounts Netflix gave The Crown a pretty plum budget, and you can see it using every penny. The costumes! Africa! The sets, the bagpipes, the duck hunt! All of the airplanes and cars and crusty white men in tuxedos gathered around a radio! Did I mention the costumes? (Related: Can someone please tell me where to purchase a pair of Elizabeth’s safari sunglasses?) The flipping elephants! Although the most dramatic, noticeable elephant also had a few less-than-convincing moments.
From a more narrative standpoint, you can see The Crown working to move lots of pieces into place for the conflicts that will define the earliest days of Elizabeth’s reign. One major thread is the nascent affair between Princess Margaret and Master of the King’s Household Peter Townsend — we got hints that Elizabeth knew about it in the first episode, and here we see Margaret and Townsend actually embracing in a foyer (gasp!) and Townsend even goes to meet Margaret in some secret outdoor spot after she’s gone pelting off on a horse in the aftermath of her father’s death.
The peak of this plot in the second episode comes with the showdown between Townsend and George’s private secretary, Sir Alan “Tommy” Lascelles, who quickly disabuses Townsend of any hope that his relationship with Margaret might actually be secret. It’s tough to imagine a more hilariously repressed, candor-free meeting than this one. The closest either of them comes to a statement of fact is a roundabout discussion of Townsend’s “uncommonly close understanding” with the family, and the huge, shock-inducing blowup erupts when Townsend actually has the temerity to accept a job he was offered.
The Margaret/Townsend relationship is high on the list of conflicts that will soon beset poor Elizabeth once she’s officially made queen. Second on that list is surely the political brouhaha boiling up under the surface of Churchill’s prime minister-ship. He is ancient and increasingly infirm, which we can see as he grabs at his crotch while quickly exiting a cabinet meeting, and is also evident in every single frame of Lithgow’s stooped, querulous portrayal. He only cares about foreign affairs — as amply illustrated by the Venetia/briefing box/bathtub scene — and he has little patience for important domestic issues like budget deficits. And coming up right behind him is Anthony Eden, who actually has the temerity to ask George to wheedle Churchill into stepping down.
In keeping with The Crown’s narrative approach, bits of both plots reflect back on Elizabeth’s story in interesting ways. In the political story, it’s George explaining to Eden that he can’t go to Churchill and be Albert Windsor, Churchill’s old friend. Albert Windsor doesn’t exist anymore — there’s only King George VI. It’s a useful, memorable little speech, especially given the later conversation about Elizabeth keeping her own regnal name. George had an obvious demarcation in his life, thrust upon him by the necessity of stepping up to the throne unexpectedly and being an important British voice during the Second World War. Bertie could not live any longer, and he had to become George.
Except Elizabeth is still Elizabeth. This is what I’m still waiting for The Crown to really unpack, in part because I feel like I already have more sense of who Bertie was than I do who Elizabeth is. The trip to Nairobi fills in the gaps a little bit. She is excessively nervous and focused on behaving appropriately, and on representing the monarchy well. She loves her husband, and enjoys the time with him alone. She was a mechanic during the war — I do love that detail, and her frustration with less competent people operating the machinery. And we also get her fascination with the film camera George gives her, which, like so much about this depiction of Elizabeth, tells us about her only indirectly. She likes being behind the camera; she is not fond of being in front of it. I’m hoping the coronation episode will explore that tension a bit more, since Elizabeth will take the throne at the exact same moment TV becomes a household norm.
But there’s no question that The Crown’s Elizabeth will never have the same stark demarcation between woman and sovereign that her husband or her father feels. When she becomes queen, Elizabeth is shaken. She wishes it weren’t happening yet. But she’s known that it would be this way: She accepts the strangeness of descending staircases alone when Philip is still taken aback that the crown has precedence. He is frustrated and sad when Elizabeth’s personal secretary is suddenly replaced with Tommy Lascelles, knowing he’s lost an ally. Elizabeth seems saddened, but offers no protest. When her grandmother writes the letter welcoming Elizabeth to the throne, she says that the two of them, Elizabeth Mountbatten and Elizabeth Regina, will “frequently be in conflict with one another,” and that “the crown … must always win.” I’m still waiting for a moment that feels like the crown isn’t always already there, shaping who she is.
Of course, as the Margaret conflict heats up, the issue of Elizabeth’s personal feelings will come to the forefront. So let’s set that aside for now and talk a bit about Africa instead. Philip and Elizabeth’s trip to Nairobi is every bit the pre-civil rights era encounter you’d expect. Elizabeth is anxious to do well, but Philip has a perpetually half-amused take on the people who greet them, flippantly laughing at one man’s military medals. Ever proper, Elizabeth is the one who has to sharply rebuke Philip for laughing at a headdress. “It’s not a hat, it’s a crown,” she tells him. The question for The Crown and for any similar production is whether it allows itself to slide into the same Anglocentric perspective that its historical subjects would surely have held. The Africa scenes are beautiful, and for the most part, the episode is a reasonable depiction of what two unbelievably privileged white people taking a trip to Nairobi might look like.
There is one moment, though, where The Crown crosses over into reenacting the mid-century mind-set rather than just depicting it. Did we need to see the Maasai tribe come out of the bush and watch the Queen’s car drive away through the dust? Did the Maasai leader have to regard the departing car with … what, exactly? New respect? Appreciation of the duties of the throne? Game recognizing game? It doesn’t much matter: Elizabeth’s narrative is the one being privileged here, as it should be. But it feels unnecessary to fall back on noble-savage imagery to further emphasize Elizabeth’s modernity and her globally important accession to the crown. Just because The Crown is set in the 1950s doesn’t mean it should seem like it was written back then.