The rubber is finally starting to hit the road, and it’s a significant boost to the pacing and tension of this Windsor family drama. The Crown is never going to be paced like Empire. It will always focus on lingering shots of icy stares and rustling silks and the clinking sound a teacup makes when you set it down abruptly on a saucer. I love all of those things, but nevertheless, it helps when the show introduces explicit motivation to put all of those icy stares to good use.
“Windsor” is driven forward by the accelerating political tensions that land on Elizabeth’s lap as soon as she gets involved with the government. Churchill is on her doorstep trying to push for a significantly delayed coronation for reasons she can’t quite understand, and she’s elbow-deep in crimson-red briefing boxes before she knows what’s happening. Philip wants her to make sure they can continue living at Clarence House, which he’s spent so much time renovating, and he also wants to make sure his children will keep the last name Mountbatten (thereby changing the royal house name to Mountbatten once Charles takes the throne).
I feel for Philip on this, at least as it relates to Clarence House. I’m confident Buckingham Palace is a miserable place to live, and Elizabeth had a mother and grandmother who could’ve banged around in the palace for a bit while he and Elizabeth stayed in Clarence House. But the name thing, an issue that will continue for years to come, is totally unnecessary. You married the presumptive queen of England. They’re all Windsors. She’s not asking you to change your name to Elbert or something weird, but the kids have got to be Windsors. How did you not anticipate this? Pull it together!
So there’s tension in Elizabeth’s marriage, and continued storm clouds brewing on the Margaret-Townsend front. The biggest dramatic engine in this episode, though, is the arrival of the Duke of Windsor, George’s estranged elder brother. The episode tells his story through flashbacks and the aforementioned icy stares: David Windsor, who was King Edward VIII, fell in love with Wallis Simpson, a married woman (and probable Nazi sympathizer) whom he intended to marry after his coronation. He was denied, and ended up stepping down and handing the crown over to his younger brother, making Albert into King George VI and Albert’s children into the heirs to the throne. The story of how this whole situation went down is lengthy and very dramatic and it all caused a huge national to-do, but suffice it to say, he’s back so he can attend his father’s funeral.
David, Duke of Windsor, is a fascinating character for this show. He’s exactly at the center of all of the tensions and themes that define this family and this narrative. The Crown paints him with some sympathy, cutting to brief slow-motion sequences of him dancing with Wallis, and shots of her reading his letters from their home in the United States. Of course it’s unfair that he couldn’t marry the person he loved, and of course you can understand his hatred of the family who basically banished him. The scene where he greets Queen Mary in that massive, frigid museum of a room is completely devastating. She shows no affection at all and blames him for George’s death. Basically, it is awful to parent or be parented from anywhere at all inside the Windsor family. They are all terrible at it. Of course we feel bad for David.
But the show also depicts him as opportunistic and manipulative, alternating between cruelty and sly fawning concern as needed. He has horrible nicknames for everyone. He wiggles his way in with Churchill, promising to help on the residence and naming issues in exchange for securing his annual allowance. (Speaking of which, yeah, he’s being peevish and self-interested about the money, but what else is he supposed to do? They won’t let him get a job, so he truly is dependent on their good graces.) The former king then capitalizes on Elizabeth’s apparently sincere request for fatherly advice so he can carry out Churchill’s wishes, before waving to the cheering crowds and getting on a boat back to America.
So David leaves, having pushed Elizabeth toward accepting his advice about naming the kids Windsor and moving to Buckingham Palace (and alienating Philip in the process). While his visit was short, he throws all of the buried family issues into sharp relief. His abdication is a deep family shame — it’s the thing that made good, dignified royal behavior so painfully vital to George. It will later do the same to Elizabeth. David chose himself rather than public service, elevating his own needs over the needs of his country. Maybe the most poignant scene of the episode is Elizabeth’s breakfast with him, when she quietly insists that he apologize to her. By choosing to save his own happiness, he thoughtlessly sacrificed hers instead. To his credit, David offers what sounds like a very sincere apology.
He still manipulates her, of course, suggesting that she make exactly the sort of marriage-damaging choice he would never have agreed to do himself. He does it for his own benefit. Elizabeth’s impressive attempts to negotiate with Churchill over the date of the coronation fall by the wayside, and she announces that her children will take the name Windsor. As a result of this, and as a result of years of indoctrination about the importance of doing her duty to prioritize the national interest, Elizabeth starts to become the reserved, private, self-effacing monarch we know today. A literal figurehead, perfectly coiffed, perpetually scripted, and largely invisible as a person underneath the facade of being a queen.
This episode, like the ones before it, is still too long. I probably did not need the hunting scenes with Philip’s uncle, toasting to the royal House Mountbatten. (Although Queen Mary’s affront at discovering that people are drinking Champagne the day after her son’s funeral is almost worth it.) I’m not sure that I needed quite so much of David writing letters back to Wallis, either. But where the previous episodes lacked a through-line to keep all of the diverging characters in check, “Windsor” is more successful in creating strong, narratively potent parallels between Edward and Wallis, Philip and Elizabeth, and Peter and Margaret. Each of them is a case for the love-versus-duty battle that The Crown is trying to frame. At the same time, each relationship is just different enough that the parallels seem useful rather than trite.
Obviously, Elizabeth will be tested far beyond this naming kerfuffle. Philip is seriously peeved with her and feels deeply betrayed. (Once again: What did you think you were marrying into, Philip? Suck it up.) More dramatically, the Margaret-Townsend relationship looms on the horizon as Townsend tells Margaret that his wife is divorcing him. That scene, with Margaret hiding behind the curtains while Philip chats with Peter about airplanes and spots a woman’s purse on Peter’s desk, feels a bit over-the-top. But it does a nice job of establishing Margaret’s risk-taking personality as the precise opposite of Elizabeth’s. That sisterly standoff should be impressive.
While The Crown has suffered some narrative bagginess in these early episodes, its execution of the primary directive for any costume drama — namely, the gorgeous, sumptuously filmed, lovingly detailed clothing and furniture and settings — is absolutely on point. Elizabeth’s weirdly Victorian mourning veil? Every single thing about Queen Mary? Philip playing with Charles in the fabulous gardens? The food Elizabeth eats with David at breakfast? Stunning. The only snag in my beautiful costume-drama dream is the scoring by Hans Zimmer, who just cannot help throwing in an Inception-ish “braaaaaaam” sound at the most dramatic moments. This is supposed to be the 1930s, Zimmer! Cool it.