Scientia Potentia Est
John Lithgow as Winston Churchill.
Hooray, an episode that isn’t about Margaret and Peter! “Scientia Potentia Est” really drills down on Elizabeth the woman, giving us a different view of the person we’ve followed for six hours.
If you’re going to make up a bit of history to give us a fuller picture of Elizabeth, inventing a story where she hires herself a tutor to address the giant gaps in her education is a pretty good choice. For the record, Elizabeth’s education was probably not quite as empty as The Crown suggests — biographies suggest that she would’ve known a lot more history than she seems to in this episode, and she was trained to follow daily politics and the news. She may have even heard the phrase “military-industrial complex” at some point.
The larger suggestion, though, is likely accurate and totally fascinating. Elizabeth did not receive anything like a traditional education in her childhood, and indeed, one of the few really trained educators she knew was the vice provost of Eton. He did focus on constitutional law, to the exclusion of things like math and science. (He also actually kept a pet raven in his study.) So yes, Elizabeth would’ve been remarkably useless in a discussion of Russia’s nuclear program, and she would’ve had very little to say in a conversation outside of her limited experiences. Her decision to hire a tutor is a remarkable dual gesture of valuing herself and frankly assessing her own limitations. (The episode title, which translates to “knowledge is power,” is also clearly on Elizabeth’s side.)
I like this episode for a number of reasons. It successfully weaves together several thematically related conflicts in different realms of Elizabeth’s life. On the foreign front, she’s aware of the Cold War, and tries to anticipate England’s new role on the world stage. Within the government, she’s dealing with an insurrection of elderly men, trying to hide their ailments and prevent her from fulfilling her constitutional duty. In her official monarchal household, she’s managing the transition from an old private secretary to a new one, while feeling out what her powers actually are when it comes to questions of protocol and hierarchy. And within her own life and family, she’s identifying the gap between the queen her parents prepared her to be, and the queen her world actually requires. In each of these battles, Elizabeth is trying to negotiate between old systems and new ones that don’t even fully exist yet.
The episode works because each of those conflicts is fully formed in and of itself, but also because Elizabeth, in each case, is grappling with various angles of the same problem. Who is she and what can she actually do?
The Crown hasn’t gone into this question much (although this episode is the closest it’s gotten so far), but it’s important because the exact nature of Elizabeth’s power is much less well-defined than we might imagine. The constitution of the United Kingdom is not like ours — it’s not a single document that lays out, all at once, the fundamental structure of how the government works. Instead, it’s a collection of documents that go back centuries, each of them creating a pile of suggestions and precedents and traditions that strongly suggest what a monarch’s role should be, but which can technically be disregarded or changed as circumstances arise. This actually requires extensive interpretation. I bring this up not just because I’m thrilled to put the college essay I once wrote on the subject to good use, but also because it’s relevant to the tensions Elizabeth faces here.
She’s come into a monarchal paradigm that suggests her best action, at any point, is to do nothing. It’s what we saw her grandmother preach right before her death, it’s what Churchill and the government seem to expect of her, and it’s really all her father has prepared her to do. On the other hand, she does have extensive training in this one particular thing — what constitutional tradition indicates a queen should do at any given time. And unlike the government we Americans are accustomed to, the question of whether she should (or whether she even has to) do anything at all is much more up for debate than you might think. She is truly making it up as she goes.
The episode’s big moment is, of course, the dual lecture at the end, when Elizabeth finds out Churchill and Eden have been lying and calls them into Buckingham Palace to deliver a royal smackdown. Winston’s is far more courteous and compassionate, and it’s here that Elizabeth pulls out her old notes from Walter Bagehot’s The English Constitution and, as gently as possible, reminds Churchill to give her the respect that her “office and rank deserve,” not the one “that my age and gender suggest.” It’s a good lecture, and Churchill no doubt deserves all of Elizabeth’s kindly tip-toeing around his age and ill health. The more satisfying lecture goes to Lord Salisbury, who says absolutely nothing while Elizabeth rips him to shreds and then icily hits the “you’re dismissed” bell. Honestly, it made me want to pull out some Broad City reaction GIFs.
And there are lots of great one-on-one Elizabeth conversations throughout the episode, too. The dynamic between her and Tommy Lascelles is fascinating. Martin Charteris seems lovely, and it’s a shame that he’s clearly barged into something he knows absolutely nothing about. Elizabeth’s talks with fictional Professor Hogg are also endearing.
But the best scene is surely the most poignant one, as Elizabeth goes charging into the Queen Mother’s sitting room and demands to know why she was never given an adequate education. There is so much stuff wrapped up in this fight, and it’s the most human either of these two characters have ever seemed toward each other. All at once, we get exactly what kind of mother the Queen Elizabeth would’ve been, undermining Elizabeth’s intelligence while simultaneously mocking her for even wanting to be better informed than she is. She’s defensive and dismissive, telling Elizabeth that “no one wants a bluestocking” for a queen before turning around and advising that Elizabeth not try to force something “that doesn’t come naturally.”
Elizabeth is understandably furious, but mostly incapable of standing up to a mother who’s taught her to stay quiet for her entire life. Thanks to a throwaway line, this scene is also the most I’ve felt for Princess Margaret so far, and it almost makes me entirely rethink my assessment of her. The Queen Mother tells Elizabeth that she got exactly the training a monarch needs, “which is far more than your sister ever got.” Alas, poor Margaret. Maybe she really had no idea how much of a mess she and Peter would be.
I know full well it isn’t going to last, but I also loved the role Philip found for himself at the end of the episode. After struggling mightily through a constitutional crisis, a state dinner that gets thrown and thrown in a matter of days, confronting her own ignorance, and a quiet revolution among her staff, Elizabeth finally catches Philip, half-drunk, stumbling around their rooms. And thankfully, rather than throwing a fit about keeping his name or walking next to her or reading her briefing boxes, he tells her she looks powerful and suggests they blow off Michael Adeane and have sex instead. Yes, Philip. You’re at your best when you’re a very attractive and insouciant trophy husband. Let’s remember that next time you feel an urge to weigh in on matters of state.