I hope you enjoyed the “boat in a storm” metaphor from episode one, because episode two is here with a whole naval-themed story to really expand on that idea. “A Company of Men” follows Philip on his grand-tour adventure, sailing around the farthest reaches of the globe. He goes to Ceylon, a country that will shortly follow many of its Commonwealth brethren by becoming a republic and naming itself Sri Lanka! He goes to New Guinea, where his dashing naval boys are beaten at many sports! He goes to Antarctica, and no one back home can remember if that’s the northern one or the southern one! Everybody has a fun beard-growing competition!
Also, everybody has a jolly time banging “native” women from all reaches of the globe. What good wholesome fun it is! To be clear, “A Company of Men” does not totally excuse Philip for his loutish behavior. We see him rising from a bonfire at the invitation of an attractive dark-skinned woman; meanwhile, Elizabeth is sitting at a table with her advisers, facing down the worst crisis England has seen since 1939. The Crown seems willing enough to indict Philip for his misbehavior, especially by setting it in the context of gloriously disgusting scenes from the Thursday Club, where large red-cheeked men guffaw at the accounts of Philip’s conquests and lasciviously grope their waitresses. The message seems pretty clear: Philip sucks.
The portrait is not that simple, though. Philip is stuck opening the Olympics, a task he claims to hate for its stuffy, restrictive publicity, when a lovely female reporter catches his eye. He invites her for a private interview, in spite of his secretary Mike’s concerns. (Oh Mike, I’ll get to you in a moment.) But surprise! Instead of hopping straight into bed, Helen King wants an actual interview. Worse, she wants to ask Philip about his childhood and his feelings, stuff so painful and repressed that he short-circuits and storms out.
At the beginning, it seems like a scene designed as the final nail in Philip’s coffin: He’s going to bed this lovely blonde reporter and we’ll know he’s truly a cad. As it turns out, it’s actually aimed at humanizing him. Helen keeps insisting that Philip must be traumatized, that he must be angry at his parents, that he must be replicating that same emotional damage on his children, and that he feels terribly insecure about his position. As Philip goes charging out of the hallway, he’s now in the sympathetic position, and you know it because we also get flashbacks to his traumatic youth.
The episode continues in this vein, with Philip doing increasingly appealing things like insisting the Britannia turn around to return a rescued mariner to his home island and delivering a homesick speech all the way from Antarctica. While Philip starts to look decent-ish again, the onus for all loutish male behavior falls on Private Secretary Mike (Michael Parker), whose wife back in England has finally had enough and is drumming up the necessary evidence to get a divorce. Her meeting with a lawyer is amazingly bad, and she has to do the humiliating work of finding evidence of Mike’s infidelity herself. She does, thanks to a Thursday Club cocktail waitress who eventually steals one of Mike’s notorious letters. It does not look good for their marriage, and worse, Elizabeth’s secretary Michael Adeane is worried it’ll stir up similar rumors about Elizabeth and Philip.
Adeane’s meddling leads to the episode’s final set piece: Elizabeth and Philip at last managing to communicate with one another, by way of live public Christmas speeches given in a coordinated schedule from a distance of thousands of miles. It’s meant to be touching. It is touching: Philip speaks plaintively about how lonely he feels, sitting out on a boat on Christmas Day, separated from his family. Elizabeth hears him and responds in her own message, telling him that their family is united and that she’s waiting for him at home. (It’s not exactly the same as the actual speech Elizabeth gave, but it’s close enough that you can imagine real-life Philip sitting on his boat off Antarctica, really being very moved by it.)
In the end, “A Company of Men” refuses to make Philip into an easy villain or victim, instead aiming at something like a nuanced portrait. Visually, at least, that portrait is beautiful: The scenes of Philip on Britannia are honestly gorgeous. The shots of the naval boats pulling up onto shore are stunning, and those sailors in their whites and their goofy socks pulled up to their knees make for some fantastic images. It’s a visual key that helps support the episode’s initial suggestion about Philip’s role in his marriage: There’s Elizabeth in chilly gray Britain, and here’s Philip on a fantastically attractive ship, drenched in sun and suffused with the relaxed glow of someone whose entire job is to hang out on a boat with his friends and play sports occasionally.
Except in aiming for a nuanced portrait of Philip, this episode also ends up feeling muddled on exactly where we’re supposed to fall on the Philip question. We shake our heads sadly at Mike, who’s a real piece of work, but Philip is excused for much of the same behavior. (Or, if not excused, he’s at least sympathetic, imprisoned as he is on a boat he dearly loves, pulling rank over the captain and having beard-growing contests.) That muddle is most clear in the exchange when Mike informs Philip he has to give a Christmas speech. Philip is incensed, asking whether there were any provisions made for his own desires on the topic, and Mike wryly answers that no, no one’s made any room for Philip to have any opinions on this matter.
I get it. He didn’t want to have to deal with a huge public speech. It’s a bummer. But once again, Philip: You’ve spent five months on a beautiful ship that you love almost unreservedly. Britain is falling to pieces, and you’re mostly just dealing with itchy beards and a goodwill tour. In choosing to marry Elizabeth, you surely understood that a significant portion of your life would be dedicated to ceremonial events and bland public statements. I do not feel sympathy with your desire to not give a speech. It’s also not especially convincing to depict Philip in the midst of an emotional crisis by showing him in his storm-tossed cabin with thunder pealing in the background, and then having him pause to look at some family photos. The ship is in choppy waters. He’s got angst. We get it!
I don’t know that The Crown is making Philip as complicated as it clearly wants to, but I also don’t know that it matters that much for this episode. Character portraits aside, The Crown lives and dies by how lushly it envisions a particular moment in history, how brightly the water sparkles, how primly Elizabeth walks from her desk to the broadcasting table, and how happily all the unnamed Tongan people embrace their returned, rescued sailor. It’s simply a fantastic show to look at.
But will we sympathize with Philip when he gets home and starts railing against all the gossip about his friend Mike Parker? Will he still play the wounded victim when he’s not wearing that truly, fantastically great navy and white turtleneck sweater while aboard his fun adventure ship? We’ll see.