“Marionettes” is the first episode of season two that focuses on Elizabeth, so it’s no surprise that it also returns to one of the show’s strengths: exploring the monarchy as an anachronistic institution stuck in the modern world. But it’s time to accept that Elizabeth will never get the darkly dramatic, daring, fictionalized reconsideration that her sister Margaret gets. The last episode was a really beautiful piece of TV storytelling, and it was much more inventive than The Crown has been in the past. Those shots of Margaret sitting edgily in that chair while Tony stomped around above her, and that deliciously sexy darkroom scene were some tensely wound, vibrant stuff. Now we move on to “Marionettes,” where Elizabeth’s story feels very straight, no-nonsense, this-is-how-the-history-went-down period TV.
There are several moments that float above that status quo tone, and boy, when The Crown finds those little gems it is astoundingly good. I loved the sequence about Elizabeth’s iconic hairstyle, set to the ecstatic heights of “Zadok the Priest.” It’s a perfect combination of humor and self-awareness, while also being actually sincere. The hair actually is that iconic. As an image of the monarchy, Liz’s hair probably deserves “Zadok the Priest.” But it’s also hilarious to hear that choir singing over the cloud of her hairspray. (Also, Philip? You’d prefer Rita Hayworth? Sure. Calm down, buddy.)
The televised Christmas speech scene is also a knockout. Claire Foy plays Elizabeth’s sincere desire to fix things, along with her work ethic, her frustration, and her self-conscious smile for the camera so, so well. She plays the moment when that smile falls even better. It is my favorite Elizabeth scene from the show to date. I always like it when TV shows are about the process of making TV, but even still, this scene feels like it goes to the heart of The Crown’s strongest thematic material: the ongoing push and pull between an ancient institution and a new modern moment, and the way real people get trapped in these massive, abstract tectonic shifts.
The thing is, Foy’s performance is so fantastic that my issues with the writing of Elizabeth almost seem beside the point. You catch these glorious flashes of a different Elizabeth every now and again, a queen with a bite to her. When she sits across from Lord Altrincham in that amazing meeting and begins, “Is my voice all right? You can understand me? Not too … strangled?” you want to stand up and cheer for her.
“Marionettes” includes lots of material taken directly from the record, although much of it has been repurposed or reframed to fit into a tidier version of events. Elizabeth’s terrible “lives of average people” speech was actually taken from the text of her 1954 Christmas broadcast, and although it reads slightly better when it’s not being directly addressed to a factory full of autoworkers, the text is still worthy of Lord Altrincham’s criticisms. (You can read the whole thing, but some of the deadliest lines were absolutely real, including the bit about how the country depends upon its citizens’ ability to “withstand the fatigue of dull, repetitive work.”)
Much of the Lord Altrincham material is also real, and if you just can’t get enough of a nervous-looking minor peer sitting awkwardly at a desk and trying to look reasonable while calling the national maternal figurehead old-fashioned, there’s plenty of archival footage you can enjoy. He was indeed punched in the face. There were many newspaper headlines along the lines of “PEER SNEER!” I couldn’t find any records of his dental work, but he’s British, so you can fill in the blanks. As you’d expect, though, there’s no record of his ever having had a private meeting with the queen in which he read her a list of things she should do to improve her public image, although he did actually meet with Charteris.
Elizabeth is amazing throughout, including in the stag-hunting scene that was clearly borrowed from The Queen, but The Crown just can’t hold itself back from its more preachy impulses when it touches on direct history. On the topic of royalty resenting the modern era, I’d have been fine witnessing Elizabeth’s frustration and disdain for the necessity of a televised Christmas speech and calling it a day. Foy’s performance spoke volumes. Her meeting with Lord Altrincham was plenty explicit about the issue.
But we still get an entire monologue from the queen mother lamenting the death of the monarchy, the way it’s being stolen out from under them, and the slow humiliation of democratic governments. “First the barons, then the merchants, now the journalists,” she sighs, before essentially turning straight to the camera and saying, “That’s all we are now — marionettes. Get it? Marionettes, like puppets, which are toys which look like they move on their own but are actually controlled by other people, which is also the name of the episode!”
In case you had any doubt whether we were supposed to agree with the queen mother or whether Lord Altrincham was going to win this battle, the episode also throws in some commentary about how all of his suggestions were adopted and he eventually revoked his title. Lord Altrincham did not hate Elizabeth; he saved her. He helped push the monarchy into changing with the times. He forced the queen and her mother to shake hands with someone named Harry the Hammer, and they held their noses and did it for the good of the institution. Thank goodness for him.
I love The Crown, and I will go back and watch Elizabeth’s hair being sculpted out of prayers, hairspray, and angelic choral music at least three more times. I’m perpetually frustrated with Philip, who will never be sneered at as much as he deserves, and I’m exasperated with the attention Margaret gets while Elizabeth is stuck with borrowed stag-hunting scenes. But moments like that televised Christmas speech reveal exactly how great this show can be, especially when it’s an incisive examination of celebrity, star-making, and public figureheads. Those are messy, painful subjects. They’re complicated. It’s too bad The Crown won’t let them be a little messier, and not wrap them up with such a neat, congratulatory bow.