Before we get to Billy Graham and Elizabeth’s need for guidance, before we talk about how nice it is to watch Elizabeth learn that you can’t ever forgive a Nazi, and before we check in with Edward and Wallis, we need to pause for a moment. We must glory in the fact that The Crown gave us a brief, beautiful scene of a dog’s birthday party. Not just any dog, either. It is Trooper the pug’s birthday. There are decorations, there is a photographer, and Trooper wears a party hat.
The Duke of Windsor and his wife may be disgusting, Nazi-sympathizing, cowardly creeps, but they certainly know how to throw a party. Can you still enjoy a pug birthday party if it’s for a Nazi-sympathizing pug? The Crown is posing some tough questions this season.
Anyhow, this is an episode about Nazis, and how they’re still bad even if they love their dogs and it’s been a few years since they actually killed anyone. The Crown returns to Edward VIII and his wife, Wallis, who are camped out in a pleasure palace in Paris and living out the last decades of their life in marital spats and fancy dress parties. “A life of pleasure really has its limits,” Edward sighs, sadly. His desire was always to serve his country, he tells Wallis, but now he’s stuck in a beautiful Parisian villa with his wife, his friends, and a healthy annual income. It’s so sad for him! He decides to take a quiet trip back to England, hoping he can land a largely ceremonial position that would allow him to regain his popularity and restore his legacy. Needless to say, things do not go as he hopes.
Edward and Wallis may be my favorite characters on this show. As I’ve written in previous recaps, Philip wobbles back and forth between supportive helpmeet, loutish husband, and media diva. (I guess that new official “Prince Philip” title really helped their marriage, huh? There’s no real way to know, because The Crown loves to drop these big relationship beats and then completely ignore the aftermath!) It’s similarly uneven for Elizabeth, although “Vergangenheit” offers a more nuanced, stable vision of Elizabeth than we’ve seen in a while. Margaret is her own whole thing, a character who seems a part of an entirely separate series that’s visually innovative and sexy and not particularly interested in historical asides.
But Edward and Wallis walk into The Crown fully formed, exuding confidence and cruelty and wounded pride. The series has an uncannily assured sense of exactly who Edward and Wallis are — they are the kind of people who’d dress up as the King and Queen of England at their costume party, then pout about it off in a corner. Edward is the sort of man who’d make a forgiveness tour of dinner discussions with his friends from back home, hoping to find some governmental post that’s mostly about hosting good cocktail parties. He addresses letters to his wife as “My dearest, darling Peaches,” and then proceeds to send her a letter full of the most devastating, Drag-Race-reaction-GIF-worthy burns you could possibly imagine. He’s the kind of guy who could speak wistfully about the old motto on his crest, Ich dien, and about how it means “I serve.” He can explain that he’d really like to keep serving his country, even though that motto is in German and also he was friends with Hitler.
The other main story is Elizabeth’s fascination with the evangelist Billy Graham. Casting Paul Sparks as Graham is an inspired choice: He pulls off the accent and the demeanor without pushing it into caricature or inhumanity. The bigger reason this story works, though, is that The Crown grounds Elizabeth’s interest in Graham within facets of her character it’s been developing for a while. Much of this hasn’t appeared since the first season, because season two has spent so much time prioritizing the Elizabeth/Philip divide and Margaret. But the idea of Elizabeth’s loneliness came up in earlier parts of this series, as well as the sense that she’s both sincerely faithful and a little bowled over as the head of the Church of England. Elizabeth looking to Graham for guidance works well, not just as a useful dovetail to the Edward story, but also as a layer that makes sense for her character.
It also helps bolster her desire to forgive Edward. He’s not just a person she should forgive because she’s a Christian and that’s what she sees as her responsibility. He’s also her relative, the only other person who gets a tiny sense of what it might be like to be her, who understands what it means to bear the weight she carries. She might want to forgive him because she misses her father and her grandmother, and also because it’d be nice to have living relatives who don’t treat her with awkward deference or troublesome disobedience. (Yes, Edward would also be troublingly disobedient, but you can still imagine the potential appeal for Elizabeth.)
But she can’t forgive him. He’s a Nazi. Tommy Lascelles doesn’t say it exactly that way, but he makes the point absolutely clear, and Elizabeth’s face goes pale as he tells her the full story of Edward and Wallis during the war. The Crown doesn’t offer many suggestive parallels to the current moment, although I think there’s a lot to be said for its depiction of celebrity image-making and the role of a leader. But “Vergangenheit” feels unusually relevant to this moment, even if the connection is left entirely up to the viewer. Just in case you missed it: Nazis are bad! Even if you want to forgive them or humanize them, you cannot!
There’s no historical record of Edward returning to England to revitalize his reputation, but there wouldn’t be, which is the entire point. However, the Marburg File is absolutely real (tip: you’ll find more information if you search for the Windsor File), and events took place pretty much as depicted in the episode. Churchill attempted to have it buried and the information was eventually published in the 1950s. For me, the difference between this episode’s strong stance on and the preachier take in “Marionettes” is that there’s no effort to excuse or soften Edward’s actions here. Philip congratulates Elizabeth for having done the right thing, but she’s still upset about it. There’s no back patting. Where the closing captions at the end of “Marionettes” felt like a bow tied on the story, the real-life photos in this episode feel like exactly what they are: an indictment. No one’s happy to have found proof that Edward and Wallis were Hitler fans. No one’s excited to further impugn their names. But there they are, smiling at the Führer, and Elizabeth needs to know it.