“Paterfamilias” is a truly devastating episode of television. It uses the dual timelines from Charles’s childhood and Philip’s childhood to powerful effect: Young Philip walking behind the caskets of his beloved sister and her entire family, past an endless sea of Nazi salutes. Charles, hiding behind a column and weeping, unable to complete the absurd, grueling Annual Challenge. Philip staggering into the dining hall, finally admitting he needs help. Poor Charles, huddled in the corner of that same hall, resting his head on his bodyguard for comfort. And that crushing scene that begins with Philip trying to be generous to what he thinks is happening in Charles’s head, and winds itself up into Philip exploding at him. It is absolutely gutting.
It’s also a gorgeously constructed episode, beautifully directed by Stephen Daldry. It’s just so tragic. And it succeeds in doing the impossible: It actually made me feel sorry for Philip. He’s still awful in this episode, but he’s understandably awful, unlike that time earlier this season when he threw a fit about having to give a speech.
So yes, “Paterfamilias” is one of the strongest episodes of the season. But there’s also a small voice in my head that’s muttering, “Oh, sure. Take a show about the longest reigning monarch in British history, someone who happens to be a woman, and turn it into a story about masculinity and fatherhood.” It pushes aside the season’s prominent threads — like the strain in Elizabeth and Philip’s marriage, and Elizabeth’s intense pressure to not only be the queen but also to raise the next king — so we can spend even more time with Philip. And at the end of the season, no less!
But if you’re going to marginalize Elizabeth, do it for an episode like this one. “Paterfamilias” has real, weighty stakes and it illuminates something essential and vital about those closest to her. It’s so astonishing that it’s hard to believe it’s actually true, but for the most part, it is. The plane really did crash, killing Philip’s sister and her whole family. There was a newborn found in the wreckage. At 16, Philip walked behind the caskets at their funeral, surrounded by swastikas. And as an adult, he forced all three of his sons to attend Gordonstoun, even though Charles hated it so much that it almost certainly left deep scars on him.
If you don’t know much about the British educational system, the Gordonstoun setting of “Paterfamilias” might feel like an exaggeration, or a scary new genre of horror film. Not so! It joins a long tradition of stories about British boarding schools, each more “character building” than the last. I’ll put it this way: The Wikipedia article for “school story” lists “sporting events” and “bullies” as the two most frequent plot points in the genre. To this day, Gordonstoun lists the “challenge” on its school website, although there are few details about what it now entails. There is a Duke of Edinburgh award, too. There’s no historical account of Philip building a wall in the rain, but the estrangement between Philip and Charles is well documented.
The Crown is always concerned with generations and time moving forward. From the beginning, it’s dramatized collisions of the past and present. It does so in the image-making context of televising Elizabeth’s coronation, and it does so in the cultural, social climate of Margaret’s romantic life and Elizabeth’s old-fashioned sensibilities. But “Paterfamilias” marks the first time that The Crown has really explored the weight and pain of being a parent when your own childhood was a nightmare. Because the Philip and Charles timelines get equal weight in the episode, you can feel the pressure and abuse running in parallel to one another across time.
Their stories are not the same, of course, and this is what Philip blinds himself from seeing, much to Charles’s detriment. Philip arrives at Gordonstoun in need of structure and guidance, in need of some grounding. (Not for nothing, he was also in desperate need of links to people who weren’t all Nazis. Also, wow, there were a lot of Nazis hiding in the wings of the royal family!) In the middle of his incredible pain, Philip gets to Gordonstoun and thrives under Dr. Hahn’s system of physical exertion and mental challenge. Philip is furious with the world, so taking out his anger on a stone wall in the pouring rain is a useful exercise.
Charles’s needs and personality are different, and he arrives at Gordonstoun in the middle of a different world. There are members of the press everywhere. He’s aware of what his father expects of him, and he likewise knows he’ll never live up to what Philip wants. Philip knows he’s failing Charles, too. But to his eye, Charles is growing up in the middle of ruinous luxury and he’s spoiled by overindulgence. After all, Charles has parents! His sister didn’t die in a horrible plane crash! He needs toughening up. The sad irony is that far from overindulgence, Charles is most in need of a parent to hug him and listen to his anxieties. And, ideally, he’s in need of not being the heir apparent.
You can’t overstate how well all of this works in the episode, and how wrenching it makes the climactic moment of Philip and Charles together in that airplane. Philip, after all, has the sort of personality that endures devastation after an airplane crash and then insists, forcefully, that he must become a pilot. (“Paterfamilias” is so good that it retroactively improves Philip’s fit about wanting to learn how to fly from season one.) He knows he needs to connect with his son, and he wants to find some way to help Charles, to encourage him and push him to be more. He wants Charles to really believe the Gordonstoun motto — there is more in him than he knows.
But all Charles can do is weep, terrified of the rattling plane and his threatening father. He sounds exactly like Cecile sounded, as she wept with terror during the flight to Scotland with her brother. It’s all too much for Philip, and so the abuse, neglect, and damage rolls downhill to another generation.
Elizabeth is right: Scarred children make for destroyed adults. It’s true for Philip, and it looks like it’ll be true for Charles as well.