“Paterfamilias” put the focus on Philip, but it was focused on him for reasons that made sense. The story about his childhood tragedy was downright chilling. It was a beautifully constructed episode. And more important for The Crown, understanding the damage Philip has done to Charles will surely be an big element of the coming seasons. If you don’t know how things work out in Charles’s adult life, I’m not going to spoil them for you here, but needless to say, he doesn’t turn out to be super-stable.
In other words, the Philip mania of episode nine is excused. Episode ten? Not so much.
The historical basis for “Mystery Man” is the Profumo Affair, a scandal that indeed rocked Britain and led to MacMillan’s resignation, Stephen Ward’s suicide, and widespread unrest for the royal family, the government, and the country at large. The general outline of the scandal is that Stephen Ward, osteopath and partier, arranged meetings between powerful men and young, vulnerable women. One of those women, Christine Keeler, had an affair with John Profumo, Britain’s secretary of State for war. At the same time, Keeler was also in a sexual relationship with a Soviet attaché, Yevgeny Ivanov. Needless to say, when the news of Profumo’s affair broke and the potential for Soviet spying got wrapped up in the story, there was a national uproar: Newspapers of the era were filled with suggestive images of the young, attractive Keeler, looking shocked and resentful from the backseat of a car.
“Mystery Man” spins the scandal out in the background, while its main interest is the stuff that’s never been proven — namely, Philip’s connection to it all. Andrew Lloyd-Webber co-wrote a musical that touches on the topic, and there are a few extremely suggestive bits to support The Crown’s stance. Stephen Ward was a member of the Thursday Club. He did several portraits of Philip, which were all purchased with cash in the ’60s and have since mostly disappeared. The official Profumo file is still not available to the public, which was discussed in the House of Lords and which The Daily Mail covered with a great deal of “oh sure, Prince Philip probably wasn’t involved but let’s just say his name together with Profumo scandal a bunch” handwringing.
The Crown is less wishy-washy on Philip’s involvement, and all but hangs a giant “this man was involved in the Profumo scandal!” placard around his neck. The “mystery man” in its title is the identity of someone whose back is turned to the camera in a shot of one of Stephen Ward’s gatherings. Margaret helpfully mentions to Elizabeth that the mystery man looks an awful lot like Philip around the shoulders and ears, and just in case you weren’t sure, The Crown gives us a lingering wordless shot of the back of Philip’s head, one that obviously mirrors the man in the photograph. As far as this show is concerned, Philip did it. There’s not much clarity on what the “it” might be, but regardless, he did it.
The second season of The Crown has framed Elizabeth as someone with almost no agency. For the most part, things are done to her, or she’s left to manage the fallout of stuff happening around her. We know tons more about Philip than we do about Elizabeth. Prime ministers keep leaving her. Her sister’s marriage is another thing she has to handle, although she’d much rather not. The most active thing Elizabeth has done this season is insist on flying to Ghana to try to talk down President Nkrumah, and even that’s something The Crown framed as a response to her envy of Jackie Kennedy.
It feels inevitable that the story would be presented this way. Of course we’d watch Philip stare forlornly at icebergs. Obviously Margaret and Tony would get a beautiful, striking, sexy story while Elizabeth is left in massive, empty rooms, her arm crossed over her midsection, her purse strap tucked primly into one elbow. The show needed to devote a lot of time to whether Philip betrayed her, and if so, how. But still, The Crown seems to insist on giving other characters all the active verbs, while Elizabeth sits and watches. Philip betrays her. Prime ministers abandon her. Margaret annoys her. Her uncle pesters her. She is never the one pestering, or abandoning, or betraying. That perspective is a storytelling choice, not an inevitability of history.
There’s another version of “Mystery Man” where we begin with Elizabeth finding out about the Profumo scandal, where she orders Adeane to cover it up, and where she oversees investigative efforts into the nature of Philip’s involvement. There’s another version where she paces around Balmoral in frustration, furious at her weakness and her husband’s estrangement and the way her position leaves her completely unable to do anything. There’s a version where Elizabeth gets the last word in the conversation that creates an accord between her and her husband, and we’re not supposed to swoon at Philip telling her that she is “the essence of his duty.” There’s a version where the camera focuses on her as she’s giving birth to their fourth child, instead of panning over to Philip as she does all the work.
That’s not the episode we get, of course. And in spite of my complaints, there’s a ton of remarkable stuff here. Every single shot of Elizabeth in Balmoral is beautiful. Her conversation with MacMillan as he gets wheeled in on his hospital bed knocked my socks off. And that final confrontation between Elizabeth and Philip, where he begs her not to look away, pleads with her not to recede into the distance? It’s almost inhumanly good. Foy shoots off a look of such resignation and pain and boundless exhaustion, and Matt Smith acts his ears off in response. Every inch of his frame is beseeching and wounded and desperate. That endless, silent shot of the two of them sitting together, folded into each other — just absolutely gorgeous.
This finale is like so much of The Crown, in all of its frustrations and all of its undeniable glories. The cinematography, the setting, the costumes: The textures were so beautiful that I watched in awe. I am still thinking about those shots of Philip on the Good Ship Adultery out in the South Pacific. And as thrilled as I am that Olivia Colman has been cast as Elizabeth — and I am overjoyed about it — Foy’s performance is so mesmerizing that I almost wish she could keep doing it for seasons and seasons more.
Farewell to The Crown, season two. Long live The Crown, for a long time to come. Even Philip, I guess.