There’s a big part of me that wishes that “Aberfan” didn’t need a royal family storyline. I get that the show is called The Crown, and as such, it must involve the Queen, but given that there is likely a large portion of the series’ audience that had previously never heard of the Aberfan disaster (this writer ardently raises her hand), it’s a bit disconcerting to see so much screentime devoted to Elizabeth’s inability to display compassion, rather than to the actual victims of the catastrophe.
That may be the point The Crown is trying to make here. “Aberfan” attempts to make sense of why it took Elizabeth more than a week to visit the South Wales mining village where an avalanche of coal waste killed 144 people — 116 of whom were children — in October 1966. The impetus for this particular examination seems to come from a statement made in the episode’s epilogue: One of the Queen’s “biggest regrets as sovereign” was her “delayed response” to the people of Aberfan. But I think that the episode’s greatest achievement is that in its detailed recreation of this horrifying event, and its glossing over of the devastating, long-lasting effects on Aberfan’s residents, it will send viewers straight to Google, where there awaits a library of archival footage and in-depth articles that go well beyond the single week covered in The Crown.
It’s also impossible to watch “Aberfan” and not be reminded of writer Peter Morgan’s previous examination of Elizabeth’s questionable post-tragedy behavior. I know I can’t think of Princess Diana’s death without recalling the public outcry over the Queen’s silence and seclusion. But 22 years ago, she at least had the valid argument of wanting to stay close to her grieving grandsons. In 1966, her initial response was a perfunctory statement of condolence (that she didn’t even write), and this tone-deaf gem: “The Crown visits hospitals, not the scenes of accidents.” From Morgan’s point of view, Liz is remaining frustratingly on-brand here.
There are so many moments in “Aberfan” that, to paraphrase Prince Philip, would cause anyone with even a fraction of a heart to break into a thousand tiny pieces: The stunning images of the coal-waste landslide that engulfed the Pantglas Junior School; the tension-filled prologue of doomed children practicing “All Things Bright and Beautiful” in anticipation of their morning assembly (if you can make it through a recording of that song after watching this episode, then you’re made of stronger stuff than I am); the stone silence of the rescue teams when listening for a survivor’s voice; the entire community of Aberfan singing the hymn “Jesus, Lover of My Soul” at the funeral of 81 children. It is not an easy episode to get through.
For that reason, it’s difficult to have sympathy for Elizabeth and her relentless reasoning for why she shouldn’t go to Aberfan. Even when, at the end of the episode, she listens to “Jesus, Lover of My Soul” and finally manages to shed a single tear, I feel more pity for her than anything else. She argues in a private meeting with Harold Wilson that she fears she’s incapable of feeling compassion or empathy, both of which the people of Aberfan deserved in spades. Whenever loved ones have died, or her children were born, or she visited Blitz victims in hospitals, she couldn’t cry. I agree with Elizabeth that there’s something “wrong” with her, but I don’t blame her for it. She was raised in a family that keeps emotions so repressed that they’re squashed into oblivion. But I also think she wasn’t able to feel anything in light of the Aberfan disaster because she kept herself so isolated from the suffering that was witnessed firsthand by people like Lord Snowdon and Philip, both of whom visited the Welsh village before the Queen did. Princess Margaret, on the other hand, is able to experience at least a modicum of empathy, because Tony telephones her from Aberfan, and vividly describes the anguish of families waiting to identify their children’s bodies, before asking her to kiss their own sleeping kids.
Not helping Elizabeth’s case is The Crown’s suggestion that the Queen eventually visited Aberfan only to avoid a wave of bad publicity. As part of a political subplot, which saw the Labour Party enduring an onslaught of negative press following the disaster (because the National Coal Board refused to take responsibility), the Queen’s press office is tipped off to the fact that the newspapers are about to turn the sovereign into a scapegoat if she doesn’t journey to Wales soon. Elizabeth now has no choice but to go to Aberfan, where she stays for less than three hours, and exudes as much warmth as a Welsh rainy day — even after she’s handed a waterworks-inducing card “from the remaining children of Aberfan.”
Here’s the thing, though: Elizabeth’s hand was forced here, and she rightfully rips into Wilson afterward for what she believes was an underhanded ploy that he personally orchestrated. He insists it wasn’t him, but is pretty damn sure it was a couple of his colleagues, with The Crown making a case for his private secretary, Marcia Williams (Sinéad Matthews) as the culprit. At the same time, whoever planted those stories did both the Queen and the people of Aberfan a world of good, because it made Elizabeth realize that she was letting her people down by not being a comforting presence when they most needed it. She has since returned to the Welsh village several times.
The lesson to be learned from “Aberfan,” which Wilson tries to impart on Elizabeth, is that when you’re in a leadership position, sometimes, you have to “put on a show,” even when it doesn’t come naturally, to appear more likable. Turns out the prime minister isn’t such an ordinary guy as he’d have the public think: He’s “a privileged Oxford don” who prefers Chateaubriand to steak and kidney pie, but he plays the part of eschewing “anti-capitalist privilege” because it’s what got him into office. This isn’t the first time Elizabeth has been counseled to try the genial approach, and while it’s not bad advice, history has shown that it’s something she’s just not comfortable with. Fortunately, history has also shown that the younger generations have learned from her mistakes, and that at least one future king and queen are totally down for a little accessibility.
• I thought the disconnect between Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon offered the best visual representation of the detachment between the royal family and the commoners in the aftermath of tragedy: As Tony was heading off to Wales, he passed his evening-gown-clad wife in the hallway as she was returning from a birthday party — ignorant to the day’s news.
• The end credits rolling during an overhead shot of children playing in the schoolyard was appropriately unsettling.