It’s been pointed out numerous times throughout this series how easy it is for the Queen to be upstaged by her more captivating family members. Even she admits herself in this episode that her ideal existence is spending her days raising horses and not as head of state. We don’t need further reminders that she didn’t want to be monarch; though I’ll give a pass to Olivia Colman and her pensive monologue about how Elizabeth’s Kentucky sojourn was her chance to experience “the unlived life.” But every now and then, The Crown does well to exemplify why Elizabeth’s personal sacrifices have been worth it. Because she is very, very good at her job.
In “Coup,” the Queen’s monthlong equine vacay comes to a screeching halt when she’s summoned home to avert a potential government overthrow. Just when she thought she could leave the nation to its own devices and immerse herself in one of the few things that make her happy, a group of entitled old white men decide to plot treachery.
The Crown has Elizabeth taking her poorly timed trip to check out horse farms in France and the U.S. sometime in late 1967, right when Harold Wilson announces the devaluation of the British pound. Widespread criticism of Wilson and the Labour Party soon follows. For those keeping accuracy scores, the Queen has made regular visits to Kentucky stud farms over the years, but from what I can gather, they didn’t start until the 1980s. Liz’s contrived absence just helps enhance the increasingly tense storyline.
Around the same time, Wilson and his Cabinet oust Philip’s uncle, Lord “Dickie” Mountbatten (Charles Dance, taking over for Greg Wise), as chief of the defense staff. Their reasons being that Dickie never made the defense cuts Wilson promised when elected, and the beleaguered Labour Party needs some “good headlines.” This decision also comes off as a Crown-penned plot device for what’s to come, mainly because Lord Mountbatten retired from his post in 1965, two years before this episode takes place. After the humiliation of having to watch his own portrait removed from his now-former office and being served a pathetic-looking cake that wouldn’t look out of place at a Dwight Schrute–organized party, Dickie is ripe for recruitment by a cadre of cronies ready to put him back on top.
That cadre is led by Cecil King (Rupert Vansittart), a newspaper mogul impressed with Dickie’s penchant for quoting Kipling (whereas King prefers Shakespeare) and yearning for the good ol’ days. Dickie is invited to lunch, where King lays his proposal at the royal family member’s feet: Britain is in shambles, and its only hope is for these suits to form an emergency government with Lord Mountbatten as their new prime minister. (In short, Lord Yohn Royce proposes to Tywin Lannister that they topple a regime together.)
Anyone with even the barest knowledge of British history knows that this didn’t happen, but as with most storylines in The Crown, they all contain at least a shred of truth: An overthrow was purportedly planned in 1968, with King admitting to holding discussions with Lord Mountbatten, while denying a coup plot. Also, a 2019 Mountbatten biography alleges Dickie was more involved than previously acknowledged, and this episode doesn’t do much to dispute those claims — or the idea that it was only by the Queen’s intervention that the coup was halted at all.
After spending the next 48 hours giving himself a crash course on How to Overthrow Your Government, military lifer Dickie presents a sensible argument to King and his associates as to why staging a coup IS A TERRIBLE IDEA. But what does Dickie care about that when he has the chance to get his revenge on the prime minister and run the country? He just has to, you know, convince the Queen to support treason against her own government.
Not that Elizabeth would’ve ever gotten on board with this scheme, but the fact that she has to learn about it in the midst of sampling her version of an idyllic life doesn’t help. As soon as Wilson alerts her to the plot being spearheaded in her absence, Liz is cruelly reminded of why she can’t spend her days raising horses: She has to keep her power-hungry family members in check.
We are then treated to a delectable scene between Colman and Dance, in which an irate Queen administers one of her now-infamous dressing-downs to Dickie — after he unequivocally confesses to what he’s been up to in her absence. Dude’s got balls, that’s for sure.
But Liz’s are bigger, because she’s the Goddamn Queen, and she’s not going to have anarchy in the U.K. on her watch (at least not yet). She may not be a fan of Harold Wilson either, or have the ability to teach herself the history of military coups in two days’ time, but at least she can avert a constitutional crisis by pointing out that it is not the job of the royal family to “do something,” especially not when a bunch of spoiled rich men want to throw a temper tantrum at the expense of the British people. If Elizabeth has learned anything in her 15 years on the throne, it’s that “doing nothing is exactly what we do.” Not getting involved in the government is the smartest move she could possibly make, even if it looks like she’s sticking her head in the sand. It’s called “protecting democracy.”
She also understands that Dickie needs a purpose, so she recommends he start by visiting his frail older sister, Princess Alice, who gives him a better reality check than the Queen ever could. The bottom line is, they’re old, they’ve been put out to pasture, so why get their knickers in a twist over political upheavals anymore? Alice basically tells her brother to let the young’uns handle it in a two-worded sick burn: “Who cares?”
Speaking of the “young’uns,” it is all too rare that The Crown closes out an episode with an utterly charming, dare I say it, romantic moment that left me all warm and tingly inside — a welcome reprieve from the heavy narrative. Following their marital squabbles of season two, season three has been subtly celebrating Elizabeth and Philip’s emergence from that dark period with several sweet moments sprinkled throughout the episodes. While we’re never going to get a torrid sex scene from these two, it was fun to see Philip exhibit a spark of jealousy over his wife’s continued friendship with Henry Herbert, aka “Porchey” (John Hollingworth), who accompanied Elizabeth on her horse-breeding fact-finding trip. It was even more fun watching Phil walk off with that silly grin after Liz announced she’d be “up in a minute” — and Liz school-girlishly holding her face in her hands in anticipation of the evening’s bedroom activities. She may not have the life she wanted, but at this moment, it’s pretty damn good.