For what feels like the umpteenth time, The Crown has relegated the Queen to a supporting role in this episode. All so Philip can have a midlife crisis. I continue to be conflicted over this creative decision, because while I’m enjoying how Tobias Menzies has been plumbing the depths of Philip’s fractured past to showcase how it’s resulted in an even more broken adult, Elizabeth is unfairly getting the short shrift. This has been an ongoing issue with the series since the very beginning, and I can’t even argue that it’s a “dull” vs. “dazzling” choice now that Charles is creeping toward The Crown’s center stage. Of the seven episodes so far, Elizabeth has been overshadowed by Margaret, Philip, Charles — and even Philip’s mother! (Spoiler alert: This isn’t going to drastically change in the next three episodes.) Don’t get me wrong: I think examining Philip’s deep-seated self-loathing through the lens of the Apollo 11 lunar mission makes “Moondust” an inspired Crown chapter. It’s just a shame it comes at the cost of Elizabeth’s narrative.
1969 was a big year for the royals. So much so that I now have a better understanding of why some of its milestones (The Royal Family documentary, Philip’s Meet the Press appearance), were shifted to 1967 in The Crown’s universe. Shortly after Charles’s July investiture as Prince of Wales, the Mountbatten-Windsors huddled around the television set (little Princes Andrew and Edward even wearing makeshift NASA helmets!) to watch the Apollo 11 launch and subsequent moon landing. To say that Philip is obsessed would be an understatement. He binge-watches the exploits of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins for hours on end, which triggers an all-consuming discontent with his life. While returning home from another dreary official engagement (visiting a dental facility, yeesh), Philip recklessly puts himself and his co-pilot into danger by literally attempting to fly to the moon.
Philip’s feelings of failure are exacerbated when Windsor Castle’s new in-house bishop, Dean Robin Woods (Tim McMullan), arrives with plans to create a religious academy for “personal and spiritual growth” — read: he wants to treat burnt-out clergymen — and ropes a very unwitting Duke of Edinburgh into one of their group-therapy sessions. (This “academy” would become St. George’s House, which in reality was co-founded by Prince Philip and Dean Woods three years before the events of “Moondust.”)
In group therapy, Philip snidely mocks everything Dean Woods and his fellow men of God are trying to achieve, from calling the program a “concentration camp for spiritual defectives” to projecting his own inadequacy onto the participants for sitting around and talking about “pretentious, self-piteous nonsense” instead of taking action.
He also makes a point of saying how certain he is that the Apollo 11 astronauts are “at one with the world” because they’ve achieved something “spectacular.” Even going so far as to presume that they’re “at one with God — and happy.” When Philip is proved oh so gloriously wrong of that assessment later in the episode, it’s hard not to feel sorry for him. He’s a fanboy, and fanboys (and fangirls) can’t help but put their idols on pedestals.
A few months after their historic trip to the moon, the American astronauts visit Buckingham Palace, where their biggest fan requests a private audience. This (fabricated) meeting is 20 levels of awkward, with the three astronauts, exhausted from their relentless 22-nation tour, sneezing throughout. (Apparently Neil Armstrong was suffering from a cold that day, but given their whirlwind schedule, making Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins sick as well doesn’t seem too far-fetched.) When Phil presses his fellow pilots for some grand, existential observation about their experience, and gets a banal anecdote about how their water-cooler was a piece of junk in return, he learns that these “giants, gods” are just “three little men” who were merely doing their jobs. “There wasn’t much time for [thoughts about the meaning of life],” the astronauts inform him. Just as royal life is filled with “protocol and procedure,” so is a lunar mission. “We pretty much spent our entire time with lists in our hands,” says Collins.
Never meet your idols, because you’ll inevitably be disappointed.
Elizabeth’s role in this story is to provide Philip with some necessary perspective from a person who can empathize with these newly anointed superstars. She not only understands that the astronauts never asked to be public figures, but that their “absence of originality” is exactly why they made the moon landing the success that it was. Steady, reliable people may not be terribly interesting, but they do their jobs tremendously well.
Since December 1969 is when Philip’s mother, Princess Alice, died, it’s not a huge stretch for The Crown to incorporate that event into the Duke of Edinburgh’s depression as well. Sometime after Phil’s anticlimactic meeting with the astronauts, he returns to the group therapy sessions at St. George’s. Breaking with every natural inclination to keep his feelings bottled up, he admits to his midlife crisis (while still unable to say the actual words) and asks for help. I know that from a narrative perspective, seeing Philip begging for guidance from religious men is a way for him to come to terms with the loss of his mother, a woman whose faith kept her alive after decades of emotional turmoil. But I also have mixed feelings about this development because it seems to me that if Philip was able to address his trauma through therapeutic means as early as the 1960s, then why couldn’t he impart this facet of his life onto his damaged children, specifically Charles? Maybe he could’ve helped save them from their own disastrous personal lives. Therein lies the strength of The Crown, refusing to shy away from portraying these larger-than-life figures as perpetually flawed — just like us commoners.
As I said in the last recap, The Crown is doing a fantastic job of evoking sympathy for the more complex royals like Prince Philip and Prince Charles. It’s not a bad idea in the abstract, though considering what’s ahead involving Prince Andrew, one has to wonder how far these kinds of backstories should go. Knowing how much anguish is still ahead of us in this story, I’m not sure how much compassion I’m willing to give them. I get that Philip, Charles, and, judging from how little we’ve seen of him so far, Andrew, were neglected by their mothers, but that doesn’t mean they should get a free pass for perpetuating the cycle of bad behavior, either.
• Helena Bonham Carter’s dismissive delivery to one of the astronauts’ wives (“Please don’t tell me you want to talk about children”) is a brief reminder of how much I miss Princess Margaret when she’s not around.
• The Queen did send a message to the moon, but thought it was too much a “gimmick” for her taste.
• This anecdote about Michael Collins almost falling down the stairs at Buckingham Palace would’ve been fun to incorporate into the story.