The Crown season 2 review: The royal drama uninterested in its own queen (Trailer)
“The stuff used to wear you, now you wear it.”
The words Philip (Matt Smith) coos at this Queen, his love, Elizabeth (Claire Foy) as she stands before him embellished in every jewel and trophy befitting of her great kingdom.
A woman grown into her full power, with season 2 spanning from 1956’s Suez Crisis through to 1963’s Profumo affair, and yet those words have rung false within the halls of The Crown; a series which sets out to capture the portrait of a sovereign, but consistently relegates her to the role of mere pawn in the lives of others.
It’s a move that becomes increasingly frustrating with this second outing, especially in the light of Philip’s own words, since Elizabeth’s maturation into power remains so adamantly out of our grasp. Who is she as a monarch? How has her position and its burdens shaped her? What is she fighting against?
Elizabeth’s sense of agency, granted, has been improved upon since the show’s initial outing, but her internal conflicts presented here seem only to scrape the surface. Events seem merely to orbit around her, almost, as she sits either inactive or soaking them up like a dish sponge.
The issue here, as with last season, is that The Crown seems to acknowledge Elizabeth’s royal position as a largely passive object, sprinkled with a few references to her never speaking her mind, but forgoes actually examining the personal consequences of that inactivity; of the idea of a monarch in a democratic society being so purposefully left such little feeling of control over their own destiny. Without that central unrest, The Crown makes for a meandering and unfocused approach to the era that seems to actively ignore its most fascinating asset.
The show opens with the Suez Crisis, which saw Britain’s position on the global stage forever altered by its invasion and later withdrawal from Egypt. It was the most profound crisis since World War II, but we can’t trace its effect on her, as she treats it almost like a passing frustration so she can return to fretting over her marriage.
Granted, she takes action, and confronts the PM Anthony Eden (Jeremy Northam) about Britain’s collusion with Israel in launching an offensive against Egypt, and then to confront successor Harold Macmillan (Anton Lesser) with the idea that, just because Eden took the blame, he still bears responsibility in his support of the move. All undercut, unfortunately, by the fact she seems only to be blankly following the advice of Lord Mountbatten, herself bearing no moral urgency.
Instead, Elizabeth’s life is told largely through the eyes of others, with only the occasional glimpse afforded into that ornately decorated head; there’s no tracing her emotional journey as a leader, or as a wife, through the season when she’s so constantly shuffled to the edges of its story. A marked different in the way we understand Philip, certainly, or Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby).
The issue of Philip’s possible infidelity, for example, is a struggle belonging very much to him. He’s the one we come to understand, even if we don’t admire him. He is the caged bird. His conflict is one of being torn between past and present: the freedom presented to him by his time in the Royal Navy, its “great adventure” which would see him spend his days drinking, playing cricket, and womanising. And what comes now: the endless duty, and a feeling of infantilisation in which his own son outranks him.
We look back, even, into the trauma of his childhood, living most of his life in exile, having Nazi-supporting sisters, one who died in a plane crash. It’s Philip who is granted the spotlight at this time, to allow him to learn the meaning of his own marriage: all while Elizabeth, once more, does what Lord Mountbatten tells her to, and with little visible emotional consequence.
So she offers the gentle reminder that she’ll “always be waiting for you”; he has a self-revelation granted by an exotic depiction of the tight-knit communities of Tonga, and returns. “You’re lost in your role and you’re lost in yourself,” Elizabeth tells him at one point. If only there was some comparative statement we could confront Elizabeth with, outside of a passing comment to Margaret that she’d like to become “invisible” – an emotion only fleetingly felt.
Margaret, too, travels an emotional journey that feels complete. She feels shunned, at first, for daring to pursue a love match with divorcee Peter Townsend (Ben Miles). That conflict is clear in the divide between identity and passion. She’s a caged bird of her own.
That struggle is reflected, too, in the men who orbit around her: at first, “old faithful” Billy Wallace, who presents the cold, opportune match. Then by Antony Armstrong-Jones (Matthew Goode), the photographer whose artistry revolves around catching his subject off guard, and who, perhaps, indulges some secret level of self-hatred she may hold. There are moments, thankfully, where The Crown does at least get close to indulging Elizabeth in this level of investment. One of the strongest episodes sees her finally forced into confrontation with her family’s past, when papers unveil the potentially traitorous dealings Edward, Duke of Windsor (Alex Jennings), had with Hitler and the Nazi high command.
Her arch is actually set out here: the feelings of betrayal versus familial loyalty, with her meetings with a famous US evangelical, Billy Graham, a route to understand the nature of forgiveness. Her actions are her own, and the emotional consequences are finally felt.
In the end, Elizabeth occasionally breathes life, but it’s hard not to feel within The Crown a general sense of limpness, of ineffectiveness in where the centre of its aims lie. “No one wants complexity and reality from us,” the Queen Mary (Eileen Atkins) at one point states.
Perhaps that’s true, when it comes to the portrait of a reigning queen. A monarch’s innate complexities forever glimmering beneath the surface, like a diamond lost to the waters.
The Crown season 2 hits Netflix on 8 December.