The second season of The Crown has something of a difficult act to follow. The first season, despite having a wealth of recognised talent in front of and behind the camera, and being the most expensive TV series ever commissioned by Netflix at a whopping £100 million, nonetheless was a gamble nobody expected the streaming giant to falter with. The Royal family can entice both loyalists and those who find the monarchy an outdated institution, so the fact it almost certainly garnered strong ratings alongside plenty of critical buzz, meant The Crown got off to a romping start, making an instantaneous star out of Claire Foy as a young Queen Elizabeth II, and receiving plaudits and awards all over the place. Season 2, therefore, needed to keep up the pace.
Many critics in reviewing Season 2 of The Crown have suggested there is too much Philip. It’s a double-edged complaint, in truth. Yes, Philip is given a *lot* of material this season, more than in the first, but given how Smith—previously best known, bear in mind, as a scatty incarnation of The Doctor in Doctor Who—breaks out in the first season as an irascible, arrogant and often difficult partner to the Queen, you can hardly blame writer Peter Morgan for throwing him more to do. Equally, the very arc of the entire second season is concerned with the price of marriage, the cost of attempting to have a traditional relationship while being bound by honour, faith and duty. While the story may heavily develop Philip, there’s a sense developing Elizabeth would have been much harder without doing so.
Their marriage is front and centre from a choppy opening scene in the first episode, until the very final scenes in the last. Arguably, Morgan takes a little too long in spiralling back to that opening scene, in which Elizabeth literally asks Philip what being married to her will take, but it provides a clear structure and framework in which to hang a season filled with not just personal but moral, social and political change. The years focused on here are riven with a wealth of not just British but global world events which add to the broader context in which The Crown dealt with over the course of its first season – the death of Empire and the end of colonialism. Elizabeth & Philip’s marriage serves, in many respects, as a metaphor; if it can’t survive, is that not just the end of monarchy, but of Britain as we know it?
The power of the counter-cultural revolution thanks to new American influences and a growing economy isn’t touched on perhaps as keenly as you may imagine given the time period, and given The Crown looks set to edge deeper into the 1970’s, this may either be explored later or to an extent be skipped over, but there are indications of how the country is changing around Elizabeth and her family. One of the best episodes, ‘Marionettes’, almost exclusively focuses on Elizabeth’s humanity in the face of her people, following a disastrously stilted speech which insults the working class she’s in truth trying to praise. Harsh lessons are learned about how the people aren’t simply going to follow and respect a monarchy who doesn’t understand them, and Elizabeth adapts accordingly – the Christmas televised speech is born out of concerns her people don’t know who she is.
This is a key point about The Crown, and the power of Foy’s performance (also why she’ll very much be missed in the role). Elizabeth in the first season was coming to understand the significance of being Queen, of a role she was unexpectedly thrust into far younger than she ever expected. This season continues to explore how Elizabeth as a woman finds her place in her position; Philip especially often suggests she has ‘disappeared’ into her duty, that a schism has formed, and Foy superbly contains a great deal of emotion in Elizabeth’s face and expression as she pushes down desire, puts up barriers to becoming more open in the eyes of her public, and grapples with her own faith as a Christian when confronted with great moral challenges.
We also see this reflected in Margaret, and the continued saga of her life. Much as Foy is the soul of the piece, and Smith cuts through scenes with razor-sharpness, the real star of The Crown undoubtedly has been Vanessa Kirby as the troubled Princess. Margaret is easily the trickiest role in the ensemble; a beautiful firebrand, capable of cut glass coldness and disdain, but enormously vulnerable and not a little tragic, Kirby does a spellbinding job of making a difficult, complicated woman likeable. Her relationship with louche, equally disdainful, egotistic and devastatingly handsome socialite photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones (Matthew Goode, on roguish form), underscores both the growing counter-cultural influence and the decay of moral values in Britain; scandal surrounds Tony in the form of threesomes with married couples, homosexuality and illegitimate pregnancy. He is the embodiment of a changing world, and not necessarily for the better.
The fact The Crown holds this central question, the price and sacrifice of marriage in the face of duty, at its core is why the second season does manage, on the whole, to work. Though oddly enough, it feels a stronger piece of work when exploring key elements to Elizabeth’s reign and how they effect her character, rather than focusing on infidelity, scandal and marriage; how she deals with haunting wartime revelations, how she changes her perception in the public eye, or how she copes with a fluctuating government structure made up of weary, ailing old men such as Anthony Eden or Harold Macmillan, all part of an old guard rapidly growing irrelevant; the season finale even sees Macmillan watch himself being lampooned on stage by Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and the ‘Beyond the Fringe’ retinue of edgy, scornful comics who wanted to expose their father’s generation for what they were: history.
It will be interesting to see how Elizabeth, going forward as reputedly portrayed by Olivia Colman as a middle-aged woman, faces the challenges of this modern, liberal England in future seasons, and how she qualifies that with her marriage, her children growing into adults, and governments facing their own unique conundrums. The Crown may at times be as steadfast as Elizabeth herself, and certainly seems often more quietly pro-monarchy than the opposite, but it could ultimately serve as a well-made, prestige depiction of the grand span of modern British history. Long may it reign.
The Crown is now airing on Netflix. You can read an expanded version of this review on the Cultural Conversation blog here.