There are far worse ways to study history than watching “The Crown” — high school history class comes to mind, especially at schools with misplaced teachers like Mr. Kraz. But there are better ways, as well, even in television’s incomplete, sensationalized fashion. Pertinent period details frame series like “The Americans” and “Mad Men,” or there are meaningful tales told of specific historical figures like “John Adams,” the “Band of Brothers,” and “The Young Pope.” (Hey, the future will one day be historical, too, and Lenny will be pope.)
What separates these programs from Netflix’s new crown jewel is an opinion; a stance, one way or another, on what all this means; a personality of its own making rather than a suffocating allegiance to facts. And in a darker second season about the most personal problems of Queen Elizabeth’s life, this voiceless neutrality breeds an even colder, more distant, and altogether less engaging set of historical accounts.
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Those who enjoyed Season 1 won’t likely be overly upset, as these shifts are subtle and easily overshadowed by an onslaught of prestige. Scripts are well-crafted. Images are opulent in texture and scenery. Acting remains a top attribute, especially Matt Smith and Claire Foy who are even more front-and-center this year than last. Favorite figures like Jared Harris and John Lithgow are missed, as are their heartfelt characters (Harris’ kingly father figure) and episodes (most notably, “Assassins”), and Peter Morgan’s second season fittingly opens on a bleak, rainy day in February, 1957.
Queen Elizabeth (Foy) and the newly crowned Prince Philip (Smith) are at a crossroads. Sitting in the shadows, reluctant to face each other, the married couple’s allegiance to one another is being questioned in the public, and the two must decide how to move forward. Before an answer is given, the series shifts back in time five months to examine how the royal pair ended up in such a state.
Mercifully, this isn’t a framing device for the entire season — Morgan catches up to this scene in the third episode — but it does draw attention to the predominant themes of marriage, equality, and progress. Episodes focus on Philip’s frustrations with his position, his tragic childhood, and his perceived dalliances with women other than Elizabeth. The series doesn’t go so far as to show Philip with another woman, but it strongly implies casual couplings during his time away from the city and depicts a budding vanity that often distracts from his duties.
Smith builds a character who’s easy to dislike without being totally alien: It’s both a challenging and enviable development to take on, and Smith progresses Philip quite well. The kind of presumptive sexism displayed will make him an even more hated figure given current cultural context, but he’s not a monster or a predator; he’s merely a powerful man doing what powerful men did at the time.
The latter point is more of the show’s stance than an absolute interpretation. Morgan makes some bold choices in what he’s willing to include, but bold choices do not equate to bold positions. “The Crown” only goes so far, after all, even with its principal subject. Though Elizabeth is often made into a pitiable object, she’s more reactive than declarative in Season 2.
Characters often bring up the queen’s obligation to the crown, and they almost always frame her allegiance to tradition in contrast to personal desires. Last season saw Elizabeth deny her sister the love of her life because their marriage would embarrass the family. Margaret (Vanessa Kirby) is still smarting from that decision — she’s quite the drunkard in Season 2 — but Elizabeth has moved on; she’s accepted her duty and is entirely possessed by it.
The show seems to have followed suit, and the fifth episode illustrates the underlying problem of hiding behind history. Based around Lord Altrincham, an unknown newspaperman and failed politician, “Marionettes” focuses on how the writer’s scathing opinion of a speech made by the queen gains traction. At first, her advisers tell Elizabeth not to worry about it. They think it will be dismissed outright because of the subjects’ undying loyalty to her office.
But when Altrincham appears on television to defend his articles, the tide turns. He’s not a crackpot or an attention-seeker. He genuinely loves the monarchy and wants to help it transition into the 20th century. He’s speaking for the people, and the people are behind him. The episode ends with a footnote, saying the royal family eventually adopts every one of Altrincham’s suggestions, and this final word successfully shifts the episode from its original position — the condemnation of a crackpot vs. the queen — to its ultimate message: that one man speaking truth to power can sway the course of history.
It’s a strong episode on its own, but “The Crown” lacks the same courage overall. Morgan’s drama only feels comfortable taking a stance when its got historical precedent behind it: The condemnation of the royal family’s stuffy policies is included because someone actually condemned it and they listened, whereas when the family’s outdated and inhumane beliefs are brought up — like their disgusted intolerance of homosexuality — “The Crown” seems to shrug and say, “Well, that’s how it was back then.”
Whereas “Mad Men” and “The Americans” provide context to indicate how the audience should react (think about the opposing marketing firm throwing piss balloons on black protesters, or Philip’s struggle to follow through on certain missions), “The Crown” is content to just depict what happened. When the queen is forced to think about homosexuality, she collapses and her hand is shown grasping the window, like Kate’s in “Titanic” — except Elizabeth isn’t in the midst of passionate backseat sex, she’s just passionately unhinged at the idea of a man kissing another man. Such a simple point could’ve been made without the grandiose bombasticity that lends the series a coldness that’s hard to come back from.
It doesn’t condemn these ideas just as it doesn’t condemn Philip’s actions. Of course, it doesn’t support them either. While very good at instructing the audience how Philip and Elizabeth are feeling, rarely does it evoke the same level of feeling from viewers. The series is so diligent to the history books — “There was a meeting and, as best we can tell, this was discussed, so they probably reacted like this…” — there are more frustrations than surprises and more acceptance than understanding.
Some viewers may look for exactly this in their television: a beautiful recreation of historical events, connected by safe assumptions about the people who lived through them. But television is capable of so much more, and whether you like “The Crown” or not, its medium evokes stronger, richer feelings elsewhere.
“The Crown” Season 2 premieres December 8 exclusively on Netflix.