Though serialized overall, “The Crown” is a notable Netflix series in that it regularly delivers impeccably strong episodic arcs. Episodes stand out on their own and often feel constructed as a time capsule for that specific story. Season 2 continues this tradition, and IndieWire will explore select episodes via individual reviews. After all, the best standalone episodes deserve standalone analyses. Below, we take a look at Episode 2, “A Company of Men.”
[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “The Crown” Season 2.]
Just because a character is unlikable — or downright repugnant — doesn’t mean he’s a bad character. The soon-to-be Prince Philip, after the third episode of Season 2, is the epitome of this conundrum. Many viewers complained about Matt Smith’s character in the first season, though few were mad enough to fault the actor’s performance (and they shouldn’t, given how wholly Smith gives himself to the role). They just didn’t like him, especially compared to the vastly more empathetic and equally complex supporting players, from Vanessa Kirby’s lovelorn Princess Margaret to John Lithgow’s misunderstood Winston Churchill.
With so many other characters to focus on — not to mention Elizabeth herself — why spend so much time on Philip? Simply put: It’s necessary, and not just for historical context. Peter Morgan’s take on Philip remains instinctively unlikable and almost paradoxically familiar. Everything about him makes you want to look away, but his story is as compelling as it is informative to Elizabeth’s arc. Elizabeth is always — and rightfully — the main focus of “The Crown,” but the second episode of Season 2 brings Philip’s issues to the forefront, as viewers are forced to witness his most repugnant behavior in order to discover the relevance of his story.
Philip is the “Wrong Guy” for Elizabeth, and the Right Guy for “The Crown”
It’s important to recognize what makes Philip a complicated figure of dislike for many viewers: He’s a man who’s uncomfortable with being treated as lesser than his wife, and he’s living in a time when it’s virtually unheard of for any man to be considered inferior to any woman. In the present day, he reads as a sexist jerk, but in the past, he’s just doing what men did. Is that enough to let him off the hook? Of course not, but more than his period-appropriate bad behavior (since he does have his moments), he reads as the wrong guy for Elizabeth (Claire Foy).
Whether you see “The Crown” as a moving period piece or a melodramatic soap opera, its core narrative is that of a love story. The show starts with Philip and Elizabeth’s wedding, and Season 2 focuses on their marriage’s darkest hour. So when you see Philip chafing at his supportive duties or, as he does in Season 2, pursuing as many affairs as possible, these are clear red flags: Viewers recognize he’s not the dreamy officer Elizabeth fell for, but a cheating scoundrel who she needs to ditch.
But she doesn’t ditch him. She won’t leave Philip; not unless “The Crown” abandons its historical accuracy and takes an “Inglourious Basterds”-style turn toward wish fulfillment. That leaves viewers watching a man who’s not right for Elizabeth; who they’ve seen before in countless romances; who they don’t like.
That doesn’t mean he should be sidelined. He’s still essential to the series, and Episode 2 proves it. Perhaps Peter Morgan was very conscious in placing the Philip-centric episode so close to the start of Season 2, as though he was saying, “Listen, I know you don’t like this guy, but I’m going to make you understand why he’s so heavily present this year.” But perhaps the timeline just worked out in his favor.
The Episode is as Flawless as Philip is Flawed
“A Company of Men” focuses on Philip’s fateful tour overseas, first to kick off the 1956 Olympic Games and then to spend nine weeks traveling to and returning home from the Antarctic. Though formally a diplomatic journey — and one described by Philip as “an attempt to repair the reputation of our country, currently being ruined by politicians” — it quickly becomes a “five-month stag night [with] whores at every port.”
Those words come courtesy of a waitress from The Thursday Club speaking to Eileen Parker (Chloe Pirrie). After spending too much time away from her husband, Mike Parker (Daniel Ings), his wife becomes suspicious and then aware of Mike’s behavior and asks the waitress to testify on her behalf for a divorce. She refuses for fear of losing her job at the private men’s club, but later steals one of Mike’s letters home featuring incriminating tales of his time at sea.
But those tales aren’t just his; Philip’s a part of them, too, and word starts to spread around London that he’s becoming far too indulgent of what men are “expected” to do on tour. The episode culminates with Philip reading a tender, somewhat forlorn Christmas address to the country while stationed in Antartica. “It’s a fine life aboard a ship, but it can be a solitary one,” he says. “We are men together, but we each stand alone.”
His words motivate the queen to respond accordingly, with what amounts to a loving invitation and an implicit warning. “A very large, united family is waiting for you here,” she says during her own address. “And will always be waiting for you, wherever you are.” Philip, standing alone overlooking the ocean, is approached by Mike, and he tells him the speech was “unexpectedly moving.”
“I must confess to feeling a little…”
“Homesick?” Mike says.
“Yes,” Philip replies, and Mike leaves him to reflect in his shaggy new beard.
Philip Isn’t a Predator, But He’s Part of the Patriarchy
In those few precious moments before Netflix hurriedly ushers you into the next episode, “A Company of Men” leaves viewers with a similarly conflicting feeling. Should we feel bad for Philip, now that he seems aware of the mistakes he’s made and the family he’s risked? Or are his mopey moments on the ship merely passing pangs of remorse that will fade quickly as soon as he’s presented with more distractions? Is he a good man lured and pressured into bad behavior, or a bad man who knows how to act nobly when he needs to?
Season 2 spends plenty of time examining this moral debate over the course of the season, and Episode 2 serves as foreshadowing for major events to come. Not only is Mike’s divorce a big problem for the royal family, but Philip’s upbringing — briefly touched upon during his foolish interview with The Age reporter Helen King — proves vital in understanding his relationship with his son, Charles. The two are very different people, and that contrast becomes scarring in Episode 9, “Paterfamilias.”
In that episode, Philip again flaunts just how unlikable he can be. No one wants to watch a father bully their own son, especially in the all-too-common “why can’t you be more of a man” fashion, but that episode is the macro view of the Philip problem and this episode gives us the micro view.
Episode 9 looks at the conflict between Philip and Elizabeth in terms of Philip’s place at the head of a family (a man’s role) vs. Elizabeth’s place at the head of a country. Charles is the future of England, but he’s also Philip’s son. Who decides what’s best for the kid is a conflict central to understanding both characters, especially as Elizabeth grapples with her status as a mother and wife while still reigning as Queen of England. Should she be subservient to her husband’s demands in order to protect her marriage, or can she overrule him for the betterment of the country without creating distance between them?
Meanwhile, Episode 2 delves headfirst into Philip’s pain, privilege, and how he acts out when his masculinity feels threatened. The system in place is meant to protect him: The men at the club, the sailors on his trip, his best friend Mike, and the men in power working to protect their secrets back home all seem to be operating with the understanding that, yeah, it’s hard to be Philip. He’s not the head of his household. He’s subservient to a woman, while they’re only subservient to a crown. So he should be able to exert his masculinity as needed.
It’s a sick, twisted excuse when examined beyond the customs of the time. The patriarchy has Philip’s back, and the implicit understanding they always will is almost as repulsive as the utter disregard for women as human beings. (The shot of the man reading Mike’s letters while waitresses walk among them is so painfully telling; it’s like they’re not even there.)
But accepting the reality is important not only to the season beyond Philip, but to breaking from the patriarchy in general. You may not like Philip, but Elizabeth loves him. What a conflict, indeed.
“The Crown” Season 2 is streaming now on Netflix.