Happy holidays to one and all! I hope all of you reading out there are enjoying it with your families, and in keeping with this, I couldn’t help but go to one of the better family dramas out there right now: Netflix’s take on the British monarchy as portrayed in The Crown. In particular, Season 2 was released earlier this month, and now that I’ve had the opportunity to watch it, I’m happy to share my thoughts.
While I haven’t had the chance to talk about the first season of The Crown in these reviews, let me assure you that it is must-watch TV. Even if you don’t care at all about the British royal family (and I have to admit I really didn’t before I watched this show), it’s such an interesting and compelling portrait of a “normal” family of normal people with normal problems who are thrust into a situation where their lives are controlled, choreographed, and not really their own. They all have to be things that they are not and keep up appearances at all costs, even if it means sacrificing their own dreams and happiness. It’s one of those cases where I wouldn’t wish that kind of fame on anyone.
While the first season featured heavy-hitters like John Lithgow and Jared Harris in guest-starring roles, season two is absent any of these truly big-name stars, unless you count the ever-present Matt Smith, formerly of Doctor Who fame (okay, that’s the reason I watch this show). Their presence is very much missed. There’s certainly nothing lost in the characters that do stick around, though, as all the actors from Smith to Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth and really everyone else do amazing jobs showing the royals and the people around them as complicated and real people living in something of a fantasy world and going through their own compelling personal struggles. It’s not a case of Thor (see my Thor: Ragnarok review) where the main characters are simply so far removed from reality that I’m incapable of caring about their problems; it’s true that the royals may inhabit a much different world than any of us do with all that wealth and power, in many ways they are just as powerless and helpless and frustrated every day as the rest of us, and have a set of issues entirely their own that I’d honestly never considered before. Again, I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes.
I must admit that season two loses some momentum from season one, where the main plot point was Elizabeth coming into her own as queen, proving the doubters wrong and dealing with the adjustment to the monarchy. It’s not that Elizabeth doesn’t continue to develop: on the contrary, season two has some really power scenes in that regard. It’s just that the show loses some of its sense of urgency and purpose now that Elizabeth is comfortably installed and the question of her fitness as queen has more or less been resolved. Instead, season two focuses on the overarching question of Elizabeth and Phillip’s relationship, which is much more like a power struggle than a real marriage. The question of Phillip’s fidelity primarily hangs in the air, and I really did like how the show handled it in the end: rather than blatantly accuse Phillip of being unfaithful and show him with another woman, the show hints strongly at it without letting anything truly out of the bag and instead lets viewers draw their own conclusions. That kind of respect paid to the audience really makes me think more of the writing staff as a whole.
In addition, I think Phillip was the character that developed the most over the course of the season, as he grows up a lot and realizes that he can’t always get what he wants even if he is married to the most powerful woman in the world. He’s clearly unhappy about a lot of things, and he certainly doesn’t always make the right decisions, but in the end it seems he comes around and realizes that since his arrangement with Elizabeth is for life, with no chance of getting out of it, he might as well make sure it’s a happy one and recommits himself to her. Do I totally buy it, from a character perspective? I don’t know. But it was a nice way to round things out while not totally putting the doubts to rest.
It’s kind of a shame that other characters, Margaret and the Queen Mother specifically, got pushed off to sideshow status this season. Even the two different Prime Ministers didn’t matter as much. I especially would have liked to see more from Margaret, who I think has the potential to be one of the most interesting characters on the show, but I think her whole romance, rebellion, and marriage subplot got sort of buried underneath everything else that was happening unfortunately. The season started off with a bang with the Suez crisis, but quickly fell off and focused more on interpersonal problems than the wider world, with another plot point being Britain and the monarchy’s declining status in the world, so people who were hoping for a lot of political intrigue or blockbuster action might be slightly disappointed.
In the way of important happenings, though, there’s a lot that comes out in this season history-wise that I personally didn’t know about and found completely fascinating. Some standouts: “Marionettes”, which features a minor lord touching off a firestorm after he proposes changes to modernize the monarchy; “Vergangenheit”, addressing the former King Edward’s ties to the Nazis (and giving that condescending jerk the dressing-down from Elizabeth that I’ve been waiting for forever!), as well as morality and religion in the palace; “Dear Mrs. Kennedy” about the meeting between American President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jackie and the British royals, as well as the aftermath (with great guest-starring roles by the actors playing Jackie and JFK to boot), and Elizabeth’s first true coup on her own as a monarch conducting foreign relations in Africa; and “Mystery Man” about a sex scandal in the British government and its ties to the monarchy. In addition, my personal favorite episode of the season, “Paterfamilias”, gave us a flashback episode focusing on Phillip that went a long way toward making him a more sympathetic figure (at least in my opinion) and explained a lot about what makes him such a contradiction.
My Rating: 7/10
It’s true that I think The Crown lost a bit of its edge moving into Season 2 simply because all of the players have now settled into more comfortable grooves, as well as a lack of standout supporting actors, but this season also added a lot to the mix in terms of characterization for most of the key people, especially Phillip. In addition, this season involved many important historical events that are really fascinating for what they meant to Britain and the entire world that I don’t think people know enough about. Overall, it’s a pretty solid addition to very solid show.
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