Monday, December 11, 2017

The Crown (Season 2)

I first subscribed to Netflix almost a year ago in order to see The Crown, the projected six-season series spanning the 60 years-plus reign of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II. Since then, I've seen lots of other great things on Netflix (not least the French series The Churchmen), but The Crown remains for me the Netflix star attraction. So, along with lots of others, I have been eagerly watching season 2 since its release last week. The wait between seasons has been long, but the result did not disappoint!

If season 1 (1947-1956) was about Elizabeth's accession to the throne and her growing into her role as sovereign (and the toll that took on her and on her husband and on her sister), season 2 (1956-1964) shows her growing both as a person and as a sovereign and in the process allowing herself to re-imagine certain dimensions of her role. Meanwhile her husband and sister find their own way, while society changes dramatically. Through it all, Elizabeth remains a woman defined and determined by her role - a role defined not by what she wants but by what everyone else wants her to be (expectations which vary from person to person and change from place to place and time to time).

Monarchy is meant to be mysterious. Even more than season 1, season 2 is preoccupied with imaginative attempts to understand the inner familial dynamics of such an ostensibly - and deliberately so - mysterious institution. Meanwhile, as the 1950s fade into the 1960s, the Queen and her family find themselves grappling with unprecedented societal change, while Britain's post-war decline as a major power is amply demonstrated by failure at Suez and post-colonial Ghana's flirtations with the Soviets.

Although always the one who holds it all together, Elizabeth shares the spotlight in season 2 with Philip (whose at times petulant behavior finally gets him some of the recognition and behind-the-throne power that the palace's army of stuffy and increasingly out of touch courtiers had hitherto tried to deny him) and Margaret (whose dabbling in non-courtier society finally gets her a husband, unlike any her family would have picked for her, played perfectly by the glamorous Matthew Goode).

If there was one weakness in season 1, it was certainly its somewhat sympathetic portrayal of the utterly undeserving Duke of Windsor, whose self-centered abdication of duty has likely always been the Queen's alternative model of what kind of monarch - and person - not to be. Season 2 sets the record straight about the Duke in one devastating episode that highlights his disgraceful behavior before and during the war.

Politics plays more of a real role in season 2 as well, reflecting the Queen's maturation in her role and the replacement of Winston Churchill by less accomplished successors. Elizabeth's successful visit to Ghana is historically accurate, although the suggestion that she was motivated by jealousy of Jacqueline Kennedy's celebrity seems somewhat bizarre and demeaning to both women. But the episode does highlight how the essence of royalty really is the opposite of the fragile ephemera of celebrity. Fittingly, the episode unmasks the vacuousness of much of the Kennedys' celebrity while highlighting the Queen's dignity (even while allowing her to show some human resentment, jealousy, and competitiveness).

It has generally been believed that one of the ways the royal marriage has worked has been by allowing Philip to take charge of his children's education - with disastrous effect upon the present Prince of Wales, who was forced to endure the terrifying experience of Gordonstoun, where his physically and emotionally very different father had once thrived. That episode (for which the audience has been prepared with background information on Philip's childhood revealed by a questioner during a disastrous interview he foolishly allowed a few episodes earlier during his Pacific tour) does dramatically and effectively - and even somewhat sympathetically - recall Philip's childhood as a dispossessed refugee prince, with dysfunctional parents, abandoned to the rigors of a school which in turn became his substitute for a family (along with the famous "Uncle Dickie" Mountbatten, whose patronage of course would prove so significant for Philip and whose friendship would matter so much for Charles). 

Whatever sympathy Philip wins in that episode, however, is largely cancelled not just by the effect on his son but also by his continued behavior in ways which threaten to throw suspicion on his fidelity to  his marriage.. The series may be taking too much liberty in its suggestions, but it serves the dramatic purpose of highlighting how the continually dutiful Queen is constantly surrounded by seemingly much more flawed people - like Philip and Margaret, and of course the politicians.

The Profumo scandal that titillated me and my high school friends in 1963 was a tragic episode that did a lot to undermine what was left of Britain's governing class's legitimacy. Starting with Suez and ending with Profumo, the series frames the loss of the governing class's capacity to govern - paving the way for the greater changes of the 1960s. That final episode fittingly has a little bit of everything that the Queen has to cope with - another government crisis, tensions within the extended royal family exacerbated by Margaret's willfulness, and of course the perennial mystery of how the royal marriage works. 

The season is bookended by the personal and political failures of two Prime Ministers - Eden and Macmillan, both of whom resign in poor health and political disappointment. Their failures give Elizabeth one of her greatest lines in the season. After accepting Macmillan's resignation, she says of her three Prime Ministers in 10 years: "Not one of them has lasted the course. They've either been too old, too ill, or too weak. A confederacy of elected quitters."

The Queen, of course, is neither elected nor a quitter, and that captures the essence of her role and its success. Across the pond, as we watch our American political system deteriorate further and further, its moral rot in significant measure due to its elevation of celebrity over seriousness and self-interest over duty, we may have more and more reason to envy the stabilizing, unifying, and moralizing power of the mysterious magic of monarchy.

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