There are plenty of things to appreciate about The Crown. Peter Morgan’s series about the reign of Queen Elizabeth II is a sumptuous, taffeta-swathed, jewel-encrusted doozy of a drama that earns every penny of its reported $13-million per episode price tag. Part historical saga, part soap opera, it gratifies the seemingly endless curiosity about the British Royal Family even as its central character remains something of a cipher. But, as became clear in the final scene from the first season, when the Queen posed for official portraits shot by a Wordsworth-spouting Cecil Beaton, The Crown is also a superhero show. If the first 10 episodes presented the origin story for how an ordinary young woman transcended mortality to become something akin to a goddess, as her Uncle David put it, the second season—released on Friday—explores the conflict between her two identities: Elizabeth Windsor and Elizabeth Regina.
It isn’t just the feverish Hans Zimmer score that frequently makes The Crown feel like a Christopher Nolan Batman movie, or the continual shots of a reluctant monarch surveying her terrain. It’s also the sense of duty inherent in Claire Foy’s Queen Elizabeth, a woman continually defined not by what she wants, but by what she senses people need from her. Morgan seems fascinated by the person he detects underneath the armor of protocol, Floris perfume, and color-blocked dress-coats—a woman he depicts reading bloodstock breeding guides in bed, and reproaching her mother for hitting the television because “it’s rented.” The most fascinating moments of Season 2 of The Crown zoom in on the Queen’s human side, as she experiences betrayal, humiliation, jealousy, and wounded pride. But Morgan is never able to entirely isolate the woman from the monarch, perhaps because, in the end, they’re inseparable.
The Crown is conceived as a six-season project, with each set of 10 episodes depicting a different decade of the Queen’s rule. Season 1 covered her wedding to Prince Philip of Greece, her ascension after her father’s untimely death, and her coronation in 1953, at the age of 27, as well as her conflict with her sister over Princess Margaret’s desire to marry a divorcé. Season 2 picks up where the first series left off, with Philip (Matt Smith) being sent on a five-month tour of the Commonwealth as an implicit reproach for his gallivanting and objectionable attitude. The first episode opens with a flash forward to an icy exchange of hostilities between the Queen and her consort, in which the pair tussle over who is the more humiliated—Philip, who’s outranked not only by his wife but also by his eight-year-old son, or Elizabeth, by her feckless, unsupportive, and possibly unfaithful husband.
When it comes to the historical record, Morgan either has access to a multitude of information that’s unknown to the public (he apparently has a team of “six or seven” full-time researchers) or he uses dramatic license. Or both. The character of Venetia—Winston Churchill’s secretary, who was hit by a bus during the Great Smog of 1952 in the Season-1 episode “Act of God”—was invented, and long-swirling rumors about Prince Philip’s infidelity to the Queen have never been confirmed. But Philip is as much of a primary character in Season 2 as his wife is: yet another symbol of male frailty to juxtapose against Elizabeth’s continual, steadfast reign. He’s both the love of her life and her main antagonist, continually distracting her from her job and threatening the family with disgrace, if not outright republicanism.
Still, Morgan seems sympathetic to Philip, a man who banked on spending at least a decade or two as the head of his family before his father-in-law’s death swiftly reduced him to a consort. Several of the new episodes consider Philip’s traumatic childhood—his cruel father and mentally ill mother, his exile from Greece as an infant, and his brutal education at Gordonstoun, a private school in Scotland that Philip later insisted his sons attend. The weakest episode of the new season presents flashbacks to Philip’s teenage years and the death of his sister, which humanize him, but don’t quite jibe with the cocky, self-aggrandizing provocateur Smith plays Philip as.
Instead, Philip is one of countless avatars of male privilege whom the Queen is constantly battling. There’s Anthony Eden (Jeremy Northam), a drug-addicted climber who bankrupts Britain with his aggressive, illegal plotting over the Suez Canal. (“I was sorry to see you lie to the House,” the Queen tells him with customary restraint as he tenders his resignation.) Eden’s successor, Harold Macmillan (Anton Lesser), interrupts the Queen and condescends to her over the launch of a new Russian missile, before quitting due to the Profumo Affair, when the task of defending an increasingly unpopular and scandal-riven government seems insurmountable. The moment gives Foy’s Queen a rare moment of scathing disdain, in which she berates the failings of the men she’s outlasted. “I’ve been queen barely 10 years, and in that time I’ve had three prime ministers, all of them ambitious men, clever men, brilliant men,” she tells him. “Not one has lasted the course. They’ve either been too old, too ill, or too weak. A confederacy of elected quitters.”
It’s one of the few explicitly feminist moments in Morgan’s detailed, unflinching portrait of the Queen’s use of her power. (Another comes during the fifth episode, when she snarkily asks a peer who’s criticized her voice whether she sounds “too strangled.”) She’s a lone female monarch pitted against a boy’s club, the embodiment of restraint and virtue compared to a fleet of largely drunken, womanizing fools. Her sister, Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby), acts as a reminder of what the Queen could be, with her privilege and her cosseting; the disgraced Duke of Windsor (Alex Jennings) is another. And yet the Queen remains personally unimpeachable, which is what makes the rare moments of petulance and snottiness Morgan affords her so enjoyable. She’s human, not divine.
This personal, complex portrayal of a monarch who by her own admission in the show would rather be living any other life is riveting enough. But The Crown is also a history lesson, as my colleague David Sims has put it, albeit a selective one. It’s gorgeously shot, with flawless recreations of everything from the Throne Room in Buckingham Palace to a 1950s hospital ward. And it’s surprisingly funny. If Foy weren’t so clearly the MVP of Season 2, capturing the complicated emotions of a woman who’s rarely able to say what she feels, a leading contender would be Will Keen as Michael Adeane, the Queen’s Private Secretary and the inevitable bringer of bad news, who ums, ahs, and frets his way through an excruciating number of chilly confrontations.
The most remarkable thing about The Crown, though, is that it clearly isn’t intended to be as sympathetic to the Queen as it ends up being. Morgan takes liberties that could be denounced as heretical, but the portrait he paints is ultimately compassionate—unflinching, but also somehow respectful. A staunch republican, he’s also somehow devoted the richest years of his career to chronicling Queen Elizabeth, in the movie The Queen, the play The Audience, and now 60 planned hours of television. In interviews, he’s described his subject as a “countryside woman of limited intelligence.” But that’s Elizabeth Windsor he seems to be describing. Elizabeth Regina, as the show attests, has transcended those human origins to become something greater, and something much harder to dismiss.