While it may only be the second season, the most recent ten episodes of The Crown have a slight air of finality about them, since they mark the end of this particular instalment, with Olivia Colman taking over the reins as Elizabeth next season, along with an entirely new cast. Once again, series creator Peter Morgan hits just the right note in his approach to the royal family, refraining from the kinds of simpering monarchical fetishism that have percolated through arthouse cinema over the last decade, but also resisting a tabloid or trashy expose as well, as if prescient that this is little more than a different kind of worship and veneration. Instead, in lieu of either a tabloid or traditionalist approach, The Crown offers a history of the British twentieth century refracted through an institution that is at once anomalous and integral to its identity – the paradox of a constitutional monarchy, as Claire Foy’s Elizabeth is so often reminded. In the series’ hands, that combination renders the House of Windsor peculiarly conducive and receptive to the ways in which the British twentieth century was mediated and disseminated to the popular imagination at large, with this second season evincing an even more emphatic interest than the first in image management, media control and “optics,” to the point where Elizabeth is frequently framed as a conduit for emergent media possibilities as much as a person or figure in her own right.
Concomitantly, this season season feels like even more of a transitional object in the recent history of television, since while it is undoubtedly a “quality” release in terms of its budget, production values and mise-en-scene, its highly fragmented, episodic structure bears more resemblance to what is increasingly coming to be regarded as post-quality television. For the most part, it could play as a series of films – some an hour in length, some several hours in length – creating a pervasive sense of discontinuity that doesn’t especially lend itself to binge watching, at least not in immediate and direct succession. In some ways, that’s the perfect venue for a season that is itself so preoccupied with the fragile continuities that constitute the Crown, which feel even more tenuous here in light of the imminent recasting of the entire series that must take place before Morgan jumps ahead fifteen years for the next ten episodes. As a result, Elizabeth is even less of a protagonist here than in the first season – some episodes are devoted to Margaret, and some to Philip, while even those that involve her tend to displace her from the centre of her own drama, with the exception of two spectacular episodes in which she finds two moments of real companionship, the first with televangelist Billy Graham, the second with Jacqueline Kennedy. As with so much post-quality television, that dispersal of narrative linearity tends to disperse the patriarchal and auteurist lineages that drove an earlier generation of quality television, resulting in a dialogue between quality and post-quality preoccupations that conforms quite elegantly to that between Philip and Elizabeth on the nature of power and precedence in their marriage.
Accordingly, the opening note of the second season is Philip’s crisis of masculinity, in the form of a trio of episodes that trace his time on the Royal Tour and Elizabeth’s time alone in England, against the backdrop of the Suez Crisis. As Philip points out to Elizabeth, his eight-year old son, Charles, is the real man of the family, as heir to the throne – a situation that is all the more humiliating for Charles’ delicate sensibility. In the penultimate episode, that results in an entire narrative arc devoted to Philip’s childhood at Gordonstoun school in Scotland, along with the insistence that Charles attend his alma mater, but in these opening episodes the focus is more on his relationship with Elizabeth, and their gradual negotiation of a more practical form of marriage. Between those two bookends of the season, however, Philip gradually settles into something of a comic character, increasingly relegated to the peripheries of the action, where he plays the part of a court jester – a constitutive outsider who forms a wry counterpoint to and commentary on the action unfolding in front of him, in a role that tends to operate more naturally with Matt Smith’s off-kilter screen persona.
Yet while Philip may play a more peripheral role over this second season, his very absence – as a person, husband and patriarchal signifier – haunts it more emphatically than his presence ever did in the first ten episodes. More generally, his negotiations with Elizabeth set the scene for a season in which the issue of marriage and divorce is ever more emphatic, and ever more urgent. Granted, there are no events here as momentous in their scope and scale as David’s marriage to Wallis Simpson, or Margaret’s inability to marry Peter Townsend. For that very reason, however, Morgan appears to have gone out of his way to converge the institution of monarchy with the institution of marriage wherever and whenever possible, to the point where divorce – rather that war, sedition or modernity – feels like the most pressing challenge to the House of Windsor, frequently emerging, spectrally, from the unlikeliest of political and diplomatic matrices. Indeed, as Elizabeth reminds Philip during their darkest hour – the moment at which their marriage truly becomes an arrangement – their real peculiarity, as a couple, doesn’t simply lies in their wealth, but in their being the only couple in the realm who can’t divorce, a situation made considerably more poignant by the fact all but one of their children would divorce at some point throughout their lives. For all their enormous privilege, Elizabeth and Philip are compeller to face the artifice of marriage more frankly and more viscerally than any other couple in the realm, even as divorce moves closer and closer to them, with Philip returning from the Royal Tour to discover that his private secretary Michael Parker has been divorced by his wife for a scandal that momentarily threatens to include him in its tentacles as well.
As in the first season, Morgan’s preoccupation with marriage and his preoccupation with media quickly converge, in a kind of vision of the reciprocal relationship between marriage and media in both restoring and challenging national security. Nowhere is that clearer than in the final episode, which features the most audacious act of historical reimagination of the series so far – a version of the Profumo Affair, which largely sidelines John Profumo himself, instead focusing on the dissemination of a photograph of one of Stephen Ward’s notorious gatherings. In this photograph are various libertines, a Russian secret agent and, most provocatively, a “mystery man” with his back to the camera, whom Elizabeth gradually comes to suspect as Philip. In part, it’s a matter of other photographs she has found in Philip’s possession (and his response to official photographs, which once again play an important role in arranging the syntax and structure of the series). In part, it’s a matter of a series of hand-drawn sketches of Philip that are found amongst Ward’s belongings, and which apparently show him in situ amidst the osteopath’s legendary and decadent gatherings. And, in part, it’s simply a matter of the gait and stance of the mystery man himself, which becomes even more identified with Philip for Philip’s own odd absence, itself crystallised, in this final episode, into a sequence of cryptic comings and goings, haunting the Palace with the dissolution of a patriarchal tone he never commanded in the first place.
Understandably, this concluding episode has received some of the most strenuous criticism from historians, especially since the majority of the series has been commended, for the most part, on its historical tact and verisimilitude. Yet it also functions as a beautiful point of convergence for the twin focuses on media and marriage that drives the series, as well as a poignant analogy for the ways in which Elizabeth herself is forced to continually contemplate the royal family as a form of social media in itself. As the most socially gregarious member of the family, that burden rests especially heavily on Margaret’s shoulders, whose trajectory this season consists largely in her relationship with two photographers – Cecil Beaton, the official Court photographer, and Anthony Armstrong-Jones, later Lord Snowdon, who Margaret meets at a party, and who captivates her with his photographic acumen as much as his charm and charisma. Where Beaton’s photographs situate Margaret amidst a highly contrived and ceremonious “private” space, the thrill of Armstrong-Jones is that his more intrusive approach seems capable of proving to Margaret that she does indeed have a private space, a private life, and a private self, that is unavailable to all the ways in which the mainstream media might try to disseminate her.
Of course, the paradox is that this private self only becomes available once Armstrong-Jones captures and demonstrates it to Margaret – a paradox encapsulated in her decision to take his most candid, private and (literally) naked photograph of her, and submit it to The Sunday Times in lieu of the regular Beaton mise-en-scene. From the very beginning, then, Armstrong-Jones functions more or less in the same way as a Court photographer – it’s just that he’s less honest, perhaps, about the way in which he contrives Margaret’s privacy and private self – resulting in a marriage that is almost doomed from the start, insofar as it promises to remove Margaret from the royal spotlight in the same gesture with which it commits her more fully to it. Interestingly, that heightened and performative attention to Margaret’s privacy induces her to immediately label both Beaton and Armstrong-Jones as queer, and yet while she initially appears to have been “mistaken” about Armstrong-Jones, Elizabeth’s investigations on the eve of their marriage uncover a number of ongoing affairs with men, as well as a wider range of queer “cues” that the series also establishes in a fairly matter-of-fact way. At this critical juncture, the very queerness that allows Armstrong-Jones to performatively articulate Margaret’s privacy re-emerges as a challenge to his suitability for marriage, and to the institution of marriage, resulting in an extraordinary exchange between the two sisters in which Armstrong-Jones’ bisexuality hovers in the air around them – a riposte to the Crown, to marriage, and to media management so profound that it can’t and won’t be articulated, even or especially as it has seems to have mediated Margaret more comprehensively than anyone she has pursued, Peter Townsend included.
In order to quash that spectre once and for all, Margaret arranges a televised marriage at Westminster Abbey, and a media spectacle to outdo even Elizabeth’s coronation, subsuming everything that renders Armstrong-Jones unfit for marriage into the most publically mediated marriage in the history of the British monarchy. It’s one of several key moments at which this second season recapitulates the events of the first in a condensed and intensified form – especially the coronation, so critical, as Andre Bazin once wrote, to the conceptualisation of television across the first decades of its existence. Not only does the spectacle of the coronation “return” in Margaret and Armstrong-Jones’ marriage, but Elizabeth’s indecision over whether or not televise it in the first place recurs in an episode devoted to Lord Altringham’s attack on the monarchy, and his manifesto for a modernised monarchy, the first item of which was the televisation of the 1957 Christmas Message. Indeed, so prominent are televisions – one of the most resonant episodes concludes with the assassination of John F. Kennedy – that The Crown often seems to be using the newness of television in Elizabeth’s time to contemplate the newness of Netflix in our own time. Nearly every major decision of note this season takes place in front of a screen, while even the most private and sacrosanct spaces of the monarchy are opened up to the small screen in a new way, as television manages to find a foothold in the unlikeliest and most indiscrete of places. It’s not hard to see, then, why critics have speculated on how the royal family might have taken the series, since the series itself begs the question of whether Netflix has permeated their deepest recesses as pervasively as television did half a century before.
That tendency to recapitulate the first season, and the heightened sense of television as a royal fixture, also gives this second season a soapier and more extravagantly melodramatic edge, as if to both encapsulate and counteract all the multiple mediations sitting between us and the subjects on the screen. Indeed, Elizabeth herself becomes increasingly interested in the ways in which melodramatic energy can seem to bypass mediation, from her candid conversations with Jackie Kennedy, and her ruminations on Jackie’s apparently unmediated engagement with the press, to her infatuation with Billy Graham, for whom the series reserves her most romantic and charismatic attachments, It’s interesting, then, to consider how the third season might move further in this direction, since it would be hard to depict the media on display here without feeling like we’re seeing copies of copies of copies. In that respect, the change of cast is probably a good thing, as fantastic as they have been, while the projected time lapse between the second and third seasons must have as much to do with establishing a revised media ecology as a new set of political and cultural concerns. In any case, the elegance of The Crown is that the two amount to the same thing, and that can only make the third season, and the shift to the 70s, an exciting and intriguing prospect.