Warning: while this is a series based on historical events I understand that some folks prefer to watch it without really knowing what’s going to happen. So if you want to watch it “spoiler-free”, please, do not read this post.
Me and my girlfriend watched the Netflix show “The Crown” in three sessions. This is not the first time we binge watch a series. The interesting thing about this one is that this is not exactly the kind of series that, on paper, you would imagine that anyone would binge watch!
This is a series where every narrative builds towards a “moment”; so I decided to make a list of my favorite three moments and post it here. Without further ado…
Winston Churchill’s Portrait
Let me start by saying that, in my opinion, John Lithgow is at a career high in his role as the great Winston Churchill. It’s one of those performances that will set the bar for everyone who comes after it. Whenever an actor gets in those shoes, they will inevitably be compared to Lithgow and, just like the former Prime Minister he portrays, he will be hard to beat.
In Episode 9 “The Assassins”, we are introduced to the Artist Graham Sutherland, who is commissioned by the Parliament to paint Churchill’s portrait as a gift for his 80th Anniversary. Throughout the entire episode, there’s tension building between the Artist and the Prime-Minister. Churchill is constantly taking swings at Sutherland; he questions his career choices, his technique, his work, his motives. Sutherland is always collected; he answers every challenge with a balanced retort, like a fencing master whose footwork never puts him in danger.
Eventually, Sutherland finishes his work and Churchill is presented with the portrait at a ceremony hosted by the Parliament. Surprise surprise: he’s not happy with it. This leads us to the moment that I want to highlight.
A day after the ceremony, Sutherland makes his way to Churchill’s home. He’s been told that Churchill wants to get rid of the painting. What follows is an incredible battle of words between the two: Churchill hammering way, the bulldog in him in full bark, complaining, ranting, accusing; Sutherland responds with respect but firmness. Then Churchill complains that the image is not truthful but rather “cruel”… at that point Sutherland loses his calm and replies:
Age is cruel! If you see decay, it’s because there’s decay. If you see frailty, it’s because there’s frailty. I can’t be blamed for what is. And I refuse to hide and disguise what I see. If you’re engaged in a fight with something, then it’s not with me. It’s with your own blindness.
It’s an incredible answer that encapsulates all that Churchill was going through at that moment in his life (at least according to the series): his battle against the unforgiving passage of time; his dogged resolve to serve his country; his inability to accept the truth. A powerful scene that was carefully prepared not only throughout the episode but, perhaps, throughout the entire season.
A Good Dressing Down
I hinted above that “The Crown” is all about narrative building into “moments”. What I mean with that is that the story develops in a manner in which everything feels evenly paced, with little turmoil and a tone that comes across as somewhat flat (which explains why the series might be boring for some) but, in developing the story that way, the authors are quietly building up a situation in which the protagonists can shine. It’s almost as if there’s nothing but silence until someone decides to speak; when they do their voices are heard.
One of those “moments” is the one when Elizabeth goes from being someone-with-a-crown-on-her-head to being a Queen. I can concede that there were potentially other moments during the season that better illustrated that transition but this was the one that stood out for me.
It occurs during episode 7 Scientia Potentia Est. During this episode, the Queen hires a private tutor to help fill in the gaps in her education. Through that event, we are offered a glimpse into the self-doubt that must certainly be present in the mind of any human in a position of power. As an audience, we are exposed to the fact that everyone has their own shortcomings, regardless of who they are or what family they were born into. The Queen’s willingness to acknowledge those fragilities and address them is proof of her immense desire to be successful, do her duty and garner the respect of her peers.
Meanwhile, Winston suffers a stroke. His political aides decide to not inform the Queen about it. When Winston recovers he also choses to keep it a secret. Inevitably, the Queen finds out and asks her tutor for advice on how to handle it. He suggests she gives them a “good dressing down”.
Here’s why I think this is THE moment when she becomes Queen: up until this point, we had witnessed an insecure Elizabeth who was unsure of where the boundaries of her authority were set. She was often unable to impose her will or do anything else other than what she was told. However, in this moment, we see her taking the council she received and turning it into an action of her own. Her tone is that of a Queen; her power is unquestionable. She faces two Statesmen that are almost three times her age and brings them on their knees. It’s a sight to behold.
The scene is also greatly enjoyable because of the distinct manner that she adopts for each of the Statesmen.
With Lord Salisbury she’s stern and severe, reprehending him in a manner that clearly makes him wish for a hole that he can just disappear in. When she tells him he’s “dismissed” it sounds more like a guillotine coming down than anything close to mercy.
With Winston, she’s still strict, but there’s a kindness in her voice. She acknowledges Winston’s dedication to the cause and her tone is more of disappointment than admonition. She asks him to give her the respect that her “office and rank deserve,” not the one “that my age and gender suggest.” You can see and feel the embarrassment in Winston’s face, a man that, up until that point, would not be humbled by anyone or anything.
The way she handles both men is what establishes her as their sovereign. It’s a turning point in the series and probably my favorite moment so far.
My third favorite moment comes from Episode 5 “Smoke and Mirrors”. Specifically, I thoroughly enjoyed the window into the Duke of Windsor’s soul and how conflicted he must have been watching his niece being anointed Queen.
Alex Jennings’ character is not an easy one to like. He comes across as selfish, arrogant and borderline cruel. This all derives predominantly – but not exclusively – from his decision to give up the Throne so he could marry Wallis Simpson, an event frequently referred to as the “Abdication”. It’s his abdication that really powers all the bitterness in the letters he writes to his wife, all the nicknames he comes up with for his family, all the mockery he makes out of anything related to Royalty.
In this episode, we get to experience all of that once again, except this time we get to see something else…
The Coronation is broadcast on TV and the Duke hosts a party for all his friends to come and watch it. During the broadcast he explains what’s going on and what the rituals are all about. In a way, his deconstruction of the “magic” of the occasion is a way to soften the pain from never having been anointed himself. We hear him repeat his mantra that all he gave up he gave up for love. We see him exchange glances with his wife, telling us there’s an agreement between them that they are both happier and better off than all of the folks captured by the BBC cameras.
All of the above is, again, with the purpose of building a moment. That moment comes at the end of the show. We first see the Duke in the distance with his back turned to the camera. He’s standing in the middle of his garden, playing his bagpipe. The way the scene presents itself, gives the audience the idea that he’s somehow paying homage. In a way, he is, but there’s more to it. When the camera rotates and we see his face, he’s crying profusely.
We see the face of a man split into two. A man who’s in constant conflict. Love is a powerful motive, perhaps the most powerful of them all. Here, we see that while that motive is powerful, it can never replace the things you might leave behind in its name; it can only make them more bearable. This is a man crying not only for the things he left behind but for the things he would never live again: making it right with his brother; celebrating with his niece; feeling the love of his mother. He might paint it as if none of it mattered but it does and this is the moment when all of that is acknowledged.
That was a longer post than I expected! I guess “The Crown” is a deceptive series; it feels like there’s always a lot to unpack. There were other moments that I really enjoyed but the above were my top three.