(Spoiler alert: This post includes details from Seasons 1 and 2 of “The Crown”)
It’s not usually very easy to get me to enjoy watching something about extremely rich people — I am not rich, and I harbor no illusions that I ever will be, so watching rich people be rich usually just irritates me. Probably related to that is my complete lack of interest in the Royal Family. Not dislike for — I just don’t care that Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip and the rest of them exist. They’re simply not in my field of consciousness.
Despite both of those things, I did manage to find some amusement in the first season of “The Crown.” I’d imagine that Jon Lithgow’s brilliant caricature of Winston Churchill was largely to blame for that, because if the show had functioned too much like a bog standard prestige drama I’d probably have zoned out. But Season 1 did in large swaths feel like just that; Lithgow’s Churchill managed to bring it down to my level just enough. But for the most part, it felt to me as though “The Crown” was exactly the sort of thing that was simply not made for me.
For the first half or so of Season 2 I continued to feel that way. Worse, really, since Churchill is out of the picture during this period and I didn’t have that comfort to cling to. But there’s a pair of episodes late in the season that forced me to reevaluate the whole thing.
“Dexter” actor Michael C. Hall plays JFK, in a bit of casting that makes absolutely no sense if you’re trying to be serious. Fortunately, the episode plays out like some kind of pulp short story that really clowns on everybody all at once. It’s absolutely marvelous.
The second involves Prince Philip (Matt Smith) insisting on forcing his son Prince Charles to go to the same school he attended in Scotland when he was a kid, complete with flashbacks to Philip’s childhood that finally (finally) dives into his family’s Nazi history. It seems like an extremely earnest coming of age episode for the most part, detailing how this school taught Philip a bunch of important life lessons. But the twist, at least as I see it, is that the whole thing really is just intended as a brutal own of adult Philip, but in a pretty subtle British, show-no-emotion kind of way.
It occurred to me after that that maybe “The Crown” is like a very prim and proper satire rather than a drama, like a royal version of the British “Office.” After I reevaluated the earlier parts of the season with that in mind I started to see scattered telltale signs. For example, at the beginning of the season when Philip is doing his world tour that Elizabeth forced him to go on so she could have some peace and quiet at home, there’s a running gag about Philip’s friend Mike (Daniel Ings) hooking up with local women wherever he goes. The scene plays out a few times — they visit a small village somewhere, like in Papua New Guinea, and some women would basically throw themselves at the British folks as gifts, with Mike gleefully accepting and then bragging about it in letters he’d send back to Philip’s lunch club where they’d be read aloud. I initially thought this bit was just in poor taste, and probably racist even, but now it feels it was just a joke at Mike’s expense because he’s just an awful person and was probably making these stories up. I probably should have been able to figure it out because a parallel story back in England saw Mike’s wife pursuing a divorce.
The biggest tell, I think, of Season 2 is Matthew Goode’s portrayal of the guy Margaret (Vanessa Kirby) finally ends up marrying, Antony Armstrong-Jones. Antony is incredibly insufferable, but also the sort of pretentious faux-normal moron that somebody like Margaret, who has never experienced the real world, would fall for as she pretends to dip her toes into those waters for the first time. Antony’s defining scene, for me, comes when he describes how he’s been depressed forever because even though his family was rich his mom made him sit with poor people on the train when he was a kid. Margaret herself, at least, remains the best character on the show.
Claire Foy is, of course, still amazing as Elizabeth, I should note, with her pompous accent reaching new levels of mindblowing at certain points. Elizabeth herself largely feels like she’s just along for the ride, though, sort of as our point-of-view character wandering through every scene feeling bewildered by everything that’s happening.
So yeah, for me “The Crown” Season 2 works perfectly as the driest possible comedy. And, yes, I’m assuming that creator Peter Morgan meant for it to be comedy. There’s really no other explanation for why Jeremy Northam played Prime Minister Anthony Eden like he’s having a nervous breakdown in every scene.