The final sequence of “Lisbon,” at the crux of The Crown’s second season, finds Philip (Matt Smith), newly named prince, posing for his official portrait. The court photographer, Cecil Beaton (Mark Tandy), stands beside his hulking box camera—pointed at Philip, dressed in full regalia—whispering the sweet nothings of empire’s height: “Thine island loves thee well, thou famous man/The greatest sailor since our world began.” Cecil’s recitation, from Tennyson’s “Ode on the Death of Duke Wellington,” of course suits his subject, a moody narcissist fated to play second fiddle to his more powerful wife. But it also suits the central subject of series creator Peter Morgan’s ongoing obsession with the Windsors, which is change and the resistance to it, the drama of the traditional meeting the modern. In the photographer’s reference to the imagined Britain of yore, the series signals its interest in a hidebound institution’s confrontation with time’s forward march, which it elaborates with aesthetic assurance and narrative ambition: The second season may witness the royal family fight the future to a draw, but for The Crown it marks a great leap forward.
Though its attention to Philip and Princess Margaret (the superb Vanessa Kirby) has been cause for complaint in some quarters, drawing us away from Claire Foy’s brilliant performance as the flinty monarch, this is The Crown, not The Queen, or even The Audience: Netflix’s historical epic, which might span an entire year in a single episode, is less concerned with Elizabeth II—though she is the axis around which it turns—than it is with the Windsors’ warped reflection of the nation under their reign. (Republicans beware: Morgan often seems, like the queen’s critic, Lord Altrincham, a sympathetic, if at times scathing, monarchist.) Beginning with the Suez Crisis of 1956 and concluding with the Profumo affair of 1963, Season Two—which also flashes back to the 1930s and 1940s, in order to consider the royal family’s troubling connections to the Nazis—covers the era’s most pressing political controversies, to be sure; watched with Wikipedia at one’s fingertips, it’s quite the crash course in 20th century Britain. Still, to call The Crown’s style simply “lavish,” or its structure “sweeping,” strikes me as rather uncharitable. In its thorough engagement with technological advancements, violations of “protocol,” changing mores, the quicksilver zeitgeist, the series’ sophomore effort emerges as a surprisingly full-throated examination of Britain’s public life, and its public figures’ private ones.
Consider the season’s finest installment, “Beryl,” to which Cecil’s appearance in “Lisbon” offers a useful bridge: The episode opens with Margaret’s soon-to-be love interest, Tony Armstrong-Jones (the unconscionably seductive Matthew Goode), snapping artful images at a nobleman’s marriage, culminating in a match cut from his lightweight Leica to the wedding photographer’s own hulking box. (The deft interweaving of disparate entries is one of the season’s many coups; just as “Lisbon” introduces the photographic conceit that runs through “Beryl,” the closing montage of “Beryl” offers of glimpse of the next episode’s focal point, the long since abdicated King Edward VII.) In that brief sequence, “Beryl” outlines its constituent elements—Margaret, Anthony, photography, marriage—in a few bold strokes, upon which it builds through a series of careful choices. Cecil, for instance, constructs a sumptuous, “fairy tale” composition for Margaret’s birthday portrait—flowing white dress, pink flowers, proscenium arch—as his subject and her lady-in-waiting suggest the need for a new approach. (“No one wants complexity and reality from us,” the Queen Mother snipes at the servant. “Do sit down.”) Tony, by contrast, bristles at Margaret’s description of his work as a form of portraiture: “I don’t like that word,” he replies. “So stuffy and traditional.” The dialogue is punctuation, perhaps, but the point is there in the two photographers’ opposing palettes—brocaded into the episode’s tapestry as if it were hanging on the wall.
“Beryl,” written by Morgan and Amy Jenkins and directed by Benjamin Caron, ultimately builds to the season’s most memorable sequence, set in the artist’s spare studio. Toggling between Tony, crashing about in the dim living space upstairs, and Margaret, half startled, wandering the little skyline of lights, stools, tripods and mirrors below, the long, wordless stretch that precedes the click of his camera—designed to crack her self-protective shell—is genuinely exhilarating, and not only because it’s so breathtakingly sexy. The moment, like the photograph it produces, straddles the line between “intrusion” and “intimacy” that defines the entire season: As Altrincham (John Heffernan) lays into Elizabeth’s out-of-touch manner, pronouncing the “age of deference” over; as she seeks an audience with American televangelist Billy Graham (Paul Sparks); as she hears a secondhand account of Jackie Kennedy (Jodi Balfour) blaming Britain’s “new, reduced place in the world” on its “unremarkable” monarch, The Crown animates, in personal terms, its foremost political questions. Must the Windsors modernize, or is being lashed to the past of Tennyson’s heroic Duke Wellington part of their fundamental purpose? And if they modernize, how will they do so, and how much, and on whose terms?
I suppose it might be more satisfying, ideologically speaking, for Morgan to press the issue, to turn the screws on Elizabeth as he does her mother (a profoundly silly snob), her uncle (a profoundly silly snob who is a also Nazi sympathizer), and the legion of secretaries and advisors whose monocles are always falling into the soup tureen over one or another breach of decorum. (The latter’s horrified reactions to the Kennedys—those commoners!—are terrifically funny.) As character-driven historical fiction, though, the series’ rather generous spirit—embracing Elizabeth, Margaret, young Charles, even Philip—is compelling, and not uncomplicated; by using its newfound confidence, in both form and function, to dig beneath the Windsors’ skin, The Crown also succeeds in peeling away the mythos that surrounds them. As Elizabeth herself retorts, when her sister suggests that a home renovation is a symbol of “rejuvenation, modernization and change,” “No… it’s inconsiderate, selfish and deafening”: The royal family may not always be self-aware enough to see their flaws clearly, but Morgan most certainly is.
That the finale’s closing moments should return us to Cecil, to portraiture, to the subject of tradition and transformation is, for me, the confirmation that The Crown—if not “the crown”—continues to evolve in bracing directions. The sequence that caps off the season, pulling back from the baptism of Prince Edward to reveal another of Beaton’s tableaux, subtly tweaks the composition of the earlier photographs, highlighting the halting rhythms by which our institutions change. It is, like the series itself, a chaotic swirl of parents and children, husbands and wives, with Elizabeth at the photograph’s center, buffeted by the future as she clings to the past. Cecil’s recitation, from Richard II, is as stirring as ever, but after the earthly trials of the intervening years, its soaring description of a place that no longer is, or never was, carries a sparklingly ironic inflection. “This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle,” John of Gaunt proclaims in Shakespeare’s history:
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.
Season Two of The Crown is now streaming on Netflix.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.