Photo: The Crown (Netflix)

If your idea of a hero is someone who writes an op-ed about how annoying a female leader’s voice is, then boy does The Crown have an episode for you! I kid. “Marionettes” isn’t nearly as problematic as that description makes it sound. It is, however, an episode that lacks a bit of thematic depth. It shines a light on an engaging, under-explored historical story, but it does so in a pretty straightforward manner. Some episodes of The Crown are driven by theme and some are driven by character, but “Marionettes” feels largely driven by plot. That doesn’t make it a bad episode—in fact it’s quite an engaging one to watch—but it feels like it comes from a more simplistic version of the series. Still, a good story well told counts for something in my book, and there’s plenty to enjoy in “Marionettes.”

The episode opens by taking a page out of The West Wing handbook: When you have a straightforward story to tell, start with a quick flash forward to make it feel more complex. “Marionettes” opens with what seems to be the image of a loyal subject chivalrously standing up for the Queen’s honor by punching one of her cruel critics. The flash forward puts us firmly in Elizabeth’s perspective: Lord Altrincham has besmirched her honor with a needlessly cruel critique. That opening scene sets us up to see him as an enemy. But flashing back to one month earlier, The Crown sets about challenging our preconceived notion of Altrincham. He’s perfectly pleasant as he greets his local newspaper salesman on his way into work. A few seconds later we’re in a pitch meeting for the National And English Review, where he’s arguing that the outdated Church of England needs to introduce women priests. He’s trapped in a work environment that clearly doesn’t allow him to fulfill his potential—his coworkers are more interested in toffee than politics—and it’s not long before the poor schmuck’s cracked a tooth. Our second impression of Altrincham couldn’t be more different than our first.

“Marionettes” is an episode all about perception. The Queen is meant to be a symbol of the nation but despite her youthfulness, Elizabeth doesn’t exactly feel like a monarch for this new, post-Suez era. Her old fashioned paternalism (or at least the old fashioned paternalism assigned to her by her staff and stylists) is at odds with the increasingly egalitarian ethos of the late 1950s. And a phenomenally condescending speech made at a Jaguar factory is the straw that breaks Altrincham’s back and inspires him to call out his Queen. But Altrincham has a perception issue too. His harsh op-ed (he calls Elizabeth “priggish” and “twiggy”) makes him seem like a radical modernist and he’s treated as such. But it turns out he’s just a kindhearted man who really, really loves the monarchy.

Through Altrincham, The Crown voices a staunchly pro-monarchy position (and perhaps, some justification for its own existence): As self-motivated politicians come and go, the monarchy provides symbolic stability. The monarch can rise above politics, embody the national character, and unify society. Altrincham isn’t upset that Elizabeth is reigning; he’s upset that she isn’t reigning as effectively as she could. He’s sympathetic to the nearly impossible line Elizabeth must walk between being simultaneously “ordinary and extraordinary,” but he wants to help her do better. Monarchy is a dying governmental system and if the English monarchy is to survive, it must find a way to evolve.

This isn’t the first time The Crown has brought up these issues. This episode reminds me of “Smoke And Mirrors,” not least of all because both center on televising a major event. Philip used to be the voice of modernization within the Royal Family, as he was during the push to broadcast Elizabeth’s coronation, but now Altrincham takes on that role. And as she did with her husband’s suggestions, Elizabeth is willing to hear him out. She pulls a full Batman as she appears and disappears during a secret, off-the-books meeting with Altrincham. And though she’s understandably passive aggressive during their conversation (“Is my voice all right?” she asks sarcastically), she clearly isn’t above listening to his advice. 25 years after George V made his first Christmas speech over the radio, Elizabeth makes her first televised Christmas speech in 1957. And she also opens up the gates of Buckingham Palace to everyday people, kicking off a new, more open era for the monarchy.

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An unsung hero is sung, a modern day tradition is explained, and The Crown offers a likable underdog to root for in Altrincham. On one level, this is a lovely historical story perfectly wrapped up with a neat little bow. On another, I also wonder if “Marionettes” doesn’t go deep enough. Though I joked about it at the beginning, it’s true that this episode could’ve examined the ingrained sexism that impacts how we view male and female political figures differently. It’s certainly not a requirement that The Crown explore that angle, but it would seem to be relevant both to the show and to our present day.

I also wonder about the choice to give Altrincham every single ounce of credit for the British monarchy’s evolution. That Altrincham wrote his critical op-ed and that the palace went on to adopt many of his suggestions is historical fact. But Altrincham’s secret meeting with Elizabeth is an invention of the show (he did have a meeting with Martin Charteris). Rather than center the episode on Elizabeth and co. figuring out how to respond to Altrincham’s article, the episode brings in Altrincham himself to make his suggestions in the most straightforward, literal way possible. The Elizabeth/Altrincham meeting is a lot of fun to watch, but it doesn’t leave much for the audience to piece together. And since Altrincham’s personality isn’t really explored beyond “likable dork,” “Marionettes” lacks a complex figure at its center.

The other moment in this episode that sits strangely with me is the Queen Mother’s somber, dreary speech about the monarchy slowly becoming marionettes. In an episode all about the Crown learning to get with the times, the Queen Mother’s mopiness feels like an odd note to end on. That juxtaposition is clearly intentional—she’s driving home just how much the Crown is giving up as it becomes an increasingly ceremonial organization. But it also feels like The Crown could’ve explored that idea without having the Queen Mother simply deliver it in monologue form.

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Those few critiques aside, “Marionettes” is a perfectly pleasant historical outing. It’s not The Crown at its best, but it’s certainly not the series at its worst either. It feels a bit like a lesser historical film Tom Hanks would make between Oscar campaigns. But, hey, there are far worse things to watch than that.


Stray observations

  • I love that Tommy Lascelles is the kind of person who looks like his dogs.

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  • In addition to her Batman moment, Elizabeth getting her iconic haircut for the first time is presented like a superhero suiting up. That’s the kind of heightened, hilarious moment The Crown could use more of.
  • I enjoyed the brief Philip/Margaret scene. They’re a fun pairing.
  • Talk about unrecognizable Game Of Thrones’ actors: Altrincham’s meek, loyal secretary Patricia Campbell is played by Gemma Whelan a.k.a. Yara Greyjoy. And yes, I’m still struggling to wrap my mind around that fact and I’ve watched this episode twice.
  • Here’s the real Elizabeth’s first televised Christmas speech from 1957. Though abridged, The Crown uses the actual text:

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