Here are three overwhelming situations a person might face in their lifetime: A parent dies unexpectedly, a beloved head of state dies unexpectedly, you’re thrust into a high-pressure job you feel unprepared for. Now imagine all three happening at once. That’s the situation Elizabeth faces when news of her father’s death reaches her during her royal tour in Kenya. And while any one of those things would be enough to send someone into a tailspin, Elizabeth must face them all with dignity befitting the new Queen of England.
After the quieter prologue of “Wolferton Splash,” “Hyde Park Corner” ramps up the stakes at it launches into the official beginning of Queen Elizabeth’s reign. And it does so with a neat structural trick. Though George’s eventual death is baked into the show’s premise, it seems like the kind of momentous event that would take place either at the beginning or the end of an episode. “Hyde Park Corner” lulls its audience into a slightly dreamy tale of Nairobi elephants and British hunting parties before pulling the rug out from under them with George’s death. Even for those who weren’t particularly surprised by the turn of events, placing George’s death a third of the way through the episode emphasizes just what an unexpected turn of events it was for the royal family. One moment Elizabeth is planning a return to Malta, the next she’s the Queen of England.
Even more so than the premiere, this episode introduces the central tenant of Windsor leadership: Monarchy is a battle between personal desires and public duty in which duty must always win out. It’s a sentiment echoed by both Queen Mary (in a rather on-the-nose letter) and by George himself just days before his death. When you become a monarch, the human being with likes, dislikes, foibles, and friendships must be replaced by a public figure with steadfast dedication and royal impartiality.
That’s what makes the scenes in Nairobi so fascinating (as least from Elizabeth and Phillip’s perspective, see the stray observations for more on how the show handles colonialism). Although they’re technically on a diplomatic visit, Philip and Elizabeth are removed enough from the strict rules of Buckingham Palace that they can let their hair down in a way they can’t back home. He can be the masculine hero facing off with an elephant; she can be the loving wife shooting vacation video. In addition to shaking up the overly familiar period piece aesthetic of the premiere, the change in setting also offers a new perspective on our central couple. Watching a pants-wearing Elizabeth climb out of a stalled car or wander around in a nightshirt is a reminder that she’s a vibrant 25-year-old-woman who enjoys freedom and fun as much as anyone else.
But that comes crashing down with the death of her father. The show creates a solidly tense sequence as royal officials scramble to get the news to Elizabeth before she hears it on the radio. And her shift from carefree princess to dutiful queen is swift and decisive. Even the informality she was able to find in Nairobi is gone the moment news of her father’s death breaks. The local boys may have been able to joke around with Phillip, Duke Of Edinburgh, but they solemnly take off their hats for Philip, consort to the Queen.
And it’s not just that Elizabeth has had her public profile elevated, her most personal relationships have shifted too. She can’t walk next to her husband or her sister anymore because the crown must take precedence. And even her mother greets her with an air of formality that acknowledges she’s greeting her monarch as well as her daughter.
The complicated intersection of the public and private lives of the Windsors pops up all over this episode. The camera centers on what looks to be an intimate father/daughter duet, only to pan across the room and reveal George and Margaret are actually performing for a small crowd of onlookers and servants. We know that their relationship truly is a loving one—they have a sweet private moment in a car on the way to a hunt—but in this case they’re also performing their love for one another in a public way (and through an oddly romantic song, I might add). Elizabeth can’t just mourn her father, she has to mourn him in the correct clothing so that the press can take photos that capture her grief.
Claire Foy turns in a stunning performance as she conveys the clear sense of fear and pain that lurks just beneath Elizabeth’s external composure. On the one hand, she’s spent her entire adult life preparing for this day. On the other, how could you possibly prepare for such a thing? “I thought we’d have longer,” she tells Philip with an air of melancholy that doesn’t fall into self-pity.
Elizabeth, the person, allows herself only two brief moments to grieve—one in the yard when Phillip breaks the news to her and one when she sees her father’s body. Then Elizabeth, the Queen, devotes herself fully to the details of her new reign. If monarchy is a privilege (and don’t get me wrong, it very much is), it’s also a prison. And that reality is just beginning to set in for Elizabeth.
- So let’s talk about the show’s exploration of colonialism/imperialism. On the one hand, I appreciate that it didn’t sugarcoat Philip and Elizabeth’s casually condescending behavior. In an attempt to deliver a compliment, Elizabeth describes pre-colonized Nairobi as a land of “savages,” while Philip jokes that a Kenyan vet must have stolen his medals (for the record, 98,240 Kenyans served in World War II). There’s a definite power in having ostensibly likable characters exhibit the prejudices of their time to remind us that that sort of behavior wasn’t just limited to historical “bad guys.” On the other hand, the show also feels like it’s romanticizing the colonial system as much Philip and Elizabeth are. The moment in which the Maasai king looks on dramatically as Elizabeth departs feels particularly tone-deaf. And is the show horrified or touched by the image of a Nairobi man kissing Elizabeth’s shoes? It’s hard to tell and that makes me very, very uncomfortable
- John Lithgow continues to be appropriately grotesque as Winston Churchill. He forces his secretary to read his briefings while he’s in the bathtub and abandons a cabinet meeting for what looks like a bout of indigestion. There’s a lot of dark humor in the way Churchill thinks he can justify all of his terrible behavior by calling back to his role in World War II. “You need to be a monster to defeat Hitler!”
- Right now the subplots I’m least interested in are Anthony Eden’s political machinations and Peter Townsend’s inter-palace conflicts.
- You can really feel Peter Morgan’s reverence for an era in which journalists and photographers were considerate of the royal family’s feelings.
- Elizabeth’s time as a mechanic gets a shout-out here, which made me very happy.
- Those were some pretty terrible CGI elephants.