One, two princes kneel before you as The Crown sings the British boarding school blues

Before we dive into “Paterfamilias”—which is a strong episode with some fascinating things to say about masculinity and fatherhood—let’s talk about this season of The Crown as a whole. With episodes devoted to Philip, Margaret, Tony, Edward, and even more obscure historical figures like Lord Altrincham, it feels like there’s been precious little time to really and truly focus on Elizabeth this season. I’ve heard people say, “Well, it’s called The Crown not The Queen” as justification for why this series so often keeps Elizabeth at arm’s length. But plenty of shows aren’t literally named after their protagonists and yet still manage to center on them more often than not. Claire Foy’s face is the dominant image being used to sell The Crown, and I don’t think it’s crazy to assume the series would spend a good amount of time exploring Elizabeth as a character. And yet here we are with a penultimate episode in which she’s barely a presence as her son and husband take the spotlight.

I’m going to spend the rest of this review evaluating “Paterfamilias” on its own terms because, as I mentioned, there’s a lot of merit here. But first I want to take a second to point out all the more Elizabeth-centric plotlines lurking around the edges of this story. For one thing, we’re told that Elizabeth decided to have Charles be the first heir to the throne to attend a normal school, which seems like it could’ve been a major storyline in its own right. And while The Crown chooses to tell a father/son story in this episode (and a very good one at that), the season also could’ve made room for a far rarer mother/son story as well. After all, Elizabeth and Charles share the unique bond of growing up as heirs to the throne. That would seem to serve as a natural entry point to explore both their relationship and Elizabeth’s own adolescence—something The Crown hasn’t yet done in any meaningful way. But instead the show keeps the Elizabeth/Charles parallels largely subtextual as it once again puts Philip front and center.

Now that I’ve said my piece about what this episode doesn’t do, let’s examine what it does. There are two parallel tragedies that play out in “Paterfamilias.” One is a quieter tragedy about a sensitive young prince trying to find his place in the world. The other is a far more overt tragedy about a slightly less sensitive young prince who has everyone he loves die and then is blamed for it by his own father in the cruelest way possible. (Philip’s dad comes this close to actually exclaiming, “The wrong kid died!”) Digging into Philip’s horrific past helps provide context for his present-day behavior. I’m not necessarily more sympathetic to the fact that adult Philip is a dick (after all, other people experience horrific tragedies and don’t grow up to be jerks who threaten their wives with divorce whenever they don’t get their way), but I do at least understand him a bit better.

There’s also a third tragedy at play in “Paterfamilias,” which is Philip and Charles’ inability to communicate with one another no matter how hard they try. For however difficult he can be, it’s clear that Philip really does want to help his son grow into a well-rounded man. And while The Crown could’ve turned this whole storyline into a cruel joke about Prince Charles’ ineptitude, it also finds a lot of sympathy for his situation as well. Stories about competitive all-male environments often come down on one of two extremes—either they’re celebrated as the pinnacle of brotherhood or they’re critiqued as abusive hellholes. But The Crown argues they can often be both at once. What you get out of a competitive all-male environment mostly comes down to what kind of man (or in this case, boy) you are. For some boys, these competitive spaces fuel an inner strength; for others they extinguish an inner spark.

In other words, if this episode were just a flashback to young Philip’s time at Gordonstoun, it would’ve been a moving but far more simplistic story about a young boy learning to lean on his friends in times of grief. But The Crown complicates that heartwarming narrative by examining the ways in which the lessons of Gordonstoun have warped in Philip’s mind as he’s gotten older. Philip notes that the ethos of Gordonstoun is to embrace the community over the individual, the team over the star. And yet as an adult he values titles, trophies, and attention more than anyone. Gordonstoun’s headmaster Dr. Hahn claims he wants to remove anger, hate, and ego from his students. And yet anger, hate, and ego are three of Philip’s defining personality traits. The most important lesson young Philip learns at Gordonstoun is to ask for help when he needs it. Yet as an adult, he can’t do anything but scream at the son who is clearly crying out for help.

Philip thinks Gordonstoun helped build him back up after the death of his sister, and on one level it did. But on another level it provided an imperfect band-aid for some deep psychological scarring. What Philip probably needed more than anything was a good therapist, but because he was a young boy living in the 1930s, he was instead expected to tough his way through tragedy. During their argument over where to send Charles to school, Elizabeth notes, “Bullied children are scarred for life and scarred children make destroyed adults.” And I do think this episode is meant to drive home the idea that Philip is far, far more psychologically wounded than The Crown had previously acknowledged.

“Paterfamilias” plays very much like a companion piece to the other Philip-centric episode of the season, “A Company Of Men.” Some of the biographical details that were brought up during Philip’s confrontational interview in that episode play out in full flashback here. It turns out his family’s Nazi connections were far more severe than Philip tried to downplay, which is no doubt another source of psychological trauma for him. The overwhelming Nazi imagery at Cecile’s funeral procession is truly terrifying. And I think there’s also a different kind of terror in the way this episode emphasizes the genuine warmth in the Philip/Cecile relationship. It’s easier to wrap your mind around the horrors of Nazism when you dehumanize its participants as monster. It’s a lot harder to wrap your mind around the idea that Nazis were—at least to one another—normal, loving people. Cecile doesn’t even seem to see the cognitive dissonance in sending her brother to be educated by a Jewish man who was driven out of the country she proudly calls home. Her naïveté is perhaps the most chilling thing of all.

“Paterfamilias” really drives home the idea that for most of his life Philip was a young man without a country, without a family, and without a place to call home beyond his boarding school. That helps explains the restlessness The Crown previously explored in “A Company Of Men.” As an adult, Philip’s constantly torn between wanting to recreate the family life that was ripped away from him when Cecile died and wanting to hide away in all-male environments, which also feel like home to him. That’s why he’s constantly bouncing back and forth between Elizabeth and the Thursday Club, never quite fulfilled in either place.

One of the things slightly holding “Paterfamilias” back is just how many similar stories about all-male boarding schools already exist in pop culture. That means a lot of the individual beats of “Paterfamilias” feel like things I’ve seen before, even if they’re rearranged in new ways. Thankfully, The Crown makes up for that over-familiarity with flawless execution. Julian Baring as young Charles and Finn Elliot as young Philip are both excellent in their roles, and Matt Smith is as great as ever. Plus while “Paterfamilias” tells a specific story about all-male boarding schools, it also offers a far more universal one about parents and children too.

Back in Germany, Uncle Dickie warns young Philip that he too will one day fail as a parent in ways that will make him feel deeply ashamed. The irony is, it’s in specifically trying to forge a different kind relationship with his own son that Philip winds up recreating the cycle of bullying Elizabeth was so afraid of. On their flight home, Philip first reaches out to Charles with real empathy and compassion as he tries to find common ground and alleviate any sense of shame his son might be feeling for his poor performance in the Gordonstoun Challenge. Yet only a few moments later the whole thing has gone utterly awry and Philip’s screaming “Don’t be so bloody weak!” as he kicks Charles out of the cockpit and into the far more emotionally supportive arms of his bodyguard. Like many parents, Philip can’t help but see Charles as an extension of himself. And since Philip long ago learned to define himself in opposition to weakness, he views Charles’ vulnerability as a failure that reflects poorly on him. Philip’s ego—the thing Gordonstoun was supposed to teach him not to care about—is the very thing standing between him and Charles having an emotionally healthy relationship.

Moments after finishing my rewatch of “Paterfamilias,” I came across this short story from actor Jason Ritter. And since it sums up the tragedy of this episode better and more simply than I ever could, I think I’ll end on this parable about another famous Charles:

Stray observations

  • In addition to Amy Jenkins’ work on “Beryl,” this is the second co-written episode of The Crown. Tom Edge shares screenwriting credit with Peter Morgan.
  • As Mike Parker noted back in “Lisbon,” Elizabeth does seem hyperaware of Charles’ role as the future King Of England. She’s also, however, nothing but loving, caring, and concerned for her son throughout this entire episode. So in conclusion: Fuck Mike Parker.
  • More so than any other episode this season, “Paterfamilias” is the one that most benefited from a rewatch. On my first viewing, I assumed Philip didn’t quite realize what a hellhole he was sending his son to. On my second, I noticed Philip specifically checking to see whether the window next to Charles’ bed was still broken.
  • Though The Crown usually sticks to realism, this episode features a really unsettling fantasy sequence in which young Philip stumbles into the woods and seems to come across the plane crash that killed his family all while imagining Cecile’s horrific final moments.
  • Uncle Dickie is a true saint in this episode. The montage of Charles getting fitted for his Eton uniforms is really sweet, as is their conversation in the car.
  • There are objectively far sadder things in this episode, but the final title card about Charles sending his own sons to Eton really, really broke my heart.

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