It’s almost hard for me to believe that Peter Morgan penned both this episode and the previous one, as the difference in how Philip is written couldn’t be more drastic. In “A Company Of Men,” Philip was a complicated, flawed, nuanced figure who seemed to come to realize the error of his ways and set about trying to change himself for the better. In “Lisbon,” he’s just the fucking worst.
I don’t mean to be glib, but I honestly don’t know how else to describe a man who jeopardizes his marriage, his job, and his wife’s job with his penchant for infidelity, and yet somehow manages to twist events so that he’s the victim who gets a shiny apology trophy (which in this case, is a literal crown and an official royal title). When this season opened with the fight we finally see in full, it seemed like an argument between two people who had both made mistakes and were struggling to find a way forward. Now that we have the full context, however, I realize it’s not so much an argument between two imperfect people as an argument between one person who’s 100 percent right and one person who’s 100 percent wrong. When Philip’s party boy ways finally catch up to him, he can’t even admit an ounce of culpability. Instead he redirects the conversation so that he’s a victim of everyone and everything around him. “There is no room for mistakes, there is no room for scandal, there is no room for humanity,” Philip earlier whines about the Royal Family he WILLINGLY MARRIED INTO. Someone break out the world’s smallest violin because Philip is in need of a sonata.
Beyond my problems with Philip as a character (which we’ll circle back to), “Lisbon” suffers from a real lack of focus. It’s filled with scenes that are well written, well acted, and beautiful to look act, but which just don’t add up to more than the sum of their parts. Between Anthony Eden’s retirement and news of the Parker divorce breaking, I guess this could be described as the “shit hitting the fan” episode. But it lacks much sense of cohesion and repeats a lot of the same beats we’ve already seen in the season’s first two episodes. The Crown really suffers when it aims for this kind of serialized “ten-hour movie” approach and I hope the show returns to episodic storytelling soon.
As I mentioned before, however, many of the episode’s scenes work well enough in isolation, and before it becomes derailed by Philip’s petulance, “Lisbon” offers some subtle reminders of how much Elizabeth has grown into her role as queen. She used to be (understandably) dwarfed in her meetings with Winston Churchill, but she knows exactly how to handle both the resignation of Anthony Eden and the arrival of Harold Macmillan. She proves to both men that while her role demands impartiality, she’s perfectly capable of understanding their motivations on both a personal and political level. And whereas Elizabeth used to worry about how to express an opinion without overstepping her role, she now knows just how to call out Macmillan’s hypocrisy over the Suez Crisis while staying on the right side of supporting him. In fact, I could probably spend this whole review just listing scenes I enjoyed from this episode—namely any that involved the welcome return of Tommy Lascelles—but an episode of TV should be more than just a collection of interesting scenes. And that’s where “Lisbon” drops the ball.
Which brings us back to Philip. Structurally, the first half of “Lisbon” is told largely told through Elizabeth’s perspective while the second half (after Eileen and Mike’s divorce is made public) focuses more on Philip. That means that at the moment it probably would’ve been most interesting to explore Elizabeth’s mindset (she goes from despising Philip to wanting to have more kids with him almost entirely off-screen), the episode largely leaves her behind to focus on her husband. That wouldn’t be a problem if “Lisbon” then offered deeper insights into Philip, but instead it just winds up repeating what we already know: Philip is petulant, immature, and prone to blaming other people for his problems. Lather, rinse, repeat, repeat, repeat.
If The Crown simply wants to drive home the point that Philip is terrible, it doesn’t need to keep making that point over and over again. And if The Crown wants to paint him as a nuanced, flawed figure, it needs to do a better job of that than “Lisbon” does. Elizabeth’s suggestion that the couple finally speak frankly to one another briefly gave me hope that this would be a whole new type of fight between them. But Philip meets her with the one-note petulance that has too long defined his character. Real-life people might keep having the same arguments over and over again, but it’s the job of a TV show to make each iteration of that argument feel uniquely compelling. It would’ve been so much more interesting to incorporate a new angle into Elizabeth and Philip’s ship-set fight, perhaps by bringing in some of Philip’s softness from the previous episode. Instead the script, the direction, and Matt Smith himself play the scene like that previous episode never happened.
My other problem with “Lisbon” is that it can be hard to tell when The Crown is intentionally depicting sexism vs. when the show is inadvertently being sexist. On the “intentional” side, I do think The Crown is aware of Philip’s hypocrisy in blaming Elizabeth for a problem that’s actually Mike Parker’s fault. Mike’s inability to stop himself from bragging to the Thursday Club (not to mention his inability to stop sleeping around) is the most direct cause of Philip’s woes, yet the two men end things on the very best of terms, parting as dear friends who blame everything on the women in their lives. I’m pretty sure we’re meant to feel a little grossed out by that. Or at least, I hope we are.
And yet what are we supposed to make of Mike’s assertion that when Elizabeth looks at Charles she sees her impending death and therefore can’t love him, which is why she wants more children she can actually care for? Coming from a man who literally abandoned his wife and children for a life of non-stop partying, I can’t see it as anything but a deeply misogynistic assessment. And maybe we’re supposed to see the irony of Mike’s complaint. After all, Elizabeth gets several warm scenes with Charles and Anne in this episode while Philip is the one who throws a hissy fit about his 8-year-old son outranking him. So perhaps The Crown is intentionally showing Philip and Mike boorishly projecting their own issues onto her. But if that’s the case, there’s very little within the scene to undercut Mike’s point of view. The most obvious way to do so would’ve been to show or reference Eileen’s struggle in some way. But she basically drops out of the episode entirely after doing her part to further Philip’s storyline.
Either way, Mike’s commentary sat wrong with me. If we’re supposed to see Mike’s assessment of Elizabeth as true, it would’ve been infinitely more interesting to explore how Elizabeth feels towards her children in a scene where she’s, you know, actually on screen. And if we’re supposed to see it as false, I don’t need yet another scene that proves that Philip and Mike are assholes. Because the episode doesn’t actually see them as assholes. Not really. It’s practically creaming itself over the moment of masculine dignity in which Mike calls Philip “sir” one last time. “Lisbon” is an episode about two men’s bad behavior catching up to them that ends with a sweeping, almost romantic celebration of their friendship. The Crown treats it as a given that Mike Parker is worthy of our sympathies because, well, art almost always treats it as a given that flawed men are worthy of our sympathies. For me, at least, that’s just not enough.
To be totally honest, I almost find it hard to critique the Philip portions of “Lisbon” as I could see other people coming away with a wildly different interpretation of events than I did. Particularly during long, silent, stoic sequences like Philip’s crowning, it’s possible to project just about anything you want onto the series. And while ambiguity in art is definitely a powerful thing, there’s also such a thing as being too ambiguous. The Crown doesn’t need to be prescriptive, but it does need to have a cohesive point of view. And that’s where “Lisbon” falters.
- My favorite Tommy scene is probably when he updates Elizabeth and the Queen Mother by matter-of-factly reciting all the newspaper headlines he’s memorized. I also enjoyed his banter with Elizabeth about his royal car as well as the deft way he takes over Michael’s job without excluding Michael from the conversation.
- I know The Crown tends to jump through time fairly quickly, but I’m confused as to how much time has past between this episode and the last one. Eden’s only been away for three weeks but it seems to be spring.
- Eileen is just such a fascinating character, especially when she tells Elizabeth that working for the royal family means spending a lifetime putting your happiness aside to do favors for the Crown. If this is the last we see of her, I’ll be severely disappointed.
- Like Stephen Dillane last year, Anton Lesser (a.k.a. Qyburn) as Harold Macmillan is another Game Of Thrones actor who’s unrecognizable on The Crown.
- I’m pretty sure the footage of Philip goofing off in Antarctica was just Matt Smith being himself.
- That being said, here’s some footage of the real-life Philip and Mike visiting penguins in their beards. You can find a whole bunch of vintage Philip footage on the British Pathé website.
- Making your employee shave his mustache because it annoys you is truly some next-level pettiness.