Photo: The Crown (Netflix)

It’s an interesting time to watch an episode like “A Company Of Men.” As a society, we’re currently grappling in a way we never have before with the entitlement of masculinity and the way it impacts the vast majority of women and many men as well. And “A Company Of Men” is all about examining masculinity, both to critique it and to celebrate it. In many ways, it’s a timely, nuanced, and much-needed episode. In other ways, it doesn’t go far enough.

But before we dive into all that meaty thematic material, let’s examine “A Company Of Men” on a character level. This is our first truly Philip-centric installment of The Crown and while the character himself is still frequently hard to like, there’s no question that Matt Smith is utterly fantastic in the role. Philip is an incredibly mercurial character, switching from boyish to commanding to petulant at the drop of a hat. And Smith conveys all of those demeanors beautifully while providing the emotional connective tissue to track Philip’s mood swings.

The standout setpiece in this episode is Philip’s interview with Australian journalist Helen King, which goes about as badly as an interview could possibly go, at least from his perspective. Philip is shocked to discover that the woman he assumed was there to sleep with him is actually just there to do her job. And Smith beautifully plays Philip’s increasing frustration at his inability to control their conversation, which spirals out of his control once Helen reveals she’s done plenty of research on her interview subject. It turns out Philip’s childhood is much more complex and tragic than The Crown had fully acknowledged before. Philip was abandoned and orphaned in increasingly horrific ways as a kid—traumas Helen suggests must have a major influence on who he is as a man and as a father. And while Philip manages to deliver platitudes that downplay his unusual life, it’s clear Helen has struck a nerve.

All of that childhood abandonment helps explain adult Philip’s restlessness. He’s constantly searching for a purpose and a sense of belonging but can never quite find it. He’s happy to be around his family until he suddenly grows bored with them. And he’s at home in boisterous all-male environments like the Thursday Club and the Royal Yacht Britannia until suddenly those feel hollow to him. He’s at sea—literally and figuratively—and while that doesn’t make me more forgiving of his obnoxious behavior, it at least provides some more context for it.

When we first saw Elizabeth’s “Always remember you have a family” note in the previous episode, I read it as a warning: “Don’t fuck around because we you have a family back home.” When Philip rereads it in this episode, however, I saw it more as a message of comfort: “Even when things get bad, don’t forget there are people back home who love you.” That’s a shift Philip himself seems to experience as well. Their time away from one another has softened Elizabeth and Philip’s feelings, as their joint Christmas speeches reveal. In fact, were it not for that fight from the premiere that we know is still coming, I would’ve assumed this episode was meant to put a cap on the rocky portion of Philip and Elizabeth’s marriage. We’ll just have to wait and see what future fallout causes that ship-set argument.

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At least we get to see Philip in perhaps his most likable moment to date as he rescues an injured Tongan sailor and chooses to bring the man back home to his family rather than just dropping him off at the closest foreign port. Though he may not always show it, Philip does have an empathetic, passionate side that values honor and duty. And his commitment to this injured fellow sailor is an example of male camaraderie at its very best.

Photo: The Crown (Netflix)

As much as this is an episode about Philip, it’s also an episode about gender dynamics in a broader sense. While Eileen Parker is home raising their children on her own, her husband Mike is enjoying a “five month stag night” full of sporting events, beard growing contests, and beautiful women. And due to 1950s laws, Eileen isn’t even able to divorce Mike just because he’s an unsupportive partner. She has to specifically prove he’s unfaithful, unreasonable, or insane. That’s one of the many ways in which The Crown examines how its female characters are made to feel powerless by their society. Without drawing too much attention to it, director Philip Martin allows his camera to capture the small indignities women face in their daily lives—from the way Philip and Mike leer at Helen King as she sets up her microphone to the way the men of the Thursday Club nonchalantly put their hands on the club’s female wait staff every time they interact with them.

And yet, there’s a real limit as to how far The Crown is willing to extend its critique. For one thing, I’m pretty sure Hanako Footman’s waitress character isn’t actually named in the episode (she’s listed as Lily in the credits). She’s just referred to as “the waitress,” which isn’t the best optics for an episode about humanizing the women men take for granted. But the bigger problem is that the episode doesn’t fully dive into the power dynamics at play in Philip and Mike’s philandering. Lily tells Eileen that she can’t publicly discuss her affair with Mike without fear of losing her job. But did she feel free to reject Mike’s sexual advances without fear of losing her job? That’s a question the episode doesn’t think to ask. But as the #MeToo movement has shown, it’s perhaps the most important question there is.

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And where that really becomes a problem is when it comes to the show’s depiction of Philip’s tour of England’s remote colonies. The episode shies away from actually depicting Philip and Mike’s affairs, but there are a couple moments in which young women pull the men up to dance, with the implication being that they then go on to do much more than just dance. Brief though they may be, these moments subtly present the local women as eager participants who can’t wait to lure these foreign men into bed. Yet that entirely ignores the actual gender, race, and power dynamics that were at play during an era before consent was an understood concept and in which the British literally saw themselves as morally and mentally superior to their colonized peoples.

I’m not saying it’s impossible that pleasant cultural exchanges, friendly sporting events, and consensual affairs took place within a colonial system that was also filled with horrors and injustice. But to solely depict the good without depicting the bad is to tell a lie of omission. And if you think I’m making a mountain out of a molehill, compare the look of annoyance on Lily’s face when a Thursday Club patron slaps her ass to the eagerness with which the indigenous women pull Philip and Mike up to dance. Subtle moments can make a huge impact on how we view a scene. And rather than expose Mike as an unreliable narrator in his letters, the camera simply confirms his perspective.

As you can tell by my grade, these flaws don’t ruin the episode for me. But in an outing that otherwise embraces hard truths, it’s especially frustrating to watch The Crown miss the mark in certain areas.

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Stray observations

  • I can’t end this review without noting that this episode is absolutely stunning to look at. Philip’s international sea voyage does a great job shaking up the usual British period piece aesthetic of the series. Plus the shots of a snowy Christmas in England are also lovely.
  • Other events covered in this episode: The fallout from the Suez Crisis is worse than anyone could’ve imagined. And to make matters more complicated, Anthony Eden has to take a leave of absence while recovering from his illness.
  • Relatedly: Is spending time in a tropical climate actually good for your health? Or is that just old timey medical advice like balancing your humors?
  • I’m glad Martin Charteris is back as he was one of my favorite characters last season.
  • Margaret’s warm relationship with her niece at Christmas is a very sweet detail.
  • A great character beat for Elizabeth: She initially questions why it’s necessary for Philip to give a Christmas speech too and then entirely gets on board with the idea once she understands the reasoning behind it. Listening is a really underappreciated skill in leadership.

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