[Editor’s note: The A.V. Club will publish episode recaps of The Crown’s fifth season every weekday at 1 a.m. Eastern through November 22. The following details episode six.]
This episode was a throwback for me, frantically googling Russian political events and just exactly which George was King of England in 1917. (It’s George V, Elizabeth’s grandfather.) Season five of The Crown is playing mostly in events from the 1990s, and even if you weren’t forming conscious memories during Charles and Diana’s divorce, you’ve probably absorbed at least some of the history from a family member who was obsessed with it. But “Ipatiev House,” named after a merchant’s house in Yekaterinburg where the Romanovs were murdered, felt more in line with the earlier seasons of The Crown, when people (surely not just me) had several Wikipedia articles open to figure out what actually happened back then.
We open on the British royal family in 1917, with King George V, Queen Mary, and their son talking about hunting tallies over a meal. George has a parrot on his shoulder for some reason (likely to make him seem frivolous and annoying). They get a letter from the prime minister saying because of the ongoing war, he wishes to bring the Romanovs (cousins to the royal family) to safety in England but doesn’t want to do so without the support of the monarchy. George passes the decision to his wife.
Juxtaposed against this stuffy lunch and inconsequential hunting excursion, we see the Romanovs celebrating word of their rescue, only to be led into a basement and executed by firing squad in a brutal scene. So what does that have to do with our royals in the ’90s? News coverage explains that there’s drama in Moscow as Russia has elected its first democratic president, Boris Yeltsin, but there’s a coup to restore communist rule. Seems like the Romanovs are bound to come up.
Philip (Jonathan Pryce) is about to leave on a three-week tour across the world to give some talks and do some carriage driving (enough with the carriage driving), causing tension between him and Elizabeth (Imelda Staunton). “Don’t you ever get tired?” she asks. “Only by sitting still,” he replies. On this tour is Penny (Natascha McElhone), the mourning mother from a few episodes back, and she and Philip seem to have grown close. We’ll come back to that.
After returning from a trip to Russia, Prime Minister Major (Jonny Lee Miller) informs Elizabeth that Yeltsin is something of an Anglophile and is obsessed with meeting the queen. Flattered, Elizabeth welcomes him to the palace for a visit, but before he arrives, an aide informs him that while Yeltsin was a local official in the 1970s, he ordered the demolishment of Ipatiev House, an act of disrespect to the murdered family.
During their visit, Yeltsin requests a state visit to Moscow from the queen, and she leverages this ask to criticize what happened to Ipatiev House. To her face, Yeltsin assures her he will restore the dignity of her family with a decent burial. In Russian, he is furious that she criticizes him: “She should watch what she says, or she’ll end up with a bayonet up her ass too.”
Wow! This is a horrifying but irrelevant development, as it’s not referenced again for the rest of the episode. But Yeltsin is true to his word. Forensic scientists are sent to the area by Ipatiev House and dig up the burial site of the Romanovs. Their identities are hard to confirm because they were doused in acid, but bone DNA sequencing makes it possible when a blood sample from Philip confirms familial relation.
This connection to his Russian relatives awakens Philip’s interest in his Orthodox roots, as well as frustration with Elizabeth for not being more curious. Penny, on the other hand, hangs on his every word as he explains DNA sequencing, and Philip clearly loves the attention.
This, of course, all comes to a head when Elizabeth and Philip embark on the trip to Moscow in October 1994. As they’ve grown apart due to a lack of common interests, she views the visit as a “shared adventure,” but they hardly see each other, as he takes the opportunity to do further exploring and research. When she complains, he lobs a bomb and says the trip has reinforced how much he gave up when he married her. “My career, my autonomy, my faith,” he notes. Whew! Both strap in for one of those marriage-rattling fights.
Once again, Philip criticizes her lack of curiosity, claiming it has left him lonely and disenchanted. He ventures that he has had to seek companionship elsewhere, in his carriage driving group. When Elizabeth presses him for a name, he admits to growing close to Penny, and she is aghast at this development. He refuses to sever the friendship (“I don’t want to be asked to give up something when I’ve done nothing wrong”) and in fact boldly asks Elizabeth to befriend Penny herself to legitimize the friendship. “You might learn something too,” he adds, as the final bit of condescension in an episode full of it. (Penny has a theory about the death of the Romanovs.)
So Penny comes to visit Elizabeth at Windsor and explains that she’s read a lot of accounts from the time and believes that the British royals in 1917 actually opted not to rescue the Romanovs. With what Philip would say is a lack of curiosity, Elizabeth dismisses this theory immediately, claiming her grandfather could have never ordered their deaths. But Penny asserts that Queen Mary and Tsarina Alexandra had grown up together as young princesses in Germany and had a rivalry, and Mary didn’t want Alexandra overshadowing her in England.
But Elizabeth shuts her down, claiming that her grandmother opted not to rescue them to protect the monarchy, because the royals couldn’t afford to be seen as pro German during World War I. “Queen Mary was devastated,” Elizabeth says. “One cannot show those emotions, so one buries them.” She cites no sources for this information, so it’s unclear if this is her own working theory or she’s just saying something to shut Penny up. My theory is that it’s weak writing that’s trying but failing to tie the theme of this episode up in a nice bow.
But after rejecting Penny’s theory, the queen invites her to ride in her car to church on Christmas so that no one will bat an eye when Penny and Philip are seen together in public. Many early episodes of The Crown were devoted to the challenges of Philip and Elizabeth’s marriage, and this episode is not unearthing anything new by revisiting those themes.
To close out “Ipatiev House,” the queen and the prime minister exchange congratulations at upcoming wedding anniversaries, and Major shares a quote from Anna Dostoevsky that the key to a happy marriage, even when there’s nothing in common, is to not try to change each other. And we get a final clip of Elizabeth happily playing with her corgis as Philip reads, in case the message was unclear.
- Even in the early episodes of The Crown when Matt Smith’s bad boy Philip was mucking up their marriage, the show never depicted actual infidelity. It just hinted heavily. Philip claims his “companionship” with Penny is intellectual and spiritual. In real life, Penny Knatchbull was extremely close to Philip and one of only 30 people invited to his funeral because of COVID.
- The Christmas scene would have been from 1994, and Elizabeth Debicki’s Diana makes her only appearance in the episode here. Her outfit is reminiscent of what Kristen Stewart wore in the church-going scene in Spencer, but that movie was about Christmas 1991.
- There is no talk of the drama between Charles and Diana in this episode, not even a passing mention, even though Jonathan Dimbleby’s The Prince Of Wales: A Biography came out during the Moscow visit and overshadowed it in the British media. The season is suffering from some pacing issues, with storylines picked up and dropped without a coherent flow from episode to episode.