Season two of The Crown opens with the couple at its helm—Queen Elizabeth and Philip, Duke Of Edinburgh—navigating rocky waters, both literally and figuratively, in a tense marital discussion on a ship out at sea. After his five-month tour to the farthest reaches of the commonwealth, Philip’s infidelity seems more like a matter of fact than a suspicion (and The Crown certainly plays it as such). As divorce would be unthinkable, the queen tries her hardest to use her considerable diplomacy to keep her family intact. Meanwhile, other skirmishes rage on the global arena, but it’s clear that none of these mean as much to Elizabeth as her own war to keep the peace in her marriage.
It’s a balance The Crown has always found: humanizing the young woman on the throne mainly by showing her hopeless devotion to the “wild spirit,” as her friend Porchie calls him here, that she married. Elizabeth was raised in royalty, so, as in season one, the many trappings and limitations of the couple’s status are harder for Philip to bear. He acts out by visiting the Thursday Club, a scandalous men’s drinking venue linked to a risqué social circle that will eventually take down Elizabeth’s third prime minister.
Philip is aided in his nefarious explorations by his fellow infidel Mike Parker, his best friend and private secretary. Mike’s own marriage and two small children offer an interesting mirror to Philip and Elizabeth’s situation. His wife, Eileen, is not as indifferent to the months of isolation and, especially, the possible infidelities, as Elizabeth seems to be, and so heads straight to a lawyer. But in 1956, she doesn’t have many more options than Elizabeth does, needing to furnish actual evidence of infidelity to be able to secure a divorce; meanwhile, her shitheel of a husband can’t even be bothered to call his daughter on her birthday while he’s on the high seas. Mike obviously has moved on from his domestic life, but Philip at least still seems to care, trying to call his wife from New Guinea even though the lines are garbled. At the same time, Elizabeth resolutely shuts the door on her husband’s vacant bedroom suite.
She has enough to deal with. Egypt has nationalized the Suez Canal, and Prime Minister Eden (Jeremy Northam) wants to join the Israelis in fighting down Egyptian President Nasser, who he sees as a fascist in the mold of Mussolini and Hitler. At a time when our own world is under considerable global strife, it’s downright chilling to see Eden try to rile up a group of like-minded men into war, enthusiastically pounding on tables as they decide to lead an unknown number of soldiers and civilians to their deaths. England’s involvement in the Suez Crisis winds up being disastrous for the country, and Elizabeth is once again caught in the middle as a figurehead monarch with no real powers, yet someone who meets with the prime minister once a week.
Eden foolishly pushes for war to secure peace, but in that first scene of the season, and beyond, Elizabeth is pushing for the same thing. She knows that things can’t continue the way they are, and that she needs the reticent Philip to open up to help make things right again. Philip’s past gets explored a bit more this season—his Nazi sisters, his mentally ill mother—and Matt Smith’s smiling public face as Philip makes us, like Elizabeth, want to know even more about the man who lurks behind.
After all, that Thursday Club will help lead to the notorious Profumo affair in 1963, and The Crown’s linking of Philip to the scandal has been called out by London’s Daily Mail as having “crossed a line and stepped out of reality into fiction.” While we can expect that many of the private conversations in The Crown are fabricated, fleshing out rumors into actual scenes seem to further blur the line between the show’s history and speculation. As the ’60s kick off into a more progressive, less conservative decade, the queen also has to face press attacks by the liberal Lord Altrincham, who finds the non-populist crown outdated, even as the English people still cling to their sovereign and figurative head of state. This leads the reticent queen to make some uncomfortable changes to attempt to adapt to the times, like her first televised Christmas speech.
It’s the second and final season for Claire Foy, who has done such an amazing, Golden Globe-winning job of embodying the young queen. (Broadchurch’s Olivia Colman is in the wings to take over for seasons three and four; no word yet on who the new Philip will be.) The queen’s public and private face are also almost indistinguishable from each other, as she is so used to keeping her actual feelings hidden. Yet Foy manages to portray the swirly storm of emotions the young queen must be experiencing while barely revealing anything outwardly past a wide-eyed stare and a stern lack of a smile. It’s an astonishing performance, and there’s no reason to believe the superlative Colman won’t also be up for the task.
As the second season progresses, and Elizabeth and Philip struggle with their marriage around their 10th anniversary, at least Lady Margaret (Vanessa Kirby), whose ill-fated engagement took up so much of season one, also finds romance. Margaret fortunately attracts the eye of society photographer Lord Snowdon, played by Matthew Goode, whose casting should be required in any British ensemble drama. The show really loves Margaret—her first date with the photographer encompasses nearly all of episode four. Their steamy courtship offers another distorted mirror image to the main couple, back to when they were young, besotted, and flirty, instead of strangled by costumery and compelled to attend tedious event after tedious event.
My Husband And I, a new book about Elizabeth and Philip by longtime royal biographer Ingrid Seward, was recently released (and alludes to Philip’s mid-marriage dalliances), and the couple is about to celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary. Despite all those years of (staged) public appearances, the pair has always seems as remote as the foreboding Buckingham Palace itself. By delving into the darkest recesses of the marriage—now graduated from whinging squabbles in season one to adulterous rumors in this one—The Crown achieves a groundbreaking, intimate look at a legendary union far beyond their many official portraits. When Philip complains about the deals that must be made in marriage and Elizabeth frets about keeping lines of communication open and presses for another child, they sound much less like the monarchs at the head of a vast commonwealth, and more like any average married couple on earth.