Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover: a while back I spent an entire weekend watching the first episodes of twenty different series across multiple platforms. That experience provided us a blueprint for our binge-watching over the subsequent months. I haven’t written about everything we’ve watched, but since that entry my wife Anne and I have gone through Netflix’s Unbelievable (harrowing and unforgettable), Wild Wild Country (surprising and at times Too Much, by which I mean too much padding, but altogether illuminating), the first two seasons of House of Cards (despite potentially tossing fifty cents into Kevin Spacey’s tin cup), a wholly unrelated and regrettable detour for Tiger King (now we get all the references, but at a steep cost to our souls), and, far less dishonorably, all three seasons of The Crown.
My brief thoughts on the latter’s pilot:
Some early reviews had led us to believe writer Peter Morgan’s longform follow-up to his Best Picture nominee “The Queen” amounted to “Royal Sexytime”. Perhaps later down the road, the sight of Queen Elizabeth II snogging Prince Philip may be lying in wait to drive us to the brink of horror, like that one Marvel miniseries that dared readers to visit Aunt May’s heyday as a horny teen. Mercifully the first chapter didn’t go there and seemed much like any other British costume drama, save a few expletives and the Eleventh Doctor’s bare butt. Bonus points for casting consummate professional Jared Harris to take over for Colin Firth as King George VI. A pity Elizabeth herself hardly figured into her own story at first. Presumably Claire Foy has more lines later?
Thankfully she did, except in scenes where she consigned herself to historically accurate silence for the sake of burying feelings like true British royalty. Thirty episodes later, we’re caught up with other viewers and ready for more. Until season four presumably hits the broadband waves later this year, all we can do for now is ruminate on what we have on hand.
Compared to my blissfully ignorant self, Anne is far more knowledgeable of history in general and British royalty in particular. My interest in their reigning family went dormant for decades beginning on the morning of July 29, 1981, when my family woke up at 5 a.m. — over summer vacation, mind you — to watch Prince Charles marry Princess Diana, two strangers I knew only as frequent costars of my mom’s favorite tabloids. Their wedding lasted approximately six days and was performed entirely in slow motion with British golf commentators prattling through the lengthy silences in between the happenstances of nothingness. For the next 15-20 years I retained nothing of British history apart from their role as the Big Bad in the American Revolution. Frankly, I’ve learned more about their country’s storied past from my wife and from Oscar-nominated movies than I ever did from school. Sad, unadorned truth.
So far I’ve enjoyed The Crown anyway, and understood most of what’s gone on. I’d gleaned a bit about King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II from such films as The Queen, The King’s Speech, Darkest Hour, and The Naked Gun. Whenever those weren’t enough for me to appreciate The Crown‘s nuances or dated references, Anne has bridged the gaps, patched up the holes, and given extemporaneous The More You Know speeches to keep me on track and possibly lay groundwork for future developments as we went.
It’s been informative to observe the trials and tribulations of the Windsor family’s individual journeys to dutiful dehumanization, the begrudging reconciliation of their self-interests with their imposed destinies as reigning figureheads, if not exactly ruling authorities. Taken across multiple films and TV shows, in my mind Queen Elizabeth’s family line is coalescing into its own cinematic universe of recurring characters in a shared setting.
Speaking as a male who’s clearly having his hand held through the real-world historical aspects while independently respecting the sheer artistry on display throughout much of the proceedings, I present here my biased yet sincere choices of favorite episodes so far. No scores were kept and everything’s subjective. I didn’t applaud mere historical accuracy, nor did I deduct points whenever they elicited sympathy for real-life people who committed unlikable deeds. I hold only the vaguest notions as to whether any or all of them bear any resemblance to actual persons living or dead.
Anne reviewed my initial brainstorming list and voiced no loud disagreements, but she knows she’s free to rebut at her discretion. Your Mileage May Vary. And it should vary. In hindsight this ranked listicle is far too skewed. I probably needn’t have pointed that out.
10. “Margaretology” (season 3, episode 2). England is broke, not for the first time, and only America can save her, but their government won’t take the Queen’s calls. Enter the saving grace of Helena Bonham Carter inheriting the role of Princess Margaret. Hers is a much more glowering rendition as her marriage has gone sour and she has to keep relying on alcoholism to dull the decades’ worth of pain of being marginalized by her own family. At last they turn to her in a time of need, for only she has the skill set to connect with President Clancy Brown, who’s portraying a far different version of Lyndon Johnson than I previously saw in either Selma or Legends of Tomorrow. Anne confirms his macho swagger and profanity levels here are 100 times more historically accurate. Thus does he become the man who signs off on England’s salvation, all because he and Margaret are simpatico party animals. But hey, whatever it takes to save the Queen.
9. “Act of God” (season 1, episode 4). Attack of the killer smog! The first effects-heavy episode shrouds everything in the Great Smog of 1932, a partly man-made environmental catastrophe. When life is ground to a halt for five days and dangerous consequences abound, Claire Foy finds herself pitted against John Lithgow’s Winston Churchill — the elderly Prime Minister years past his prime, too stubborn to listen to anyone outside his own head until the smog affects someone near and dear to him. Then he gives a big hero speech and coincidentally the smog is lifted, but two lessons remain learned: we really need to pay attention to scientists when they know what they’re talking about, and sooner or later every elderly man clutching the reins of an entire country needs to recognize when it’s about time he let go.
8. “Scientia Potentia Est” (season 1, episode 7). The title means “knowledge is power” like the old Schoolhouse Rock lyric, but power isn’t always knowledge, and falters hardest when it’s acting in selfish interests. Churchill’s railing against the specter of leaving office drags on with some well-meant assistance, and the still-green Queen Elizabeth II ponders whether or not to buck palace rules about seniority in selecting her replacement for Tommy Lascelles, the retiring Private Secretary. I can take or leave Lithgow’s blustery grumbling at times, but my favorite speech of the entire series to date is a shining moment of devil’s advocacy for Pip Torrens (Preacher) as his stentorian tones envelop a firm, concerned screed about “the rot”. It’s a precise summation of how entropy is catalyzed — little sins accumulate, bigger sins squiggle through the opened floodgates, corruption and/or chaos become the norm, and long-standing human systems fall apart faster than you can say “Roman empire”. All because of how one tiny granted exception begets a litany of others.
7. “Olding” (season 3, episode 1). Extremely rarely in TV history has a show replaced its entire main cast years beyond the pilot for reasons that had nothing to do with a breakdown in salary negotiations. To coax viewers through the jarring changeover, the season-three premiere gives us a mole in the government, a new Prime Minister with a potential philosophical conflict, Princess Margaret fed up with Tony’s dark side, and our new Queen Olivia Colman asked to choose between her face and Foy’s for a new stamp. It’s literally an episode about how people can have two faces and still be themselves, in that universal dichotomy I love to call the Duality of Man.
6. “Moondust” (season 3, episode 7). The timeline reaches the July 1969 moon landing, which of course Prince Philip has to make all about himself and his failure to be as awesome as Neil Armstrong. Though it’s amusing when he learns the hard way why they always say “never meet your heroes”, the real story is his never-ending quest for individual significance or personal accomplishment despite his relegation to the permanent role of the Queen’s chief sidekick. His cherished piloting skills pale before the world-famous astronaut victory, his faltering faith degrades into wanton acts of meanness, and his demeanor teeters once more on the brink of midlife crisis, just when we’d thought Tobias Menzies (Black Mirror) had made him all grown up. I breathed a sigh of relief when the episode didn’t end with Elizabeth continuously slapping him until he promises to get over himself. I would’ve accepted that ending, but they bypassed it for a more redemptive denouement.
5. “Aberfan” (season 3, episode 3). Yes, frankly, the middle of season 3 was on a roll. I much prefer the standalone episodes to the Netflix-standard multipart mini-sagas, because I’m old-fashioned that way. In another challenging Colman performance of a monarch who’s struggling mightily inside not to explode with overwrought emotions, this one covers the October 1966 mining disaster responsible for a partial mountain avalanche that killed 144 small-town residents, nearly half of them schoolchildren. It’s the closest we’ve come so far in The Crown to anything paralleling 9/11, a sorrowful examination of how the government reacts — or doesn’t — in the absolute worst of times. It’s also among the few moments that Ben Daniels (House of Cards), helping dig through ruins in darkness, gets to inhabit Anthony Armstrong-Jones to any sympathetic effect in all of season 3. And the stark image of tons of accelerated rubble engulfing an elementary classroom and its tiny, defenseless dwellers is the series’ most terrifying to date.
4. “Beryl” (season 2, episode 4). American moviegoers know Vanessa Kirby as an action femme fatale from such films as Hobbs and Shaw and Mission: Impossible – Fallout, but outside their viewfinders she’s been suffering the pangs of a heart that keeps getting broken again and again and again. Naturally it’s at a posh party that she connects with the aforementioned Mr. Armstrong-Jones, a most unusual photographer who shows her what it’s really like to live as an outsider infiltrating the upper trust. They bond over their common interests of loathing ancient ceremony, sneering at pretension, and stripping away other people’s veneers. And yet, to reach something closer to self-awareness, Tony forces Margaret to confront her own sculpted facade. Matthew Goode is eminently watchable in all that he does (Downton Abbey, Watchmen, The Imitation Game, A Single Man) and his uniquely charged presence locks in to Margaret’s vulnerability, while Kirby sets the stage for a young lady’s redefinition that’s humbled and bold all at once. Also, I’m a total sucker for deflated pretensions and stripped veneers.
3. “Vergangenheit” (season 2, episode 6). For anyone who thought the series’ earlier installments had too eagerly sugarcoated the erstwhile King Edward VIII, his somber comeuppance is overdue and most welcome. It’s doubtlessly alarming if you had no idea that Guy Pearce’s character in The King’s Speech had on-the-record pro-Nazi leanings or made overtures into what could’ve become full-blown collaboration had he remained on the throne, though all of this was buried for decades until it was unearthed to his mortification. As played by Alex Jennings (Babel), David’s first several episodes presented him and his wife Wallis as sort of elderly Team Rocket, shunted off to one side where their self-absorbed antics and snide commentary on the main cast can’t harm or matter to anyone, but all laughter dies when his niece/successor/ruler learns of his downplayed dark side. For slower contrarian viewers who think that’s made-up, the producers show the receipts during the end credits — archival photos of David’s real-life visits to Germany and congenial meetings held with the wrong side of history.
2. “Tywysog Cymru” (season 3, episode 6). I’ve heard Welsh spoken aloud about as much as I’ve heard Dothraki, which is so close to almost-never that it reminds me of the time Alan Moore wrote nearly an entire issue of Swamp Thing in the fictional Rannian language. The title means “Prince of Wales” but takes a while to mean much to its would-be bearer Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor), assigned against his will to go learn more about it and become their appointed representative or overseer or straw man or whatever. A frolicking background prop no longer, Charles is a young man at last, obeying orders for as long as possible until the rebellious streak he inherited from his parents begins to slip through the cracks and he merges his Welsh lessons and his newfound appreciation for his arranged subjects into a closing speech that ranks highly on the pop-culture self-expression scale somewhere between Darlene Conner’s revealing essay and the yawped recitals of Dead Poets Society. Then teenage-riot pride is shattered into so much powdered glass when his mom the Queen enacts the fabled family tradition of destroying his dreams, his aspirations, and what little self-confidence he’d just gotten done building up with the help of the Welsh. Much like the final scenes of Dead Poets‘ Robert Sean Leonard, Charles’ closing stage performance is a devastated cry for help that falls on willfully deafened ears.
1. “Paterfamilias” (season 2, episode 9). We wanted to keep loving Matt Smith for Doctor Who, but his version of Prince Philip never personally saved the universe, rarely acted out of no-strings altruism, and, very unlike the Doctor, thought he knew best but was often deeply mistaken. Never has Smith been more artfully detestable than in this, the first spotlight on a younger Prince Charles who’s been denied his choice of upper-crust boarding school and instead forced to attend Dad’s alma mater, the sort of rampantly abusive institution that was like a Nickelodeon version of a Full Metal Jacket drill camp and could’ve used the UK version of a 60 Minutes investigation. Flashbacks show us the overwhelming misery that young Philip himself survived back in his day, albeit with multiple injuries and a crushed spirit. Yes, that time of his life absolutely sucked, but one day Charles will be king (if his immortal mom ever dies) and he’s in danger of becoming slightly foppish, so Philip figures Charles needs to endure that same debilitating suffering, butch up a bunch, and stand a better chance of becoming a Real Man just like his screwed-up delinquent disobedient potentially womanizing party-hearty winner of a dad.
Real talk: this episode left me genuinely, visibly seething with rage. Longtime MCC readers know I grew up minus any real fathering and have particular, skewed views on the subject, especially as a father myself who spent over two decades trying to do the polar opposite of what wasn’t done for me. I can’t remember the last time I had such a visceral reaction to anything I read or watched, and even Anne could tell something was wrong with me. I nearly cheered aloud at the text coda that confirmed “Charles later broke the cycle of macho idiocy and sent his two sons to anywhere in the frickin’ universe except Rich Bully Hazing School”, but I had to watch two episodes of What We Do in the Shadows afterward before I finally calmed down. I’m not sure I could sit through “Paterfamilias” a second time (and it’s not easy to relive that night in my head even as I’m typing this), but I have to acknowledge writers Peter Morgan and Tom Edge, as well as director Stephen Daldry, for forging such a ferocious stab wound to my heart in the form of a heartbreaking father/son royal tragedy.
A few honorable mentions so I can stop typing on a happier note:
- “Bubbikins” (season 3, episode 4) – Nearly wacky hi-jinks as the nascent genre of reality-TV invades Buckingham Palace
- “Marionettes” (season 2, episode 5) – The Queen versus a semi-free press, as newspapers slowly realize they can be honest about royal shortcomings, and yet they also have to face rebuttals from far more obsequious readers
- “Wolferton Splash” (season 1, episode 1) – The one with the most Jared Harris in it, before he finally steps aside and lets Claire Foy assume top position
- “Assassins” (season 1, episode 9) – Lithgow’s Churchill at his most vain and outraged, having commissioned a painting of himself that evokes warm memories of that time Marge Simpson painted Mr. Burns with less than flattering results.
And for a hint of balance: my least favorite episode is “Coup” (season 3 episode 5), which introduces Charles Dance (Alien 3, Last Action Hero) as Philip’s uncle, who’s forcibly retired from military service and endorses a rebellion that sort of goes nowhere, while the Queen enjoys super fun horsey time with her platonic pal Porchey. It’s cool to know the Queen had time for pursuits of happiness, but I felt like an intruder for following along with her, like when you’re forced to watch something you don’t like with someone you love. Fortunately The Crown itself hasn’t been that kind of problem for me at all.