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A chain-smoking nun helps elevate The Crowns best Philip-centric episode yet

Photo: Sophie Mutevelian (Netflix)
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Reading back over my reviews of the first two seasons of The Crown, I’m not sure I was ever quite able to articulate what annoyed me about Philip as a character. It’s not that he’s patronizing, arrogant, and selfish, it’s that the show too seldom found an interesting way to contextual those flaws, despite the many, many, many episodes of the series that focused on him. That means we were often left to watch someone be annoying without any interesting commentary or perspective added to the mix. And that kind of one-note repetition is even more frustrating than Philip himself, especially in a series that leaves so many characters (including its ostensible protagonist) underserved.

“Bubbikins,” thankfully, is not one of those episodes. It provides some interesting new commentary on Philip, and even more importantly it gives Tobias Menzies his first chance to truly shine. I wasn’t sure I was entirely sold on his take on Philip over the first three episodes of this season, but now I can’t imagine anyone else in the role. He brings a level of sensitivity and vulnerability that adds layers of nuance to Philip’s frequently patronizing demeanor. Add in a warmly spiky dynamic with his teenage daughter Anne (Erin Doherty) and a complex relationship with his mother Alice (Jane Lapotaire), and this is one of our strongest Philip hours yet.

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It helps that “Bubbikins” starts by positioning Philip as a laughing stock. His attempt to garner sympathy about palace budget cuts fails tremendously, both in the moment and later in the British press. The hosts of America’s Meet The Press titer away as Philip bemoans the hardship of giving up a yacht and potentially cutting back on polo. Guardian reporter John Armstrong (Colin Morgan), meanwhile, writes a scathing front page story about the palace’s “impending royal poverty.” It’s enough to stir up some drastic anti-monarchy sentiment among Wilson’s cabinet.

Yet in addition to highlighting Philip’s flaws, “Bubbikins” also celebrates his strengths. Though his decision to open up the doors of Buckingham Palace to a BBC documentary crew backfires spectacularly, real-life history proves that he’s on to something with his attempts to make the monarchy more relatable and human. That’s certainly a big part of why William, Kate, Harry, and Meghan are generally so beloved by the public. Philip’s also right about the potential power of TV, which he first harnessed in broadcasting Elizabeth’s coronation back in the first season episode “Smoke And Mirrors” (a phrase Elizabeth uses to describe the monarchy in this episode). He may get the balance wrong this time, but his instincts are spot on. And while Elizabeth dismisses the documentary as a vanity project on Philip’s part, his motives feel more magnanimous than she allows.

While the idea of losing the monarchy is an abstract threat for Elizabeth, it’s a palpably real one for Philip. He grew up hearing stories about being smuggled out of Greece in an orange crate after his family was driven from the country. And the experience basically tore his family apart. The Crown previously explored just how much Philip’s childhood trauma shaped him back in the second season episode “Paterfamilias,” where we learned about the horrific death of his older sister and the way his father blamed him for it. Adding his mother into the mix only further drills home just how much trauma Philip and his family have lived through.

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Photo: Sophie Mutevelian (Netflix)

The story of Princess Alice is a remarkable and deeply upsetting piece of history, one that also emphasizes the absolute randomness of monarchy. Alice was born in Windsor Castle in front of Queen Victoria, driven out of Greece in a political upheaval, tortured in an asylum by Sigmund Freud, and lived her later years as a Greek nun, pawning off royal jewels to keep her convent running. That a military coup brings her back to the opulent world of Buckingham Palace is yet one more surreal turn in her incredibly surreal life. Anne knows that Armstrong’s eye will be immediately drawn to a chain-smoking nun wandering the cavernous halls of Buckingham Palace. How could it not be?

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That Philip can’t even bear to see his mother during the first few weeks of her stay emphasizes just how much pain he still carries from his childhood. Again, it’s helpful context for why Philip acts the way he does as an adult. It’s not until finally reading his mother’s story in print that he comes to realize just how badly she suffered too. All he knew was the sense of deep abandonment he felt in her absence.

Alice feels the burden of her absence in Philip’s life too, although she’s found solace in her faith. Lapotaire does a wonderful job adding a sense of dignity, world-weariness, and dark humor to a character who is (purposefully) a very bizarre fit for this show’s world. And though it’s a little bit tidy, the scene where Philip and Alice finally make amends is a lovely bit of redemption and relief in an episode that doesn’t offer a ton of easy answers elsewhere.

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Wilson is right that Elizabeth and co. don’t lead normal lives, but she’s right that they’re still real people, as Alice’s tumultuous past drills home. The royal family didn’t choose their roles, nor the constraints (and privileges) that come with them. That’s what makes it so fascinating to watch them try to navigate their positions. While the overly staged BBC documentary doesn’t capture that reality, The Crown does.

“Bubbikins” makes an effective case both for and against the monarchy while digging into the impossible line monarchs are expected to walk in their roles as idealized figureheads. Should they be mysterious and aloof or human and relatable? And how can they even maintain their humanity in a system that sometimes elevates them into godlike beings and sometimes tosses them away like ragdolls? The Crown doesn’t have any answers, but it’s fascinating to watch it raise the questions.

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Stray observation

  • I really love the warm dynamic between Elizabeth, Margaret, and the Queen Mother (Marion Bailey), but it’s also really weird to me that the Queen Mother now behaves like an entirely different person than she did in the first two seasons.
  • Wilson is used as a kind of “voice of the people” in this episode, but I don’t love that we’ve had two episodes in a row where he overtly mentors Elizabeth in how she should behave. It feels like a very limited view of that relationship dynamic.
  • I am, however, very interested in the idea of how the Prime Minister’s one-on-one meetings with the Queen force him to contend with pro- and anti-monarchist perspectives on a much more personal level than pretty much anyone else in government.
  • As a fan of Downton Abbey, I find it hilarious that this season replaced original Martin Charteris actor Harry Hadden-Paton (a.k.a. Edith’s husband Bertie Pelham) with Charles Edwards (a.k.a. her earlier fiancé/father of her baby Michael Gregson). If Martin is next played by Robert Bathurst (a.k.a. Edith’s original fiancé Anthony Strallan) it will be a very solid inside joke.
  • “I promise we’ll have a big jumble sale of all the palace valuables on our return.”
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About the author

Caroline Siede

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. Her interests include superhero movies, feminist theory, and Jane Austen novels.