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A kooky coup derails The Crown

Photo: Sophie Mutevelian (Netflix)
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Given Peter Morgan’s clear interest in stories about men and all-male environments, it’s curious that he’s spent so much of his career writing about Queen Elizabeth. Nevertheless, he’s proven remarkably effective at transforming The Crown—ostensibly a series about the longest-reigning female monarch in history—into a haven for sympathetic stories about powerful men. While there are a few suggestions that “Coup” is at least going to explore what it’s like for the Queen Mother to rule while her daughter is away, that’s ultimately just a red herring for an episode that’s actually about the time Lord Mountbatten a.k.a. Uncle Dickie (Charles Dance) dealt with his midlife crisis by attempting to overthrow the government. You know, like you do.

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My biggest question mark about “Coup” is what tone it’s aiming for. Even those with only the most basic knowledge of British history probably know there wasn’t a major military coup in the 1960s, so there’s not a whole lot of tension over whether Uncle Dickie’s plan will succeed. Theoretically, there’s tension of the “look how close we came to disaster” variety, and there’s certainly a lot of terrifying present day relevance to the story of a group of bankers, businessmen, and military leaders channeling their anger into a wildly disproportionate response towards a left-leaning government. (The specific impetus for the coup is that Wilson has had to devalue the pound to deal with the budget deficit.) But for the most part I found the scheming of Dickie and Daily Mirror chairman Cecil King (Rupert Vansittart) to be rather silly.

And maybe it’s supposed to be. It certainly feels like there’s at least some intentional comedy in the way Morgan juxtaposes the ominous beginnings of a coup d’état with the cheery adventures of Horse Girl Elizabeth. In a way, Dickie and Elizabeth are both trying to cope with the dissatisfying elements of their lives by getting super invested in an obscure hobby. Only hers is horse breeding while his is creating a five-point plan to commit some light treason.

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Yet by the end of its runtime, “Coup” swings around to become incredibly sympathetic towards Dickie. After a dressing down from Elizabeth that firmly puts him in his place, Dickie visits his sister Alice and they bond over the difficulties of aging. I think we’re meant to see it as a somber yet sweet interaction between two siblings who are at a difficult stage in life. Except she survived untold medical horrors only to sell off all her worldly possessions and dedicate her life to helping the poor. He was politely asked to retire and responded by trying to overthrow the entire government. It hardly feels like they’re equally deserving of my sympathy.

I’d be willing to buy that there’s more subtext and nuance to the Dickie side of the episode if the Elizabeth side weren’t so didactic about its themes. For what feels like the umpteenth time, The Crown explores the idea that Elizabeth is more naturally suited to life as a simple horse breeder than a glamorous monarch. And it does so by having her just directly explain that idea in a thunderously clunky monologue.

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What saves “Coup” is what saves every episode of The Crown: Some interesting historical factoids, lush production values, and absolutely brilliant acting. On the page, this isn’t a particularly great episode for Elizabeth, but Olivia Colman turns it into something breathtaking. The horse tour through France and America gives Colman a chance to show off a friendly, almost flirty side of Elizabeth’s personality as she schmoozes with fellow horse lovers. (Her few lines in French are particularly great.) And Charles Dance turns in a consistently captivating performance, even as I’m not entirely sure what to make of this episode’s portrayal of Dickie.

Plus Porchey makes his glorious return, now portrayed by John Hollingworth. It’s always nice to have him around, if only because it will never not be funny to hear his name said out loud. Porchey is also a fascinating foil to Elizabeth because he represents a path not taken that she doesn’t entirely regret not taking. The unexpectedly sexy final scene between Philip and Elizabeth (perfectly played by Colman and Tobias Menzies) is a reminder that she didn’t settle for Philip, she actively chose him. And while she yearns for a simpler life and clearly still values Porchey’s friendship, that doesn’t mean she’s unhappy with what she has either.

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The Elizabeth storyline starts at its most didactic before ending at its most nuanced. The Dickie story, meanwhile, hovers between being too nebulous and too neat. The fall of the British Empire and Britain’s declining place on the world stage were always going to be major themes of the later seasons of The Crown, but the angle the show takes here feels off. It’s as if Morgan knows he shouldn’t be siding with the old guard and yet can’t help letting his sympathy for them sneak in as well. Dickie belongs to another time, and it’s clearly one The Crown wishes it didn’t have to leave behind.


Stray observations

  • Elizabeth’s hot pink racetrack outfit might be my favorite look of the season so far.
  • There are two great little moments of physical blocking in this episode. One is when Elizabeth gently lifts a stray hair off the blouse of the woman dressing her. The other is when a group of young men get rather silly while singing farewell to Dickie only to immediately straighten up when he turns around to face them.
  • Speaking of which, I didn’t realize people sang “Auld Lang Syne” outside of the context of New Year’s Eve.
  • I found the montage of Dickie studying past coups and then laying out his own plan to be absolutely hilarious. It had such the vibe of a high school powerpoint presentation only it was about capturing Parliament and arresting the Prime Minister.
  • The idea that the Queen can leave the country for weeks at a time with no set return date felt like a very new status quo, and yet it was handled so casually.
  • My new exit line is going to be, “Drink up, Porchey, we’re going home.”
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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.