I often think about how different history might’ve been if women had been given the same educational opportunities as men. Jane Austen is one of the most celebrated authors of all time, but the only reason we have her work is because she happened to come from a family that pushed her to publish. Who knows how many countless equally talented women had their work belittled by their families or kept it hidden away in bedroom drawers. And who knows how many thousands more had the potential to be great novelists but were never given the education to make that possible. For much of human history, women were valued far more for their bodies than their minds. And the sheer amount of lost potential inherent in that structure is staggering.
The division between the mind and the body is all over “Scientia Potentia Est,” one of the strongest episodes of The Crown yet. Elizabeth may lead a life of physical luxury, but it’s becoming more and more apparent to her just how much her limited education is holding her back. She’s keenly aware that while the great men around her earned their positions with their intelligence, she earned hers solely through virtue of her birth. But those great men have their own problems too. For all their education and experience, Winston Churchill and Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden are being betrayed by their bodies. Churchill suffers not one but two strokes while Eden is left nearly equally incapacitated by gallbladder issues. As Elizabeth strives to improve her mind, the great men in her government struggle to hold their ailing bodies together through sheer force of will.
And that means the British governmental system isn’t operating the way it should. As young Elizabeth learns from her tutor at Eton, there must be harmony and trust between the cabinet government or “efficient,” which makes and executes policy, and the monarch or “dignified,” which gives symbolic legitimacy to those laws. But that relationship is thrown into disarray as the cabinet government manufactures increasingly complicated lies to hide the extent of Churchill and Eden’s illnesses from the queen.
It’s a continuation of the old vs. new, man vs. woman undercurrents the show has been exploring since the beginning. But the mind vs. body dynamic gives “Scientia Potentia Est” a more specific focus and drive. It’s another episode that puts Elizabeth front and center, even more so than “Gelignite.” And it gives us our strongest understanding yet of our central monarch.
There’s a real sadness in Elizabeth’s awareness of her own limitations. She isn’t stupid—in fact she’s remarkably intuitive in her political dealings—but she lacks the tools to fully put her mind to work. Her parents raised her to be a polite princess with an encyclopedic knowledge of constitutional law, but it never occurred to them that she might also need to know the basics about science, math, literature, and history. She turns conversations to dogs and horses not because those are the topics she particularly wants to discuss, but because they’re the only subjects she feels comfortable with. But after months of feeling inadequate, she decides to enlist the help of a tutor named Professor Hogg (Alan Williams) to “fill in the gaps.”
It’s really satisfying to watch Elizabeth take more agency in her life, even as its heartbreaking to watch her confess to Hogg how little she knows. She marches into her mother’s room to confront her about her lack of education, leading to the most personal confrontation we’ve seen between the two. It’s another conversation that explores the complicated intersection of the public and private lives of the Windsors; Elizabeth is both chastising her mother for not letting her live up to her potential and chastising her royal predecessor for not preparing her for her job. They both take swipes at each other’s parenting skills and the Queen Mother suggests that perhaps it’s best to accept your limitations in life. But Elizabeth is slowly starting to push back against that philosophy.
Elsewhere, she suggests that upon Tommy Lascelles’ retirement, it might be nice to promote her former secretary Martin Charteris rather than the next-in-line Michael Adeane. “I was hoping it might be possible for me to make my own decision just once,” she intones with the lightest touch of sarcasm. Of course, it’s not. Tommy goes against her back to stop the request and when she marches into his office to confront him (Elizabeth does a lot of marching in this episode), he suggests that it’s the tiny breaks in protocol that create the rot that can destroy the monarchy. It’s hard for me to see that as anything but a bullshit response from a man who’s clearly something of a control freak, but I think the show is more on Tommy’s side than I am. Either way, Elizabeth eventually gives in and accepts Michael over Martin.
But if Elizabeth loses the battle for her private secretary, she at least wins the war against her own government. Yes “doing nothing” is to some extent the job of a monarch, but Elizabeth has perhaps been taking that command a little more literally than she has to. As Hogg reminds her, there’s some flexibility in her position. And when she spots a genuine problem—like the cabinet government’s deception—she is allowed to say something about it. In an incredibly satisfying scene, Elizabeth finally takes advantage of her god given power as the Queen of England to give Churchill and Lord Salisbury a “good dressing down from nanny.”
The showdown scene reveals just how intelligent Elizabeth truly is, not just in her understanding of constitutional law, but in her people skills as well. With Salisbury she doesn’t mince words. She lets him know that his secrecy directly “hampered and bamboozled” the proper function of the crown. And she dismisses him with an icily cold ring of a button.
But with Churchill she takes a softer, more humble approach (the subtext of their exchange is basically “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed”). She emphasizes the necessity of trust between them and the severity of Churchill’s betrayal, which even brings the old man to tears. Yet she doesn’t let his vulnerability lessen her reproach. “I would ask you to consider your response in light of the respect that my rank and my office deserve,” she informs him after asking if he’s actually healthy enough to keep serving as Prime Minister. “Not that which my age and gender might suggest.”
It’s her most fist-pumping, “yaas queen!” moment on the series to date, even if Churchill immediately goes on to ignore her request. (He just had to stay in power, he patronizingly explains, because she was so young and female. Now he can step down, not because he’s unfit for office but because he’s discharged his duty in preparing her.) But there’s no doubt it’s a big win for Elizabeth.
There’s a third, unstated point in the mind/body dichotomy of this episode: Confidence. As Hogg points out, Elizabeth’s hyper-specific education may have left her unprepared at dinner parties, but it also made her one of the foremost constitutional scholars in the country. The only thing stopping her from putting that knowledge to good use was her fear of her own inadequacy. What she can’t see is that it’s Churchill’s bullheaded confidence (some might even call it egotism) as much as his intelligence that got him where he is today. That sort of swagger doesn’t come easily to Elizabeth, a woman raised to be a prim and proper lady above all else. But it’s what she’ll need to flourish in the man’s world she rules.
- So let’s talk about that last scene, which I’m having a hard time making sense of. The simplest reading is that Elizabeth’s newfound confidence is a turn on for her husband and reignites a sexual spark in their distant relationship, which is good for both of them. On the other hand, Philip’s suggestion that she “get on her knees” isn’t exactly an empowering image of female sexuality. On the other, other hand, Elizabeth is clearly delighted by the whole thing. So is the “on your knees” request supposed to undercut Elizabeth’s newfound strength in some way? Is it an acknowledgment of the gender dynamics of the era? Or did Peter Morgan just pick a random sexually suggestive line and not think about the implications? (Also never in my life did I think I’d devote an entire paragraph to a royal blowjob.)
- I had a moment in this episode where I realized I’d completely forgotten that John Lithgow plays Churchill. He disappears into the role so effortlessly.
- From my notes: “Are Eden and Churchill in love?”