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The Crown contrasts its once and future kings

Photo: Des Willie (Netflix)
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For an episode that opens with a Nazi sympathizer coughing up blood into a toilet, “Dangling Man” turns out to be a surprisingly sexy affair. Well sexy and nerdy, as pretty much anything involving Prince Charles is wont to be. While Anne enjoys a passionate fling with Andrew Parker Bowles (Andrew Buchan), Charles uses some prank war antics to romance Camilla Shand (Emerald Fennell). The fact that Andrew and Camilla are themselves an on-again, off-again couple is just business as usual for a small, incestuous community like the British aristocracy. (I went to theater school, I get it.)

In documenting real-life history, The Crown has always had the power of dramatic irony on its side. We either know or are just a quick Google search away from knowing what happens to these people, even as they live blissfully unaware of what the future holds. But that sense of dramatic irony is only going to get richer as the show moves into an era that feels less like history and more like present-day culture. The monologue in which a 22-year-old Charles bemoans the existential anxiety of being a king-in-waiting carries even more weight considering that as of this episode’s release, Charles is still a king-in-waiting (and the longest-serving heir apparent in British history). And though the monologue is ultimately revealed to be part of Charles’ prank, it feels like there’s more than a kernel of truth there too.

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Though The Crown still has a long way to go before it catches up to the present day, “Dangling Man” is a definite step towards modernity. It centers on the death of the infamous abdicating king, Edward/David, The Duke of Windsor (Derek Jacobi). While Uncle Dickie and the Queen Mother are still floating around, David’s death nevertheless feels like the end of an era for The Crown’s old guard. This episode even opens with a scene that directly parallels the very first scene of the very first episode of The Crown, in which Jared Harris’ King George VI also coughed up blood into a toilet. George and David’s generation is fading and it’s time for a new one to rise. Elizabeth, meanwhile, is left as a reluctant fulcrum in the middle.

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The most notable thing about “Dangling Man” is that it entirely ignores David’s Nazi sympathies. To be honest, I’m not entirely surprised. Peter Morgan clearly didn’t want to deal with David’s Nazism in the show’s first season either, and I wonder if he had outside pressure to do so in the second. Creating sympathetic portrayals of problematic men is basically this show’s raison d’être, and that’s a whole lot easier to do when you pretend their problems stopped at abdicating the throne and not, you know, attempting to ally themselves with Hitler. The Nazism still technically hangs over this episode, since it’s part of The Crown’s universe. But “Dangling Man” certainly doesn’t go out of its way to remind us about it.

The other problems is that Alex Jennings’ turn as David is one of the most iconic performances in The Crown’s history, and it feels weird to bid adieu to the character without him around. I’m sure the immensely talented Derek Jacobi could’ve created an equally compelling portrait if he had more time to do so. But it’s hard to fill Jennings’ shoes in just one episode. Personally, I think it would’ve been worth it to break the show’s recasting streak and have Jennings play the role in old-age makeup. As is, Jacobi’s one-off performance feels a little detached from The Crown’s history, even as this episode is all about ties to the past.

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Photo: Des Willie (Netflix)

Elizabeth gives a speech about the dangers of history repeating itself, and The Crown not so subtly makes the case that David and Charles are an example of that. Or, at the very least, Charles thinks they’re an example of that. He views himself as a progressive, individualistic, imaginative leader who wants to marry the woman he chooses, not the one the establishment selects for him. And he views his uncle as the ultimate example of a tragic figure struck down for those exact same traits. It’s certainly possible that Charles’ rosy vision of David could be challenged in future episodes. But, for now at least, The Crown seems to be on his side.

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While “Dangling Man” is unsubtle about its central thesis, there’s some appreciable murkiness around everyone’s motivations. Anne warns Charles that they need to ensure they’re the ones toying with Andrew and Camilla, not the other way around. And at this point, it’s certainly an open question as to what Camilla is up to. Pissing off Andrew is definitely a priority for her, as she tells him in their opening spat. Plus it’d be impossible to date a future monarch and not think about what that would mean for your own future. But her nerdy excitement over Charles’ prank also feels incredibly genuine too. The public perception of Charles and Camilla’ relationship has shifted so much over the years that watching their early courtship feels very different now than it might have 10 or 20 years ago. It will be fascinating to see how The Crown handles a relationship dynamic with a long and messy history.

Like Camilla, David’s motivations are also a bit of an open question. Once he receives his terminal diagnosis, he explains to Wallis (Geraldine Chaplin) that this is his last chance to restore his reputation. He wrings as many photo ops as possible from his meeting with the Japanese Emperor, and he uses his remaining clout to garner a sympathetic profile from the BBC. But while his public PR blitz tracks, his private motivations are more nebulous. Does he take on a mentorship role with Charles because he genuinely cares about him or because he sees it as a way to carry on his legacy through someone else? And does he actually think that showing Elizabeth her son’s letters will be a healing gesture or is there some element of wanting to throw one last spanner into the royal works before his goes?

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Screenshot: The Crown (Netflix)

“Dangling Man” offers such a sympathetic portrayal of David that I’m inclined to think we’re meant to see his motives as mostly genuinely. The episode absolutely fawns over the moment he rises to stand in Elizabeth’s presence, even though it almost kills him. And in addition to dropping the whole Nazi thing, Morgan even has Elizabeth go so far as to thank David for abdicating, as she admits that more and more she’s grateful to be queen. It’s only a withheld kiss that hints at any lingering sense of full forgiveness. (Again, watching the Nazi episode from season two and this one back-to-back would be an absolutely wild ride.)

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While Charles compares himself to the titular “dangling man” of Saul Bellow’s 1944 novel about an impending draft, David was a different kind of dangling man—or more like a dangling thread. As Elizabeth points out, former kings are a rarity and David was always a weird loose end for the royal family. Now that he’s gone, she can focus on the future, not the past. More so than most episodes of The Crown, “Dangling Man” very much feels like it’s directly building to something bigger. As one former king falls, a future king rises. But there’s still every chance of history repeating itself.


Stray observations

  • This is another great episode for Anne. “Do I need to brace myself for a nautical metaphor?”
  • This is also a great episode for Olivia Colman, who finds lots of layers in Elizabeth, from warmly empathetic to pragmatically stoic.
  • Elizabeth and David’s debate over whether reading Charles’ letters is an invasion of privacy or a matter of state is yet another reminder that being a monarch is hugely bizarre.
  • After taking his re-election for granted, Wilson is out and Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath (Michael Maloney) is in. While it should theoretically be a return to more familiar political ground for Elizabeth, she doesn’t seem too thrilled by her country’s new leader.
  • Philip never bothered to learn Michael Adeane’s name and is shocked to learn he retired three months ago. Cue Elizabeth: “You gave him a clock.”
  • I gotta say, it’s hard to feel the threat of Charles adding some flair and personality to the monarch when he’s such a soft spoken dweeb, which I guess is maybe a commentary on how unfounded Elizabeth’s concerns are.
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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.