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The Crown delivers one small step for man, one giant leap for Philip

Photo: Des Willie (Netflix)
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“Moondust” seems like an episode specifically designed to send me into a Crown-related existential crisis. On the one hand, after a run of episodes focused first on Philip, then on Uncle Dickie, and then on Charles, to add yet another Philip-centric episode into the mix feels like a parody of The Crown’s obsession with its male characters. (Margaret is right there, Peter Morgan!!) On the other hand, I’m also a massive nerd when it comes to all things NASA, so I’ve actually never related to Philip more. In fact, I too have dealt with boredom in my own life by making elaborate study guides about the space race. Maybe he and I aren’t so different after all...

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My personal proclivities aside, “Moondust” is all the more impressive for the high-level of difficulty it takes on in trying to put a new spin on a male mid-life crisis story, perhaps the single most explored topic in the history of storytelling. After Philip is duped into attending a group therapy session with a bunch of aging priests, he cruelly quips, “I’ve never heard such a load of pretentious, self-piteous nonsense.” And there’s a real risk that this episode itself could come across as nothing more than pretentious, self-piteous nonsense, particularly when the first half doesn’t seem to do much more than just add Apollo 11 footage to a classic “Philip is unhappy” story. The scene in which he melodramatically attempts to fly an airplane to the moon really had me rolling my eyes. I was worried we were in for another episode that expected us to sympathize with Philip’s bullish behavior without really explaining why.

Yet something shifts when Elizabeth announces that the Apollo 11 astronauts are coming to visit Buckingham Palace. Philip’s face lights up at the news, but he’s also thoughtful and measured upon realizing that Elizabeth feels he needs cheering up. While this season’s take on Philip still has some of the boyishness that initially defined the character, he’s also clearly a much more thoughtful man now. He takes his wife’s concerns in stride, and his maturation is further reflected in the meditative questions he winds up putting together to ask the astronauts.

Screenshot: The Crown (Netflix)

When Philip actually meets the Apollo 11 crew, however, he’s shocked to find they’re closer in temperament to his rambunctious young sons than the heroic men of action and science he expected them to be. All those warnings about never meeting your heroes come crashing down on him in one awkward 15-minute interview in which Philip tries to talk about the meaning of life while all Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins want to talk about is the size of Buckingham Palace. It’s only then that Philip realizes the emotional support of a group of like-minded intellectuals his own age is actually far more fulfilling than the company of youthful men of action. It’s a major shift for a character who’s always been defined by a core of regret at leaving Navy life behind.

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Yet the neatest magic trick “Moondust” pulls is that it doesn’t reveal its true inciting incident until near the end of its runtime. It turns out Philip’s mother died recently and at least some of his current midlife crisis stems from processing that loss. While on principle, I still kind of object to this show’s obsession with giving Philip so many of his own episodes each season, there’s no doubt that “Bubbikins” and “Moondust” work incredibly well as a duo. When Princess Alice asked her son about his faith in that episode it felt like a tossed off moment. Here it’s recontextualized as a motherly insight into Philip’s impending unhappiness and his need for something bigger to ground him.

To watch Philip accept his own flaws, apologize for his rudeness, and then humbly ask for help is revelatory. So much of The Crown’s second season was about Philip bouncing back and forth between the comfort of his family life and the excitement of being out on a royal tour with a fleet of adventurous men. In “Moondust,” he finally finds the perfect compromise: Keep the all-male camaraderie but find it closer to home and with a more sensitive, philosophic aim.

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Around its margins, this is actually a stellar Elizabeth episode too. Though she doesn’t have much screentime, you get the sense that she’s artfully pulling the strings to ensure her husband’s happiness. She pretty much openly admits that inviting the astronauts for a visit was explicitly a way to cheer him up, and it feels like she picks Robin Woods (Tim McMullan) to be the new Dean of Windsor specifically because he’ll be a good match for Philip. The moment she looks on with contentment as Philip and Dean Woods stroll the grounds together is an immensely satisfying payoff for an appreciably subtle throughline.

Screenshot: The Crown (Netflix)
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And yet, it’s also interesting to think about an alternate universe where Peter Morgan used the moon landing as fodder for an Elizabeth-centric episode with a Philip subplot, rather than the other way around. This episode actually hits on something incredibly insightful in the way it compares Elizabeth’s demeanor with that of the Apollo 11 crew. It’s a connection I wouldn’t have drawn myself, but it makes perfect sense. Both British monarchs and American astronauts are trained to be serious, dutiful professionals who don’t let their personal feelings get in the way of their work. And then they’re suddenly expected to be charisma fountains when the occasion calls for it. The qualities that make them perfectly suited for the job on one level make them terribly suited for it on another.

There easily could’ve been a whole episode dedicated just to that topic alone, one where Elizabeth meeting with the Apollo 11 crew is the big focal point. And while I’m still very glad we got the episode we did, I always find it interesting to think about the stories The Crown isn’t telling as much as the ones it is—especially when it comes to its leading lady and the show’s odd reluctance to center on her.

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Anyway, that’s neither here nor there, really. “Moondust” is my favorite episode of the season so far and it makes Philip much more interesting than I ever thought he could be. Menzies turns in a stellar performance, not just in his big, showy monologues but also in little moments like the way he playfully gestures to himself when his name is mentioned in a palace meeting. Given that Philip’s gotten major showcases in two of the past four episodes, I’m not clamoring for any more Philip-centrics episodes right away. But after the reset he’s gotten this season, I’ll actually be looking forward to seeing more of them in the future, which certainly isn’t something I would’ve said before.


Stray observations

  • Given that Tobias Menzies’ version of Philip is about 100x times softer and gentler than Matt Smith’s version, it’s hilarious to think that any of his behavior this season would raise red flags about his level of irritability.
  • There were several hours between when the lunar module landed on the Moon and when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin actually walked on it, but it’s bizarre that the whole royal family woke up to watch the former while only Philip cared enough to watch the latter.
  • There’s a great little acting moment where all three astronauts instinctively avert their eyes when Philip refers to them as heroes.
  • Buzz Aldrin actually took communion on the moon, so the idea that the astronauts didn’t feel any spiritual connection to what they were doing is a dramatic license. On the other hand, Aldrin was also encouraged to keep the communion ceremony private because NASA was being sued by an atheist over the fact that the Apollo 8 astronauts read from the Book of Genesis during a live TV broadcast. So maybe he wouldn’t have brought it up with Philip.
  • There’s a whole Wikipedia page about the good will messages Apollo 11 left on the moon, which came from the leaders of 73 different countries.
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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.