The Crown/Netflix

Though he’s loomed over the series abstractly, Prince Edward, Duke of Windsor (Alex Jennings) finally makes his first appearance on The Crown. And his arrival helps clarify the way in which the rest of the Windsors define themselves. In abdicating to marry divorcee Wallis Simpson (Lia Williams), Edward put his personal happiness above his political duties, thrusting his unprepared younger brother into the monarchy and putting Elizabeth next in line for the throne. He committed a kind of “original sin” for the Windsors, which the rest of the family—and especially George and Elizabeth—feel they must compensate for with an obsessive commitment to duty. Edward took everything the Windsor name is supposed to stand for and dragged it through the mud. Or, at least, that’s how they see it.

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And we learn that the Windsors hold a mean grudge. They’ve basically ostracized Edward since his abdication and his mother is shockingly cruel as she greets her eldest son with what amounts to a list of his failings. The Crown itself isn’t much kinder to Edward, although he does get a few sympathetic moments here and there. But his defining characteristic in this episode is his utter shock at the idea that giving up his kingly duties should mean giving up the life of luxury to which he’s become accustomed. His desire for the privileges of monarchy without the responsibilities once again stands in direct contrast to his younger brother and his niece.

For me, the most affecting scene in this episode is the moment Elizabeth gently demands an apology from her uncle. Claire Foy beautifully portrays the mixture of strength and vulnerability it takes for Elizabeth to confront the man who singlehandedly changed the course of her life. And Edward is at his most sympathetic when he replies with genuine remorse, even if he goes on to complete his half of a backroom deal with Winston Churchill. He helps ensure Elizabeth’s children will keep the Windsor name and the royal family will live in Buckingham Palace rather than Clarence House. Edward will keep his $10,000 pounds a year. The privileged wheels keep turning.

The battle over Elizabeth’s name and her living situation make up the bulk of this episode, which is the kind of myopia that will likely turn off some viewers. Anyone looking for over-the-top melodrama won’t find it on The Crown. This is a show interested not just in the Windsors, but specifically in the minutia of their lives. But through the framework of those hyper-specific problems, The Crown crafts a compelling, surprisingly thoughtful historical drama.

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Although Edward notes that Britain is generally better at queens than kings, it’s eminently clear that the throne is designed with a man in mind. After all, monarchs are expected to proudly pass on their names to their children while women are expected to replace their names with their husbands’. That puts Elizabeth the person in conflict with Elizabeth the queen over an issue her father never had to think twice about. And the debate is a reminder of just how old-fashioned The Crown’s world is.

I actually think there’s a real bravery in how The Crown depicts the sexism of its 1950s setting (nearly a decade before the start of Mad Men, lest we forget). Historical fiction often falls into the lazy trap of depicting its heroes as somehow above the prejudices of their times. So while “bad guys” can be racist and sexist and homophobic to show just how bad things were, we soften our heroes to make them more palatable. The real-life Abraham Lincoln almost certainly would’ve thought nothing of using the n-word in casual conversation, but Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln whitewashes that part of history to better fit Lincoln’s narrative as America’s Great Emancipator. Rather than embrace the complexities of history, Lincoln simplifies them.

But on The Crown, no one, not even the romantic couple at the show’s center, is above the prejudices of their era. That might make them harder to like than the oddly progressive figures we’re used to seeing in historical biopics, but it also offers a far more nuanced understanding of how prejudice actually operates; societal oppression effects everyone, not just history’s monsters.

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In other words, I love that this show lets Philip be a dick without being a villain. In trying to sell the Phillip/Elizabeth romance, it would’ve been easy to sand off his rough edges and focus on his more progressive values. Because in some ways he is a progressive figure—a man who married for love in the 1940s knowing full well that his wife’s star would always outshine his own. But he’s also a flawed man who finds his unconventional marriage harder to navigate in practice than in theory. The basic things he was taught to expect from life—a career, a family bearing his name, a house to call his own—have been ripped away from him in one fell swoop.

What’s especially interesting is that Philip is basically being asked to live the life that the wives of great men have been asked to live throughout history: Smile, look pretty, pick out the curtains, provide emotional support, and never rock the boat. It’s the role that—to this day—we expect of First Ladies in the White House. There’s a reason Michelle Obama has spent the past eight years growing vegetables and dancing on the Jimmy Fallon Show. The difference is that unlike historical women who were raised to be supportive wives, Phillip was raised to expect a life of his own. To see him struggle against the small inhumanities of being reduced to a “supportive spouse” role is a powerful reminder of just how much women have been expected to quietly give up in the name of their husbands.

Nor is Elizabeth herself immune to the social norms of her era. Again, a lesser version of this show would’ve refashioned her as a more overtly feminist figure; one who bristles at the thought of changing her name and who delivers wry quips to shut down those who dare suggest she should focus on being a wife and mother. That would’ve no doubt made Elizabeth easier for modern audiences to root for, but it also would’ve papered over the realities of history.

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To become a political ruler is to break every social convention of what it means to be a woman in the 1950s and it’s understandable that that would be difficult for Elizabeth, stalwart as she is in fulfilling her patriotic duty. Feminism is ultimately about giving women freedom of choice in how they wish to live their lives, but Elizabeth’s choices were taken from her the moment Edward abdicated. She might have preferred living a simpler life as a wife and mother, she explains to her uncle. That sort of longing doesn’t make Elizabeth weak, it makes her human. She’s a “strong female character” in the sense that she’s complex and full of contradictions. And that’s something our media landscape is missing far more than gun tottin’, rule breakin’ “girl power” heroes.

Yet while she’s no a feminist firebrand, Elizabeth does slowly begin to find her voice in this episode, particularly when it comes to the overbearing Winston Churchill. Though she ultimately capitulates on her demands about her name and her house, it doesn’t exactly feel like a loss. She genuinely seems to come to realize that keeping the Windsor name and changing her residence are in the best interest of the crown. And she’s still proven to Churchill that she’s both willing to fight for what she believes in and shrewd enough to deduce the true motivations behind his attempt to delay her coronation. For all of her traditional views on femininity, she’s no Shirley Temple pushover either. And unlike her uncle, she’s willing to put the stability of the Windsor line above her personal happiness.

Stray observations

  • That Edward and Wallis may have been Nazi sympathizers goes entirely unmentioned, at least for now.
  • Elizabeth is apparently an expert on all things pug.
  • To be honest, I’m not sure what to make of the montage of Edward and Wallis dancing in an empty ballroom. I guess it’s supposed to indicate that their love story is a genuine one, but it rang kind of hollow to me.
  • The Margaret/Peter Townsend affair continues as we learn that his wife left him. I haven’t really touched on the affair in these reviews yet, mostly because it still feels like setup at this point. However, I did really enjoy Phillip’s delight at finding a purse in Peter’s office.
  • I feel like the runner of Prince Charles being a weirdo little kid is the height of British sass on the part of Peter Morgan.

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