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The Crown makes Prince Charles someone to root for

Photo: Des Willie (Netflix)
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It’s wild to think about what it would be like for the royal family to watch The Crown, a show that digs into lives they’ve famously tried to keep private. But if there’s one royal who need not worry, it’s Prince Charles, who gets the single most sympathetic character portrait The Crown has ever offered. It’s an unexpected choice for a royal who doesn’t enjoy the sunniest of public perceptions, at least not compared to his mother and his sons. Indeed, a big part of what makes “Tywysog Cymru” (which means “Prince of Wales” in Welsh) so enjoyable is the way it recontextualizes a present-day public figure in a whole new light.

As an individual episode, “Tywysog Cymru” is a huge success. It has a clear thesis and beautifully executes it with a sensitive, humanistic approach that unlocks some interesting, underexplored facets of British history. Plus it features a star-making turn from relative newcomer Josh O’Connor, who’s an uncanny physical match for the real-life Prince Charles. Yet, as is so often the case with this series, my episodic praise comes with a dash of concern about the bigger overall portrait this show is painting. But let’s tackle the good stuff first, shall we?

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We haven’t spent any time with Charles since he was a little kid suffering through boarding school back in “Paterfamilias.” We get a bit of exposition about what he’s been up to since then. After Gordonstoun, he moved on to Cambridge, where he’s finally found a sense of much-needed happiness and community, particularly in the theater department. Beyond that, however, so much of what this episode conveys about Charles comes down to O’Connor’s phenomenal performance. He’s still shy and awkward, but he’s also much more confident in how he moves through the world. Watching him politely respond to a booing crowd is a reminder that after a life spent in the public eye, he knows how to cope when he has to.

Charles has to do a lot of coping when he’s ripped away from Cambridge and sent to attend a semester at Aberystwyth University, to learn Welsh ahead of his investiture as Prince of Wales. As is so often the case for the Windsors, their personal wants must be put aside for the public good. In this case, growing nationalist sentiment in Wales has Harold Wilson worried. He hopes the image of Charles delivering his speech in Welsh will be a unifying sentiment for the two nations.

From there, the episode becomes a two-hander not unlike the dynamic between Churchill and his portrait artist in “Assassins” or Elizabeth and her tutor in “Scientia Potentia Est.” Charles is paired with Welsh teacher Edward Millward (Mark Lewis Jones), who just happens to be a major leader in the Welsh independence movement. Charles humbly takes Millward’s anti-England stance in stride, to the point where the tutor can’t help but come to begrudgingly like his endearingly awkward pupil. Indeed, it’s pretty much impossible to come away from this episode not liking Charles. The only big blunder he makes is getting a little too overexcited about tongue-twists! And when he’s rather cruelly chastised for it, Charles takes that in stride too, using it as motivation to education himself on the plight of the Welsh people.

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The big hook of this episode is that Charles comes to realize that Wales’ relationship to England is not unlike his own relationship to his mother. The Welsh people are expected to bow and serve a nation that doesn’t seem to give anything back in return. The two countries are often quite literally speaking different languages. (An impressive amount of “Tywysog Cymru” unfolds in subtitled Welsh.) It’s not subtle, but given that The Crown sometimes gets a bit lost in artsy portent, I appreciate that this episode has such a clear point of view. After spending so much time getting to know and love Charles, it’s absolutely heartbreaking to watch him receive such a cold, uncaring response from Elizabeth after she finally learns about the pointed socio-political (and personal) messages he slipped into his speech.

Photo: Des Willie (Netflix)
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And yet, it also strikes me as slightly odd that our first ever meaningful look at Elizabeth as a parent comes in an episode where she’s very much a supporting player. It’s interesting to compare “Tywysog Cymru” to “Paterfamilias,” an episode about Philip and Charles’ strained relationship in which father and son shared equal screentime. In that episode, flashbacks to Philip’s childhood helped us understand the motivations behind his anger with his son. Here, we don’t get the same insight into Elizabeth’s overall relationship with Charles beyond her specific frustrations with his speech.

I don’t really mean that as a critique against “Tywysog Cymru” itself, which benefits from being a Charles-centric episode in which we only see Elizabeth through his eyes. I just wish that in general The Crown were more interested in exploring Elizabeth as a parent so that this episode played like a counterpoint in a larger, more complex portrait. I’m fascinated by the idea that after having such warm relationships with her own father and grandmother (whose words she repeats here), Elizabeth has such a different dynamic with her own children. I’m also intrigued by the way she lovingly defends Charles when he isn’t in the room (like when she tries to dissuade Wilson from taking him out of Cambridge), but can’t express any of that same empathy when they’re actually together.

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As is so often the case, I just want more Elizabeth, if not in this episode in particular than in the series in general. “Tywysog Cymru” effectively conveys the deep strain in Elizabeth and Charles’ relationship, but the show hasn’t fully answered the “why?” part of the equation, at least not yet. It also made me realize just how little of Elizabeth’s adolescence and young adulthood we’ve actually seen. Other than some childhood flashbacks, her backstory is usually conveyed in tossed off lines, like the one here about her speech in Cape Town and her four month separation from Philip. It’s interesting to contrast that storytelling choice with the deeply humanizing portrait Charles gets here.

Big picture concerns aside, “Tywysog Cymru” is a smashing success. Charles’ investiture ceremony is the most impressive bit of pomp and circumstances the season has offered so far, and this episode is an appreciably unexpected (re)introduction to a character who will likely only go on to be more and more important to the series. After opening during the reign of King George VI, The Crown could theoretically one day end its run with the reign of King Charles III (assuming the real-life Elizabeth doesn’t prove to be immortal, of course). Like his mother before him, Charles carries the lonely burden of being the heir apparent. Unlike her, however, he has a long, long time to wait before that changes.

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Stray observations

  • This is the first episode of the season to be co-written. Ink playwright James Graham shares credit with Peter Morgan.
  • The song that plays over the credits is called “Carlo.” It was written by Welsh folk singer/activist Dafydd Iwan and became a protest anthem against Charles’ investiture.
  • Erin Doherty is proving to be an absolute scene-stealer as Anne.
  • Well Uncle Dickie sure put that coup behind him fast, huh?  
  • How surreal would it be to go see a production of Richard II where the literal future King of England is playing the title role?!?
  • I didn’t think anything in this episode could possibly get me more excited than the train car converted into a TV room and then we got to Elizabeth’s investiture headwear.
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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.