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The Crown memorializes a horrific real-life tragedy

Photo: Des Willie (Netflix)
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The Crown’s boldest choice is its commitment to being a firmly episodic series. It’s a huge strength, one that makes the show immediately stand apart from all the prestige series that bill themselves as 13-hour movies. The episodic structure allows for standout episodes like “Aberfan,” which purposefully and pointedly cast their eyes on a specific historical event. But it can also lead to episodes that feel overstuffed and rushed as they try to tackle multiple points of view in a single hour. That’s a bit of a problem here as well.

“Aberfan” is dedicated to the people of Aberfan and it’s clear that Peter Morgan wants to honor the magnitude of what happened there in 1966, when a colliery spoil tip flooded into the village, killing 28 adults and 116 children. This episode frequently made me think of HBO’s stellar miniseries Chernobyl, which similarly took an unblinking look at a real-life tragedy. In the extended opening sequence, director Benjamin Caron emphasizes the cozy normality of life in Aberfan before depicting the horrifying accident itself, in which a teacher has nothing to do but instruct his students to hide under desks he knows probably won’t save them.

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It’s incredibly difficult to watch, as are the harrowing scenes of the rescue attempt, in which the whole town desperately tries to dig through the rubble to find potential survivors. As Tony describes it to Margaret after visiting the site: “Miners used to digging for coal now digging to reach their children.” The eeriest moment of the entire episode is the scene where the rescue operation falls pin-drop silent at the sound of a whistle that’s blown whenever someone thinks they might have heard a survivor beneath the rubble.

The portions of “Aberfan” that center on the Welsh village itself are incredibly effective. As with Chernobyl, the episode doesn’t shy away from the brutality and trauma of the tragedy, but it doesn’t over-sensationalize it either. From there, “Aberfan” transitions to a story about Harold Wilson. This is his first big crisis as Prime Minister and it could very well define his legacy—not to mention the future of the Labour Party. Wilson immediately knows there’s no way to avoid the crisis becoming political. While the colliery spoil tip collapse was brought on by heavy rain, it was also the result of poor regulations and unsafe procedures. The people of Aberfan aim their anger at the National Coal Board as well as the current Labour government. So Wilson’s impassioned political aide Marcia Williams (Sinéad Matthews) encourages him to redirect their rage towards the Queen instead.

It’s when this episode switches to an Elizabeth story that it lost me a bit. Olivia Colman turns in an absolutely mesmerizing performance, one that proves she has the gravitas to match her peerless comedic touch. But as Morgan tries to make a plot point out of his series-long commitment to keeping Elizabeth stoic and internal, I struggled to figure out just what this episode was trying to say about its opaque central figure and her inability to cry.

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It certainly doesn’t help that “I can’t cry!” is the exact same character flaw given to Cameron Diaz’s character in the Nancy Meyer rom-com The Holiday, which is really the last thing I want to be thinking about while watching an episode about a real-life tragedy. But even without that rom-com connection, tying empathy and emotionality to literal tears just feels like such a simplistic understanding of human emotions. Elizabeth clearly has a deeply empathetic response to meeting Aberfan survivors, particularly the man who lost seven relatives to the disaster. That she isn’t able to cry literal tears for the press hardly seems like an example of her fundamental coldness.

I’ve seen some pre-air reviews praise Colman’s final tear-filled moment as one of the greatest feats of acting ever capture onscreen. I, on the other hand, just found the whole thing absolutely bizarre. When Philip describes the power of the hymn that was sung at the Aberfan mass funeral, he’s not talking about the song itself. He’s talking about the experience of hearing hundreds of grieving people spontaneously channel their emotions into song. Watching Elizabeth will herself into having the same emotional reaction to a studio recording played in her own home felt like that “who can cry first?” acting game from Lady Bird.

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In fact, I was actually wondering if we were supposed to read the final scene as something bizarre, surreal, and maybe even a little off-putting. Perhaps it was meant to be a moment in which Elizabeth was literally practicing her emotions as an actor might, training herself to publicly show grief after a lifetime trained to hide it. But a final title card seems to recontextualize the scene as something sincere: “According to those close to her, the Queen’s delayed response to the disaster remains her biggest regret as Sovereign.”

It’s an interesting idea that also wasn’t at all what I’d taken away from the episode up until that point. Instead of an episode about Elizabeth’s deeply personal response to the Aberfan disaster, I saw “Aberfan” as a broader exploration of the role of ceremonial leadership in general. It’s a question that comes up all the time in the real world, particularly in situations where, say, survivors of a tragedy are angered rather than comforted by the arrival of a political leader who seems to be there mostly for a photo-op. But it’s a particularly relevant question for a leader whose entire role is ceremonial. Wilson has tangible governing to do between his ceremonial appearances. Elizabeth, however, exists solely to be a symbol.

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Because of her own naturally stoic nature, Elizabeth doesn’t know the proper way to help her nation mourn. And what makes her position even more difficult is that she has no one to talk to about it. When she tries to gently raise the issue with Philip by asking whether he wept at the Aberfan mass funeral, he seems to see it as a personal attack. (That scene, by the way, was my favorite Colman performance moment in the episode.) Wilson is a more sympathetic ear, although I found his “I pretend to like beer but I actually prefer brandy” speech to Elizabeth to be a little bit patronizing. She’s been Queen for 14 years, you’d think she’d grasp politics 101 by now.

Still, the Wilson/Elizabeth dynamic raises some fascinating questions about what we want from our leaders in times of tragedy. Elizabeth isn’t wrong about the dangers of a photo-op gumming up the works of active rescue operations. But Wilson isn’t wrong about the power of symbols in times of grief, even if those symbols are sometimes inauthentically staged. A faked tear can carry just as much weight as a real one.

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As a history lesson, “Aberfan” is incredibly powerful. I didn’t know about the Aberfan disaster before this episode, and I certainly won’t forget it now. As a character study, however, I’m not sure it ever fully lifts the veil of opaqueness it’s ostensibly trying to explore.


Stray observations

  • “Aberfan” has clear parallels to the first season episode about the Great Smog, but it also reminded me of the episode of PBS’ Victoria series about the Irish Famine.
  • I kept rewatching the funeral scene to see if Philip actually cries. He doesn’t, at least not as far as I can tell, which I guess means we’re supposed to read his insistence that he wept as defensiveness over his own lack of emotionality? But, again, I just don’t think that tears are the only way to experience grief.
  • I had completely forgotten that by this point Tony and Margaret have multiple children together. We briefly glimpsed their son David as a baby in the second season finale while their daughter Sarah was theoretically born a few months before the third season premiere.
  • Speaking of royal children, it seems like this episode would’ve been a natural place to explore Elizabeth’s relationship to her own, but that’s proven to be a topic The Crown doesn’t really care about.
  • The panning shot over all those coffins was unbelievably heartbreaking.
  • This episode doesn’t make it clear, but despite an official inquiry that placed the blame for the Aberfan disaster on the National Coal Board, the organization was never prosecuted or fined.
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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.