The Crown/Netflix

What I like best about The Crown is that I never have any idea what to expect when I click the “play next” button. The show hasn’t settled into any kind of pattern in terms of scope, subject matter, or tone; episodes can vary from opulent historical recreations to intimate romances. I clicked on “Assassins” half-expecting a dramatic retelling of an assassination attempt I’d never heard about. Instead the episode offers a poignant character study. Binge-watching can sometimes feel like a slog, especially as you get towards the end of a series. But The Crown’s mini-movie structure keeps the binge-watching experience fresh throughout.

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Which isn’t to say that The Crown is entirely episodic. “Assassins” brings to a head two storylines that have been percolating since the show’s premiere: the decline of Winston Churchill’s career and the unhappiness of Elizabeth’s marriage. Both work well, the Churchill stuff especially so, although they feel more like two stories running in parallel than two halves of one whole. Though both plots touch on themes of restlessness, regret, and accusations, they just don’t quite hang together as much as I might’ve liked.

But, hey, we get to watch Elizabeth host a weird version of The Bachelor: Horse Edition, which is fun. The success of her champion thoroughbred Aureole and her decision to turn him into a stud horse brings her into contact with Porchey (Joseph Kloska), a family friend and the man many expected her to marry. Given how close they appear to be here, it’s a little odd that Porchey hasn’t been a presence on this show before. But Kloska is instantly likable in a sheepish sort of way and he offers a glimpse into the life Elizabeth might have led.

Porchey and Elizabeth are incredibly well matched. They’re both a little introverted, a little awkward, and deeply obsessed with horses. To put it in Jane Austen terms, they would’ve been a Jane and Bingley couple: slightly boring but always happy. But Elizabeth wanted a dashing Darcy, not a bland Bingley. So she wound up in a marriage that’s passionate but complicated.

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In the first few episodes, the show balanced out Philip’s arrogance with a dose of charm (like making Elizabeth smile during their wedding vows). But lately he’s just become an unrepentant asshole. He whines about every royal duty, spends all his time boozing it up with his friends, and—as Margaret notes—has “other passions” in his life too (the show takes a vague stance on what exactly that entails). And worst of all, despite his own unscrupulous behavior, he can’t stand even an ounce of perceived impropriety from Elizabeth. He lashes out like a petulant, cruel teenager at the warm friendship between Porchey and his wife. And it continues to be infuriating to watch Elizabeth have to put up with such a terrible partner.

But while many of the beats of Philip’s bad behavior feel slightly repetitive, the episode clarifies one particular point: Elizabeth doesn’t stay in her rocky marriage just for propriety’s sake, she stays because she’s genuinely in love with Philip. We don’t hear their screaming match in the car, but we do see Elizabeth’s response later in the evening. Mustering all of her stately composure, she tells Philip that he’s the only man she’s ever loved. He can only stay silent when she asks if he can say the same.

Like most things on The Crown, the Porchey/Elizabeth/Philip story is beautifully acted, with a gorgeous attention to period details and fascinating insights into the world of horses Elizabeth loves so much. But it also feels more like a plateau than a rise in the action. Thankfully, that’s not the case with Churchill’s half of the episode, which is maybe my favorite thing this show has done yet. While Elizabeth’s story mostly emphasizes things we already know, the Churchill storyline is a revelation.

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As a gift for his 80th birthday, Parliament commissions a new portrait of Churchill. And that brings the Prime Minister in contact with Graham Sutherland (Stephen Dillane), a modern artist who’s far more interested in capturing Churchill’s true self than he is in flattering the British icon. What unfolds is essentially a tightly scripted play in which the two men engage in a complicated verbal dance as Churchill sits for Sutherland’s sketches. So far The Crown has asked us to consider Churchill as a larger-than-life statesman and a bullheaded politician, but this is the first time we’ve really been asked to consider him as a human being too.

On paper, there’s a lot about the story that shouldn’t work because it’s so on-the-nose. Yet in practice there’s an ineffable combination of performance and visuals that allow it to rise above trite tropes into remarkably effective storytelling. (That much of it unfolds without underscoring helps too.) The big emotional set piece is Churchill’s realization that he keeps painting the goldfish pond on his property not because it’s a technical challenge, but because it reminds him of his daughter Marigold, who died when she was only two years old. The revelation speaks to the power of art to convey things we can’t put into words. And while having The Crown put that into words shouldn’t work, it somehow does.

It helps that both actors are at the top of their games. Dillane (probably best known as Stannis from Game Of Thrones) gives an incredibly reserved performance that nevertheless conveys how invested Sutherland is in both his art and in Churchill. Dillane resists the urge to match Lithgow at his larger-than-life level and turns in a performance that’s memorable precisely for how un-showy it is.

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Lithgow, meanwhile, offers his most layered performance to date on this show. I’ve always appreciated his willingness to embrace the grotesque, comical sides of Churchill without turning him into a full on caricature (although he’s edged close to it at times). But here he finally allows Churchill’s vulnerability to come to the forefront. And as with the Queen Mother, it’s remarkably effective to hold off on revealing that depth until so late in the series; it forces us to recontextualize everything that’s come before.

The other on-the-nose idea that works far better than it has any right to is the fact that Sutherland’s portrait finally forces Churchill to grapple with his own frailty. He expects to see himself depicted as a steadfast war hero, which is the self-image Churchill so desperately clings to in his mind. Instead he gets a portrait of an aging old man. It’s incredibly literal, but there’s also an air of truth in it: Who among us hasn’t been jolted to see an unflattering photo of ourselves someone unkindly posted on Facebook? Our mental self-images are rarely as honest as a camera or a paintbrush. And being forced to confront that is enough to make Churchill finally agree to step down from his position, even if he can’t forgive Sutherland for what he perceives as a vicious character assassination.

Both Churchill and Elizabeth do some serious self-reflection in “Assassins” and neither of them are particularly pleased with what they see. Churchill leaves his position on his own terms, but it still feels like a defeat. Elizabeth stays in her marriage for love, but that feels like a defeat too. Yet in true British fashion, they both compartmentalize their sorrow behind a (mostly) stiff upper lip. Art may lay bare the truth for all to see, but people seldom do.

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Stray observations

  • I initially read the final scene as Clementine watching her husband have the painting burned, but Wikipedia has informed me that in real-life it was Clementine (or one of her assistants) who actually destroyed the portrait. I’m not sure if I misread the last scene or if there’s supposed to be some ambiguity in it.
  • Speaking of Clementine, Harriet Walter continues to give one of my favorite supporting performances on this show. Despite her limited screen time, Clementine really feels like a vibrant, three-dimensional character.
  • I didn’t think I was particularly invested in the Churchill/Elizabeth friendship, but their final meeting and her toast at the dinner party both made me tear up.
  • As in “Act Of God,” The Crown again does a remarkable job of demonstrating the way Churchill is able to wipe away all of his flaws with a charismatic speech.
  • Between The Crown and Silicon Valley, I really didn’t expect to watch so much horse sex on TV this year.
  • I want a reaction gif of Elizabeth involuntarily shaking her head at the TV as Churchill lightly mocks his portrait.
  • I still maintain that Eden and Churchill are in love.
  • I figured out why I liked Elizabeth’s last dress so much:

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