The Crown/Netflix

And now for something completely different. The Crown takes a break from the minutiae of political intrigue to tell the real-life story of one of the freakiest events in British history. Over the course of five days in December 1952, a combination of cold weather, an anticyclone, and windless conditions blanketed London in a thick smog, which not only left the city blind but trapped deadly air pollutants on the street level. As we learn in the episode’s final title card, at least 3,500-4,000 people died as a result of The Great Smog, and it’s possible the real causality count was closer to 12,000 people. It’s an event so absurdly horrific that if it appeared in a fictional story, you’d accuse the author of stretching believability. Yet happen it did and The Crown devotes an entire episode to the ways in which Elizabeth, Churchill, and the British government responded (or didn’t respond) to the public health crisis.

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To be honest, I’m a bit torn on “Act Of God.” On the one hand, the Great Smog is such an inherently interesting subject that this is one of the most compelling installments of The Crown yet. The episode is basically just a few monsters away from being The Mist and in some ways it’s even compelling than that Stephen King story because it’s true. In returning to the montage of people drawing their curtains only to find what looks like opaque panes of glass, the show finds a simple way to both ratchet up the tension and highlight the increasing absurdity of the crisis.

On the other hand, this is also the most heavy-handed episode yet, with tons of clunky exposition and some trite storytelling, especially when it comes to Venetia Scott (Kate Phillips), Churchill’s plucky assistant who is killed by a bus during the Great Smog. The episode really drives home the idea that Venetia has her whole life ahead of her, which makes it immediately clear she’ll be one of the smog’s tragic victims. And while killing her in a motor accident rather than with a respiratory issue is a bit of a twist, the whole thing still feels fairly ham-fisted.

This episode also highlights one of The Crown’s central issues: How much is it willing to criticize its characters? There’s a clear reverence for the royal family that runs throughout the series and even when it does shine a light on their faults—as it did ever so slightly during Elizabeth and Phillip’s trip to Nairobi—it still clearly stands in admiration of them. So while I do think we’re supposed to scoff at Queen Mary’s assertion that monarchy is God’s way of giving “wretched” commoners something to aspire to, we’re also supposed to be moved by her invocation of British monarchs like Alfred The Great and Edward The Confessor. There’s a version of this story that places the blame for the Great Smog deaths squarely on the shoulders of the royal family for not intervening more quickly. But it’s not this story.

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Or then again, maybe it is. The title cards that end the episode (a particularly bizarre choice for an ongoing drama that could have delivered that information in a later episode) are purposefully juxtaposed against Phillip’s flippancy as he and Peter Townsend set off on another flying lesson. He brags about having nothing but free time on his hands and suggests taking the plane to Edinburgh for lunch since, after all, they made him a Duke there. To Philip, the Great Smog amounted to little more than an inconvenience in his flying schedule and in some ways even worked in his favor as Elizabeth was able to negotiate with Churchill for his permission to fly. Contrasting that with the 12,000 people who potentially died in the smog seems like a direct critique of Philip’s privilege, albeit a relatively toothless one.

But aside from that one moment, the episode is fairly wishy-washy about how much Elizabeth is to blame for the crisis (Queen Mary gives a very noble speech about the importance of monarchical impartiality). Ambiguity is often a powerful tool in art, but in this case I wish The Crown would be a little less ambiguous in its take on its central queen. Especially because delving into the outright political failings of Winston Churchill provides this episode’s most compelling through-line.

“Act Of God” offers a terrifying glimpse of the potential way future governments will handle issues of climate change. As the city’s residents slowly choke to death, the government remains frozen in inaction. Churchill is in full denial mode, refusing to see the ways in which a little fog could wind up actually hurting real people. And because he’s such an icon, no one in the government dares question him. Even his rivals in the Labour Party are willing to give The British Bulldog a chance to act before they challenge his authority. The unspoken laws of propriety demand as much. Meanwhile Elizabeth is nervous about overstepping her constitutionally bound neutrality to move Churchill to action.

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It’s maddening—in the best way, dramatically—to watch Churchill fixate on foreign policy and Phillip’s flying lessons as his people are literally suffocating. Although Venetia’s untimely end is overly telegraphed, her death does emphasize the fact that real lives are being lost as government officials worry about offending each other. Again, the relevance to our contemporary world is terrifying.

One of the things my history professors always tried to drive home is the fact that even our most iconic historical figures were just human beings. And in this case Churchill’s very human traits of stubbornness and nearsightedness led to thousands of deaths. Yet rather than let himself be condemned for that, Churchill does what Churchill does best: He uses his speechwriting skills to write himself out of a corner. He turns a hospital visit into a quick PR stunt and transforms his public image from that of an out-of-touch politician to a “true leader in a crisis.” He re-writes his narrative in real time. It’s as impressive as it is upsetting.

In its willingness to take a stand on both Churchill’s abysmal faults and his cunning strengths, The Crown adds a fascinating angle to an already compelling piece of history. When it comes to its leading lady, however, it could stand to be a little less impartial.

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Stray observations

  • Despite studying British history in college, I had somehow never heard of The Great Smog before. What a truly upsetting piece of history.
  • I’ve seen other critics call Venetia’s death a “fridging” designed to motivate Churchill. But in my reading of that scene, he’s not actually moved to action until he hears that Elizabeth has requested an audience with him and that his job is on the line. That’s a far more cynical, and far interesting, take on Churchill.
  • Although Queen Mary’s discussion about the differences between the various queens in the Windsor family seems mostly expositional, I was delighted to no end by her nurses’ observation that nurses and nuns have the same problem.
  • The opening sequence of Philip and Peter’s flying lesson was absolutely stunning.
  • Tommy Lascelles advises Elizabeth that she shouldn’t feel too restrained by the choices of previous monarchs, which has made me fully #TeamTommy.
  • While Elizabeth manages to throw Churchill off his guard and ensure her husband can keep up with his flying lessons, Phillip still has to ask permission from the cabinet to do rolls and spins. Oh, the life of a monarch!
  • This feels like a very appropriate episode to sum up my post-election state of mind.

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