The thing that elevates The Crown beyond a by-the-numbers historical drama is its honest portrayal of complex relationships, so showrunner Peter Morgan gets right down to business in the opening episodes. There’s no soft start.
As we jump back in to 1956, Elizabeth and Philip are coming up to their ten year anniversary, but all is not well in the royal marriage. Things are tense. Prince Philip’s rumoured infidelities rear their ugly head, the Queen seethes with humiliation, and the old-school “moustaches” at Buckingham Palace battle the threat of public scandal.
Over the next seven years we see the peaks and troughs of their marriage. For every blazing row and every quiet moment of deep pain, there is also a tender moment, a funny moment, a romantic moment. The love is still there and, in many ways, stronger than ever.
A particular highlight is Philip fooling around with his heavily-pregnant wife, encouraging her to pretend to pull a pint like a barmaid and making her giggle. It’s a very human depiction of what remains a very private marriage.
Talking of complex, notorious characters, Princess Margaret also bursts into life this season following the end of her ‘forbidden’ liaison with Captain Townsend in season one.
Vanessa Kirby is even better in season two as Margaret’s vulnerability and anger comes out in full force. She’s funny but difficult, loveable but loathsome, drinking too much and being overdramatic and winding up her sister. Then along comes charming society photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones – this princess was never going to fall for someone conventional or straightforward.
The Crown creator Peter Morgan promised that season two would “start to focus on Charles as a young boy and his education, and on Philip and his backstory.” But who knew he’d be able to make even Charles into such a sympathetic character? This is a storyline with the power to reduce even hardened republicans to tears.
For most of the series the big-eared little heir skulks shyly in the background, but in the penultimate episode he is thrust into the centre of the story as his father tries to toughen him up. At the same time we dive into Philip’s own troubled childhood (played with extraordinary emotional depth by young actor Finn Elliot) which starts to explain the man he grew up to become.
But the real tragedy is the chasm between them: a father who fails to love his child for the boy he is, and a son who will never live up to his father’s expectations.
This would be powerful emotional drama in any family. In The Crown, of course, personal pain is set against national disaster.
Between 1956 and 1963 the country races through three prime ministers (Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan, Alec Douglas-Home) and lurches from crisis to crisis: from Suez to Profumo and everything in between. Attitudes towards the monarchy are changing and the royal family must adapt.
Looking at the monarchy in this context is fascinating, but one word of caution: if you found the hagiography in the first season a little hard to swallow, season two could be a trickier watch. The Queen comes out of everything smelling of roses. Empire was beneficial, the monarch knows best, and anything that threatens the Commonwealth is a Bad Thing. Will this vision of Britain really play to Netflix’s global ambitions for the series?
The Crown season two follows so closely in style and substance to season one that it’s hard to imagine how things will look when season three comes along. Next time The Crown returns we’ll be a decade into the future, with Olivia Colman as our new Queen Elizabeth and a brand new Philip at her side. But for now, Claire Foy and Matt Smith rule – and The Crown continues its supremacy.
The Crown season two will be released on Netflix on Friday 8th December 2017