Netflix’s The Crown season 2 is even more elaborate and indulgent than the first. Claire Foy shines as Queen Elizabeth, even as the character takes a backseat.
‘Forgettable’ is the last word I would ever use about Claire Foy’s Queen Elizabeth II in the spectacular, decadent, meandering and introspective second season of Netflix’s The Crown.
Yet it is this word that best characterizes the arc of the series’ lead, now established in her position and finding herself struggling to remain both a private person and an inspirational public figure. Her marriage to Philip continues to be fraught; Margaret continues to blame her for what happened with Peter Townsend, and post-war Britain continues to slowly disentangle itself from tradition and worship of the crown.
Never once does Elizabeth the person waiver, however. One of the benefits of The Crown opening the doors to the Windsors’ private chambers, as it were, is that we get to see the woman behind (or below) the crown.
We get to see what she tries so hard to keep hidden from the public — or at least series creator Peter Morgan’s version of what that might be — and that person is spectacular. So much so, in fact, that it is hard to buy into the running narrative this season that Elizabeth is somehow failing in her role as a figurehead for the kingdom. Because based on what we see on screen, she’s every bit the captivating presence the nation wishes she was.
Where the first season of The Crown benefited hugely from a natural structure (the illness and death of King George VI; Elizabeth’s ascent to the throne), the second season is less linear, reading more like ‘scenes from a life’ of the woman under whom the British monarchy dwindled.
As such, the greatest ‘flaw’ of the season is perhaps a flaw of history: that its leading lady must take a backseat to much more active secondary players around her, standing back and observing as others do more noteworthy things. Yet even so, the camera lingers on Foy’s incredibly nuanced and layered performance — hoping, perhaps, that she breaks script and lives up to the potential of her part.
Elizabeth says herself, in a chilling conversation with Prime Minister Anthony Eden (Jeremy Northam), that most of the time, it is better to sit back and do nothing, even if by doing so, you are relinquishing your ability to make history. And this is Elizabeth’s lot in life; we know this, because we’ve lived it. We know how this story has to carry on.
None of this makes season 2 of The Crown any less spectacular than the first, which I also adored. In fact, Foy in particular shines as an increasingly confident yet unmoored Elizabeth, who understands as well as the audience the limitations of her position.
The lavish sets are breathtaking, and The Crown manages something almost completely impossible in modern-day media: to be completely still and silent without ever getting boring. Sometimes the actors hold back their lines, not blinking, almost daring the audience to look away before they speak, and I never did.
In terms of production, The Crown is captivating from beginning to end, a triumph of acting, writing and directing — and perhaps most admirably, Morgan’s rare restraint when it comes to using sound and effects to elevate the drama. In The Crown, the drama elevates itself.
Something that becoms increasingly obvious as the season goes on is that this installment — the final, before the roles pass on to an older set of actors, including Olivia Colman as Elizabeth — belongs at least as much, if not more, to Matt Smith’s Prince Philip. His shrewd (and wholly unsympathetic) acquisition of his very own crown early in the season makes it clear that the title of the series refers as much to him as to Elizabeth.
Matt Smith is spectacular in the role. But with several centric episodes, and lengthy flashback sequences to his traumatizing youth, Smith is tasked with humanizing a figure to whom the narrative isn’t very kind — he is outright villainous in some instances, making it uncomfortable when the audience is then expected to sympathize with his supposed plight — and one might wonder why they even felt the need to devote so much time to Philip when they could have given some of that time to, say, Elizabeth herself.
Where was her flashback episode? We know she served as a mechanic in World War II, and dramatizing that very underexposed part of her life would certainly strike a sharp contrast to the person she becomes. I can only assume (or hope) that they’re saving that particular storyline for a later season.
Even moreso than season 1, season 2 flirts heavily with the stories of Philip’s alleged affairs, without ever fully committing to an answer one way or another. This makes it a strange non-story, emphasizing the feel of this season as transitory, setting up a third season in which Elizabeth and Philip’s children will presumably take more central roles as the Queen and Prince take (even more of) a backseat.
While in some ways, making Elizabeth a passive agent (intentionally or unintentionally) serves to make The Crown season 2 a study of a woman silently suffering the incompetency of the men around her — a very timely tale indeed — the season is still at its absolute best when Elizabeth does take center stage, taking action into her own hands and using her limited agency to her advantage.
Particularly in the second half of the season is she afforded some personal victories that provide a welcome relief (spoiler alert: it’s going to make you want scones, so prepare accordingly), and I wish there had been more moments like that peppered into the narrative.
Nonetheless I appreciate that Morgan never leaves his leading lady stranded: Elizabeth remains the sympathetic point-of-view character, and the narrative is almost always on her side. This, in turn, makes me curious as to how he’ll handle later parts of her life, when perhaps we’ll be less likely to sympathize with her perspective.
The Crown season 2 ultimately suffers from the absence of some of its scene-stealers of season 1, particularly Jared Harris as King George and John Lithgow as Winston Churchill, as well as the sidelining of Elizabeth herself. But two standout performances come from Vanessa Kirby (Princess Margaret) and newcomer Matthew Goode (her new beau Antony Armstrong-Jones), whose scenes — both apart and together — are electric. Much as Philip overshadows Elizabeth, Tony does tend to overshadow Margaret in this part of the narrative, but (dare I say it) he’s got a lot more nuance than Philip, and the relationship is fraught with layers of tension that make the storyline stand out as a season highlight.
It is evident this season more than last that The Crown is an adaptation of history, as opposed to anything resembling true biography; nonetheless, it tackles major historical events and paints them in interesting, illuminating colors that may or may not reflect what actually happened. Writing as someone whose knowledge of and interest in the British monarchy is shallow at best, I certainly would not vouch for this series’ historical accuracy, but viewing it as a work of fiction inspired by reality, I am thoroughly satisfied.
Despite the disproportionate focus on Philip, and some rather forgettable secondary characters, Claire Foy and Matt Smith continue to shine at the center of this meandering, gorgeous historical drama. While not very eventful, the second season of The Crown is never boring, and as a dramatization of a remarkably undramatic period of Elizabeth’s reign, it is a triumph of subtle, nuanced storytelling and compelling performances by the main cast.
Although the series never quite reaches the levels of the first, it is a worthy follow-up, and I can’t wait to see Morgan carry the royal family through the 20th century in future seasons. While I will sorely miss Claire Foy’s Elizabeth, as she is far and away the best part of the series, I can’t wait to see what Olivia Colman does with the role when the crown passes to her.
The Crown season 2 debuts Friday, December 8 on Netflix.