Everything You Need To Know About The Second Season of ‘The Crown’
Here, a cheeky cheat sheet that gives you the juicy details on the second season of the Netflix hit, The Crown, which arrives Dec. 8.
In the second season of The Crown, creator Peter Morgan’s biographical drama continues in its focus and fascination with Queen Elizabeth II (played by Claire Foy).
With a who’s who of English character actors, the Netflix series covers British monarchy’s personal milestones structured around landmark world events like Suez, Sputnik and the Profumo Affair. Even with 10 episodes covering the ground from 1956 to 1963, it can at times feel like Mad Men is making a mad dash through Downton Abbey. It’s occasionally apocryphal, at times blasphemous and often deliciously interpretive with taking creative license. But truth is often stranger than fiction.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder
If The Crown‘s first season dealt with the fallout of the Abdication Crisis, this one is about identity crisis—the Queen’s personal, marital and institutional identity. She’s faced with a changed world after the war and a changed marriage after ascending the throne.
The wives of Windsor are not so merry and this season’s oft-repeated “She got on with it” could well be the original, “Nevertheless, she persisted.” Elizabeth is feeling lonely and isolated and this is before she sends Philip on a punitive five-month tour. Or as one cocktail waitress calls it, “a five-month stag night.” Off he goes, to enjoy a high-seas bromance with his oldest friend and have the simple pleasures of a ship-wide beard-growing competition—it’s Movember, before Movember was a thing. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Or does it? Eileen Parker, wife of the aforementioned oldest friend/private secretary/wingman, doesn’t think so. In real life they did divorce due to Parker’s absence and infidelity, and when she sold the story to the tabloids, because of his high position in Philip’s entourage, the whole thing did threaten the image of the royal marriage. The divorce also cost Parker his job. Lesson: Discretion is the better part of valour.
Granted, life can’t be much fun married to a Queen who reads horsey books like Bloodstock Breeding at bedtime, though it makes for a good visual pun when they chat about Margaret’s future marriage prospects. The shadow of Philip’s rumoured indiscretions persists throughout the series, as it does—and did—in real life.
Emblematic of this is the Thursday Club, the rowdy group of men (David Niven and onetime Poirot Peter Ustinov, among them) that he assembled, and who met weekly in the private room at Wheeler’s in Soho to let off steam and generally carouse. There’s one dancing girl in particular introduced to the story, a device in the episode to suggest how much his wife knew (or at least, suspected) and the private humiliations the Queen suffered in silence (like sitting along in the Royal Box watching one of her husband’s alleged lovers perform). Though she may not stay silent for long.
Women aren’t the only ones cuckolded, however: there’s Lord “Dickie” Mountbatten, who confides about his wife’s dalliance with Nehru and even Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, whose wife carried on a love affair with another man for more than 30 years.
24-hour party people
Swimming in this fishbowl of privilege, the spoiled Margaret is nursing her heartbreak and milking it for all the perks of her title and rank. “Grain and grapes don’t mix!” The unhappy princess and her gang were known as the Margaret Set and Swinging London was their playground. Some of the restaurants name-dropped include Mirabelle, and Annabel’s and her favourite nightclub, Les Ambassadeurs.
Margaret’s raucous years-long party period is condensed and elided into a few scenes—hangovers don’t make for good TV. Sadly, there’s no mention whatsoever of how they kept her busy and distracted with a royal tour of Canada in 1958 where, as was revealed a few years ago in the Princess’s own correspondence, Margaret romanced with, and, as she put it, “nearly married,” a young lawyer named John Turner. Yes, the one who later became the country’s prime minister. (Since he’s not only Canadian but also a Catholic, Peter Morgan missed the opportunity for a juicy subplot.)
News of her lost love Peter Townsend’s remarriage means melancholy Margaret once again gets thoroughly sozzled (even by her standards) and tears apart her private rooms as Ella Fitzgerald sings “Angel Eyes.” In real life she did have a near-miss of marrying wealthy but foolish public school boy Billy Wallace (there’s a true routine of pistols at dawn that makes most of Evelyn Waugh’s toffs seem brainy). She sobered up and thought better of it.
Her boyfriend, soon husband, Antony Armstrong-Jones’s bohemian loft on the Pimlico road was much as depicted in the series—a photo studio on the main with a spiral staircase to the personal living quarters he’d designed himself. He reputedly had a taste for affairs with both sexes and several longtime lovers. One was Jacqui Chan, who is still living, a dancer, model and actress (in The Saint with Roger Moore, starred in The World of Suzie Wong and was one of Elizabeth Taylor’s handmaidens in Cleopatra).
A subplot The Crown gets right: that Armstrong-Jones had a regular ménage with his best friends Jeremy and wife Camilla Fry and is the father of their daughter Polly is true (she was born mere weeks after his wedding, which both attended). And it’s Fry, as in the Fry’s Cocoa dynasty (because they have chocolate dynasties in England). Next season, as the Snowdon marriage disintegrates, the former will likely prove more alarming than the latter, since homosexual acts were not decriminalized in England until parliament’s Sexual Offences Act 1967, and we’re still only in 1959. And it’s suggested that the Palace knew all about it. Interesting turn of events, since he had the distinction of being the first commoner to wed a king’s daughter in 450 years.
With the country’s goodwill for Margaret’s at-long-last romantic happiness, there’s much pomp and circumstance Margaret gets what she craves: a big worldwide celebrity moment. The camera pans to the sky above Westminster Abbey, where grey storm clouds are gathering. Armstrong-Jones is just one more of the institution’s modernizations, The Crown suggests, and perhaps it’s not the only one that’s ill-advised.
Thoroughly modern modern monarchy
Speaking of celebrity! Watching reports of President John F. Kennedy in Paris from the faded opulence of her palace, even Elizabeth is not immune to the glamourous appeal of Camelot. To prepare for the visit from the American president and first lady, and feeling competitive with the chic Jackie usurping her status as most famous woman in the world, the Queen visits her dressmaker Norman Hartnell. Alas, she emerges with only a slightly less matronly gown than usual and goes big and piles on a parure of enormous sapphires from the crown jewels. This is one of the episodes in the series where Emmy-winning costume designer Michele Clapton (Game of Thrones) adheres to historical record, since the Queen’s yards of stiff Madonna blue tulle (in the same dated fit-and-flare style she wore as a young woman in the early 1950s) speaks volumes about being stodgy. Compared to Jackie’s sleek, au courant ice blue column from Chez Ninon. The semiotics of fashion say it all.
The show suggests that the Queen’s uncharacteristic political brinkmanship with a sudden visit to Ghana was spurred by Jacqueline Kennedy’s rumoured insults of the Queen’s home, style and personality. And there’s no proof that the first lady later met with the monarch privately later to apologize and had a heart to heart about her unhappy White House marriage—but it’s fun to think so.
In tandem, there’s the (true) critical attack on the state of the monarchy by Lord Altrincham, a peer and fervent monarchist who counselled the royals to become less remote and more transparent. It’s suggested he had an audience with Her Majesty herself and brought a list of Dos and Don’ts. When pressed to be a more modern institution, the Queen Mother, as usual, gets all the zingers. “No one wants complexity and reality from us.” The same can be said of haircuts—when the Queen shortens her coif to a more à la mode style, it does not go over well with husband (wittily, the “helmet hair” exchange is set up with the tune of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” as Lillibet sits under the hair dryer). The whole thing prompts Philip to ask Margaret for the name of her hairdresser—Vidal Sassoon, who really did style her hair.
The Palace’s earlier stage-management to reassure England about the happy state of the royal marriage through public perception—with heart-covered neckties and a conjugal visit in Portugal—seems positively quaint compared to Jackie Kennedy, a master of image. Flash forward to November, when the household is glued to the television. Watching Claire Foy’s Elizabeth watching the breaking news of the Kennedy assassination, and seeing Jackie in a deliberately blood-stained suit is a meta-textual eureka moment. It suggests the first glimmer of the Queen seeing the dawn of contemporary celebrity and a master manipulator of visual power. It’s a moment that foreshadows Diana, Princess of Wales, and the events leading up to the Queen’s own annus horribilis three decades later.
Side note: The Queen sits down and begins to write Dear Mrs. Kennedy, a nod to the famous four days in November when millions around the world dispatched letters beginning with those same words and deluged the White House with condolences. The letters are now preserved in an archive.
A portrait of the Nazi as a young man
To err is human, to forgive divine. In the series, the Queen very much wants to forgive—her husband, her uncle David—both inwardly and with symbolic public actions. In real life, the Queen was as intrigued by the young Reverend Billy Graham’s Christian message, as she is on the show and, according to Graham’s autobiography, he visited with her informally on many occasions over the years.
In an earlier episode, a friend comments on the Queen’s chilliness with son and heir Charles. “Having a child who represents her own death can’t be easy.” They’ve been absent most of this series but we finally get to see young Princess Anne and Prince Charles (the actor chosen to play the latter is appropriately jug-eared), because it’s time for him to go to school. And instead of nearby Eton, he’s sent to Gordonstoun, the progressive but brutal Scottish alma mater of his father.
Philip’s psychology has been explored through flashes to his unconventional and unhappy childhood earlier but now a whole episode is devoted to it—specifically, to 1937 and the year his beloved sister Cecile died. She was one of his three sisters who married German princes with Nazi connections.
The flashback to him at 16 is in parallel split timelines with Charles’ own experience at the school. (The Prince of Wales has been public and candid about the hellish “prison-like” experience he had attending the school, and when the time came sent his own sons, William and Harry, to Eton instead.) Speaking of Nazis, the forgiveness episode also dives into the Duke of Windsor’s boredom with his a life of pleasure in France, and his wish to return to the fold and be useful having a ‘job’ (air quotes, because he wants a job cushy even by royal standards).
As with season one, the harsh words the Duke had for his family and the institution are not apocryphal—the dialogue and voice-overs are lifted from his own diaries and correspondence. There is less empathy for the Duke of Windsor’s exile and for his entertaining but insufferable snobbism now, and it’s not because he calls Buckingham Palace, “that miserable mausoleum.”
But all the Billy Graham forgiveness sermons in the world can’t neutralize the truth discovered in a wartime German file buried in the Thuringia Forest. The series dares not to tread lightly, either—watch for archival photographs of the Duke (then King’s) unofficial 1937 state visit with Hitler. The Royals are the only people more concerned with “reputation” than Taylor Swift is and regularly enlist the help of retired former private secretary Tommy Lascelles as needed (see: Armstrong-Jones, above). He’s a royal fixer to rival Harry Cohn and knows where the bodies—and explosive Nazi files—are buried.
The personal is political
The problems of estrangement and mistrust between the royal couple at the beginning of the season still plague them. Season two began with a prime minister—Anthony Eden, who longed to step out of Winston Churchill’s shadow but whose poor judgment was not helped by his addictive painkillers. It ends with his successor Macmillan stepping down after the Profumo scandal. (There’s the suggestion that Philip was involved with the society osteopath and pimp, adding another layer to the marital discord.)
Macmillan’s resignation is well-timed by the series to bookend the point that, like Mrs Parker’s choice to divorce in the first episode, this is yet another “exit wound” not available to Her Majesty. Pregnant, exhausted, at her wit’s end, the Queen alone soldiers on amid what she calls, “a confederacy of elected quitters.” It’s a withering scene, one where Claire Foy deploys all her (and our) long-simmering rage at weakness and inconstancy. And all without losing her temper—and because only the real Queen Elizabeth could last for decades in this stoic role, it was a final tour de force from Foy before Olivia Colman (Broadchurch) takes the reign next season.
What is “the Crown”? What is England? At the end of the second season, it’s Cecil Beaton snapping royal portraits while ominously reciting from Shakespeare’s Richard II.
The Crown‘s second season premieres on Netflix on Dec. 8.