Season 1, Episode 2 – Hyde Park Corner
I had hoped that we would get to spend just a little more time with Jared Harris as King George VI before his death, but alas, that wasn’t the case. After experiencing a last day of renewed energy, Albert (his birth name before taking the Crown) dies in his sleep. It’s clear that this historical event was going to be portrayed early in the start of the series, but I had hoped that we wouldn’t see it for at least a couple more episodes, primarily because Jared Harris is so engrossing as King George VI.
It’s easy for the biopic genre to overdramatize real-life events in the interest of entertainment. Real life simply isn’t that interesting over 90% of the time, so filmmakers who tackle this genre have the unenviable task of creating entertainment and drama out of the mundane. Balancing historical accuracy and drama needs a precise touch. Lean too much in either direction and the final product suffers, but The Crown achieves such a delicate balance between the two. Portraying the death of King George VI could’ve easily been a melodramatic, exaggerated affair that robs it of any emotional intimacy and poignancy, but in this episode, it feels appropriately earth-shattering and heartbreaking for the rest of the characters.
This, of course, is made possible by the fact that the previous episode dedicated much of its time with King George VI. The filmmakers take full advantage of the fact that they have a not insignificant amount of time to spend with these characters, which allowed them to put King George VI front and center in the very first episode to lay the foundations for the rest of the series. But doing so doesn’t only service the story of how Queen Elizabeth II’s reign began by putting it in context, but it also gives his death the proper emotional weight that it deserves. King George VI wasn’t just an important plot point in the series. He was a fully-realized portrayal of the character and Jared Harris’ outstanding and moving performance allowed us, the audience, to care about his inevitable end.
When we see the other characters react to his death, we react with them. We’re not merely witnessing a creative recreation of how it could’ve happened, like some routine documentary dramatization. We’re experiencing it along with the characters. The tragedy, the sadness, and the realization that King George VI’s death comes with many, many changes for our characters. It’s difficult to believe that we can care so much about a character after just two episodes, but director Stephen Daldry and writer Peter Morgan have crafted it in a way that doesn’t allow the audience to just passively take in the events of the episode.
Of course, the death of a King results in more complications than the death of a regular citizen. On top of the emotional toil, the now Queen Elizabeth II, her family, the people who work for them, and even the Parliament must face numerous changes that come with the transition of power. But it isn’t until Elizabeth receives a letter from her Grandmother that it becomes clear that all these changes pale in comparison to how it has to change Elizabeth herself. Her Grandmother emphasizes that Elizabeth must not just mourn the loss of her father, but who she used to be as well. Wearing the Crown doesn’t just come with duty and responsibility. It’s a transformation. The Crown becomes more important than whatever personal indulgences Elizabeth will desire.
There’s a scene in the middle of the episode where its significance isn’t really felt until the end. It’s the scene where Elizabeth is asked what her regnal name will be now that she’s the Queen. A regnal name is a name that some monarchs, once they accede to the monarchy, use to have others refer to them as. Both Elizabeth’s father and uncle used regnal names that were different from their own, but Elizabeth quickly decides to use her own, stating that there’s nothing wrong with it. She’s right of course (it’s not required for monarchs to use a different regnal name), but it’s as if she’s saying that nothing about her has to change upon taking the Crown. It isn’t until she reads the letter from her Grandmother that the scene becomes important. Choosing to keep her name is almost like a rejection of the Crown, a rejection of the transformation that must take place for her to succeed at her duties. Had she decided after reading her Grandmother’s letter, maybe she would’ve chosen differently.
In my review of the first episode, I noted that depicting Queen Elizabeth II’s reign was a bit of a headscratcher since her time didn’t (and hasn’t) coincided with great social and/or political upheavals in the U.K. I initially questioned just how interesting a show about the royalty can really be, and although my doubts were laid to rest by its incredible first episode, I couldn’t help but wonder how the show can sustain itself in the next few years. However, after watching this episode, it’s become clear that the conflict between who Elizabeth used to be and who she must become lies at the very heart of the series. It’s a struggle that many people (indeed, probably all of us) face every day. There is the version of ourselves that fulfills all of our desires, and the true version of who we actually are. The two very rarely meet together, regardless of how successful we become. It’s this universal dichotomy of consciousness and human nature that, I think, The Crown seeks to portray, and why it’s a story worth telling. It isn’t just a story about the U.K. monarchy and its people. It’s a story about every one of us.