Season 1, Episode 4 – Act of God
John Lithgow has been a strong presence in the show right from his very first appearance, but it isn’t until this episode that we get to see hs portrayal of Winston Churchill take front and center. In a series that has no shortage of talented actors, John Lithgow appropriately stands out due to the larger-than-life personality of the famous historical figure that he’s playing. In many ways, portraying Winston Churchill is probably the most challenging task in the series, primarily because his traits are so well-known and so specific. Depicting the temperament of such a lively, almost eccentric figure is in very real danger of feeling over-the-top, especially when the person being played is, by nature, over-the-top.
However, John Lithgow portrays Winston Churchill without ever feeling as if he’s chewing the scenery, which in itself is a great accomplishment. I won’t go as far as saying that it feels natural, but that’s only because nothing about Winston Churchill’s persona is natural in the first place. So in that sense, Lithgow’s portrayal of the famous political figure is spot on. But most importantly, Winston Churchill is an intimidating force of nature in the series, which is something that both Lithgow and the filmmakers have no trouble depicting. All this is done without making Churchill feel like a simplistic caricature. There is a lot of depth, charm, and strength in the character, all of which can be seen in this episode.
“Act of God” depicts the Great Smog of London, which is a period of five days in London where the combination of severe air pollution and an anticyclone resulted in a thick layer of smog covering the city. Again, I have to admit my ignorance regarding this historical fact until watching the episode, but I truly didn’t expect the incident to reach the scale that it did in real life. All told, the five-day incident directly resulted in over 4,000 deaths (12,000 according to recent research) in the city, which is a shocking number.
This real-life incident, of course, is a great opportunity to show how the Queen would handle a city-wide disaster. Although a quick online research suggests that the episode’s plot regarding the Parliament and the Crown has no basis in reality, writer Peter Morgan has crafted an interesting tale using the incident to develop the complicated relationship between our characters, specifically that of the Prime Minister and the Queen.
The episode focuses on the Prime Minister’s blasé attitude toward the smog, which his political rivals use to their advantage. Similarly, because of the chaos erupting all over the city, the Queen seriously begins to consider what she can do to help, which includes trying to wield what little power the royal family has to replace Winston Churchill’s position as Prime Minister. This is a matter that she considers seriously, and with the added knowledge of the Prime Minister attempting to control her husband’s life even more by preventing him from taking up piloting lessons, there’s also a personal matter at stake in her consideration.
Ultimately the episode ends quite dramatically as Churchill publicly responds by taking actions to help the citizens of London after the death of his secretary, and just moments before the Queen is about to discuss with him the delicate matter of replacing him, the fog immediately clears. It’s a moment that verges this close to being contrived and absurd, but the episode makes it work because of the existing tension between the two characters. Their uneasy relationship has made their weekly meetings into quite an event, and having such a dramatic moment directly affect their interaction takes the episode’s conclusion into an appropriately surprising direction.
It’s a bit strange to talk about these real-life characters as if they’re fictional, but that’s how they function in the show. Despite the show’s foundations being based on historical fact, everything else is completely made up. It might be easy to make a biopic movie based solely on the facts about a historical figure or event, but for a TV series to maintain any sense of drama, interest, and development, they have to be more liberal with creating fiction. So far, writer and creator Peter Morgan isn’t afraid to delve deep into fiction by using facts as the bedrock, which works so well in the show because he uses it to explore these characters and advance the growing interrelationships between them. Compelling drama is compelling drama, regardless if it is accurate or complete fantasy, and right now The Crown has my full and undivided attention.