Season 1, Episode 5 – Smoke and Mirrors
The Crown has been consistently able to create compelling drama out of events that wouldn’t necessarily make for great television at a first glance. “Smoke and Mirrors,” which depicts the Queen’s coronation at Westminster Abbey, is no different. One would assume that depicting such an event would only serve to show off the series’ incredibly lush and expensive production values, but writer and creator Peter Morgan once again finds the drama and the characterizations that add depth and dimension to the proceedings.
For this episode, it comes in the form of the Queen’s uncle, Edward. Before her coronation, Queen Elizabeth’s grandmother and primary source of advice dies from her illness, which prompts an uneasy family reunion with Edward. Edward, who despises coming to London to see his relatives, bitterly writes to his wife regarding the terrible experiences that he has every time he spends time with his remaining family. He describes spending the last few moments with his dying mother as one of the hardest things he’s had to endure. It’s this complicated relationship among the royal family that makes The Crown so compelling to watch, because in these moments, the show strips its characters of all titles and appearances and reminds you that at the end of the day, The Crown is really just a family drama at its core. And a really interesting and involving one at that.
But Queen Mary’s death barely takes up half of the episode. The rest focuses on Edward’s unmistakable bitterness at seeing everything that he has given up for his wife. It’s no accident that a majority of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation is seen through the eyes of Edward as he explains each step of the process with obvious envy to his wife and friends. It’s explained earlier that Edward’s stint as King of England wasn’t even long enough to reach an actual coronation ceremony, and it becomes clear as he watches the first televised coronation of his niece that the sacrifice he made seventeen years ago is something that continues to affect him whether he wants to admit it to himself or not.
Edward’s bitterness and strained relationship with the royal family isn’t simply because of how he and his wife were treated after he abdicated his throne. It might be a huge part of it, but Edward is also inherently spoiled and childish. He complains about his allowance in an earlier episode, going so far as to talk to the Prime Minister to help him solve this problem. He and his wife are living on rent in a lavish mansion in Paris, but as he takes a reporter for a tour around the house, there’s no denying that the mansion still isn’t enough for him. He might describe Buckingham Palace as “cold” and “hellish,” but it’s clear that he would rather be living there no matter how much he claims to detest it. As he shows the unimpressed reporter around his quaint meditation room, Edward proudly points out that he plays the bagpipe. “When he’s feeling homesick,” his wife helpfully adds.
But another source of conflict in the episode, and one that doesn’t work as well, is the perceived emasculation of Philip in the face of his wife’s ascendance to the throne. After making him head chairman to plan her coronation in an attempt to make him feel important, Philip makes numerous groundbreaking decisions for his wife’s coronation such as allowing cameras inside Westminster Abbey so that more people will be able to watch. Philip, however, initially resists to kneeling down for his wife during the ceremony, an act that he feels diminishes his role as the patriarch of his family.
I can understand the show’s insistence on depicting Philip’s frustrations over being forced to play the submissive role in the relationship, but at this point it’s starting to become repetitive. The problem lies in the fact that they’ve been drumming the same narrative beat over and over again. Philip’s freedom to choose is taken away from him by the government, his wife, his family, or because tradition dictates it. He sucks it up and accepts the inevitable despite his protests. The end.
While this adds an important dimension to both his character and the relationship between husband and wife, it feels stale at this point. It’s also starting to feel contrived because (and I mentioned this in an earlier review) Philip is acting as if he still doesn’t understand what it means to be married to the Queen of England. Perhaps the show is trying to emphasize his stubbornness, but it doesn’t really work because the show doesn’t do much of anything else apart from showing Philip pouting and gritting his teeth as he endures yet another humiliating slight on his manhood. It also doesn’t feel as if they’re using these scenes to build up to anything in a future episode because it always feel like they’re back in square one with each new episode.
But then again, that is part of life. Not everything leads to a confrontation or a cathartic emotional release. Sometimes conflicts are left unresolved or unsaid, and since The Crown is a story that spans numerous decades (if it goes beyond a second and third season), it’s this attention to character detail that makes the show such a joy to watch. I just hope they don’t end up repeating themselves over and over again.