Culture

'The Crown' Season 2 Offers a Startling Message about Marriage

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I had begun to despair of ever finding time to watch Season 2 of The Crown but, as luck would have it, I came down with the flu. So, now I’m all caught up! The show, which airs on Netflix, is popular largely for its ridiculously opulent scenery and costumes (which makes it excellent sick-bed viewing), but it also features impeccable acting throughout, and thought-provoking themes that often get overlooked.

Season 1 followed England’s Queen Elizabeth II (Claire Foy) as she began her reign, offering us a portrait of a woman struggling to balance the responsibilities of the crown with her personal role of wife and mother. Season 2 finds Elizabeth more settled in her role, but dealing with scandals — both in her family and her country — and the growing public opinion that the monarchy is obsolete.

The season is a little all over the place — jumping from family drama to historical narrative, and even taking an episode-long look at Prince Philip’s early life and schooling — but, as with Season 1, it seems to be offering an underlying theme that has gone somewhat unnoticed. (For my take on Season 1’s underlying theme, click here.) This season, the underlying theme is marriage. (Spoilers ahead.)

Much more than in Season 1, this season of The Crown delves deeply into the events of the day. It depicts the Duke of Windsor’s ties to the Nazis, Elizabeth’s interactions with Jackie Kennedy, the Profumo scandal, Elizabeth’s intervention during a crisis in Ghana, and the crown’s efforts to modernize the monarchy (though how accurate those depictions are is, apparently, up for debate). But running underneath all that — beginning in the first episode and culminating in the last — is the question of what to do when your marriage isn’t as blissful as you’d hoped. And the conclusion the show seems to come to is rather startling, particularly in our current culture.

In the very first scene of the season, we see Philip (Matt Smith) and Elizabeth discussing how to save their marriage faced, as they are, with a unique conundrum. “The exit route which is open everyone else . . . divorce, it’s not an option for us,” Elizabeth tells Philip. (As head of the Church of England, Elizabeth is unable to get a divorce.) So they are stuck with each other, for better… or for worse.

Worse, we come to learn in a three-episode-long flashback, is what they are currently experiencing. On a five-month tour abroad, Philip has gone full party-boy, carousing, flirting, and, it’s suggested, doing more than flirting, with women in every port. Their marriage, it seems, is in a shambles, one that — today, certainly, but even back then — might easily end in divorce. But they can’t divorce. So, what are they going to do? Or, as Elizabeth puts it, “To be in, not out, what will it take?”

Philip’s answer to this question, at least initially, is that he should be elevated to Prince, which Elizabeth promptly does. It’s an act which harkens back to Season 1, in which Philip expressed his discontentment with not being able to be the head of his own household, since his wife is the queen. And it’s this dissonance between what Philip believes a marriage ought to be — man in charge, woman as mother and helpmeet — and what their marriage must be — Elizabeth in charge at all times — that has prompted Philip’s behavior. But Philip’s elevation to Prince is far from a cure-all.

For the rest of the season, the show offers up example after example of difficult marriages and how the people in them have chosen to cope. It’s almost like a kind of marriage menu — you could try this, or this, or how about this? But all the people, in myriad ways, are miserable.

First there’s Mike Parker, Philip’s aide and partner-in-crime, whose careless letters alerted the public to Philip’s shenanigans. His wife, Eileen, uses this information to sue successfully for divorce. It’s a picture of what Elizabeth and Philip’s lives could be, if they were able to divorce. And it’s a rather bleak picture (particularly for Mike). Eileen is left alone with the kids, and Mike is puttering around a dingy apartment, pining for his old life.

Then there’s the new Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan, who drives his wife to and from her liaisons with another man. Option two, it seems, is to simply accept the shortcomings (however heinous) of your partner, and continue on as if it’s completely normal. A sort of marriage-as-business-partnership type deal.

Next is Elizabeth’s sister, Princess Margaret, whose husband — avant-garde photographer Tony Armstrong-Jones — is involved in a ménage à trois with a married couple. Margaret knows nothing of Tony’s liaisons (or the fact that he’s only marrying her to please his social-climbing mother) and watching her pin all her hopes on this man is cringeworthy.

Finally there’s the Duke of Windsor, Elizabeth’s uncle, who abdicated the throne in order to marry Wallis Simpson. Simpson seems to be finding her once-royal husband to be a bit of a bore and the Duke is longing to return to public service. But the Duke, as in Season 1, is portrayed as a villain — an entire episode is devoted to his ties to Hitler and the Nazis during World War II — and abdication in pursuit of love is presented as a mistake.

Amidst all these different portrayals of marriage, Elizabeth and Philip bounce back and forth between harmony and disharmony, never really addressing the problem. Until, finally, the show comes back around, in the final episode, to Elizabeth and Philip’s marriage.

“We’re both adults,” Elizabeth tells Philip. “We both know that marriage is a challenge under any circumstances. So I can understand if sometimes, in order to let off steam — in order to stay in — you need to do what you need to do. I can look the other way.” But Philip’s response is surprising, both to us the viewer and to Elizabeth: “I don’t want you to. You can look this way. I’m yours. In. And not because you’ve given me a title… but because I want to be. Because I love you.”

Philip neither confirms nor denies his infidelity. But his message is clear: see me as a human being, and I’ll see you as one too. Even if, to the world, we must be figureheads, to each other let us be people. Flawed and sometimes misguided, but people. Marriage, the show seems to be telling us, is about two individual people who love each other, learning to be there for each other, to weather change together, to forgive one another, to drift apart and come back together again, for all the days of their lives.

In our current culture of random hookups, easy divorces, and children born out of wedlock, The Crown is making a rather extraordinary statement. That a marriage takes work, forgiveness, and love. That quitting when the going gets tough is not the answer, but neither is turning a blind eye to your partner’s shortcomings. Two people, working together to be together. Not a bad message, really, if you ask me.