The first season of Netflix's lavishly made The Crown, a slow-moving biopic about the present Queen, was an impressive feat. Every dollar of the reported $130-million spent on it was there, in full view. It was visually stunning, yet rooted in the story of this one privileged but beleaguered young woman becoming Queen and learning to cope with the burden.
There was the formidable presence of John Lithgow as Winston Churchill, and there was an emphasis on the archaic, protocol-driven, gloomily traditionalist existence of the Windsors. The first season oozed sympathy for them all, especially Elizabeth, and Claire Foy adroitly inhabited the role.
The Crown Season 2 (now streaming on Netflix) is a much lesser thing. It's still lavishly made and eye-popping at times, but it has receded into silly soap-opera territory, lost its subtlety and emerges as escapist eye-candy with nothing much to say about the Royal Family or recent British history.
It does, however, have a lot to say about marriage. Dear heavens, does it ever. Mostly about the loneliness of the worried wife who senses a husband's infidelities and worries that he's unhappy and unfulfilled. There are just too many scenes of Claire Foy staring off into the distance or sighing as she goes to bed alone, frowning and vaguely tormented.
The viewer is hit over the head with the troubled-marriage theme as this season dips in and out of historical events in an ungainly manner. The season opens in the mid-1950s with a very pointed discussion between Elizabeth and Prince Philip (Matt Smith) about making their marriage work. The matter of divorce is raised. "I'm asking what it will take," Elizabeth says to a man who really doesn't want the discussion at all.
Then the storyline reverses to five months before. Philip is off on his travels for several months. There is heavily pronounced mention of "boys will be boys" and "men will be men" and Elizabeth finds something in Philip's briefcase that makes her look even more glum than usual. Her remedy is to put a note into said briefcase saying, "Always remember you have a family." We are, it seems in Mildred Pierce territory here, except that The Crown isn't about a housewife bedevilled by bad luck and bad men and swallowing her pride. It's about one of the most privileged people on the planet.
The Suez Crisis of 1956 takes up a lot of melodrama. Prime Minister Anthony Eden gets in a muddle and says, "We must restore the status quo." The Queen takes the unusual step of challenging him on the matter of underhanded deals with other countries. In this context, we are meant to see Elizabeth's fire but, through several episodes, the drama is rather too heavily injected with all too meaningful remarks about "foreign affairs." And there's a rather tawdry reminder that this season is about marriage when Eden's successor, Harold Macmillan, tells Her Majesty that Britain's relationship with the United States is "like a marriage" and the Queen can only reply with a doleful look. There are more doleful looks from Macmillan when his own wife says she's breaking off an affair.
Inevitably, the action puts Elizabeth on the fringes. Her sister, Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby), is presented at length as a boozy, chain-smoking figure looking for love in all the wrong places. The point is to offer Margaret as a tragic figure, but it isn't clear why her life is so tragic. She knows she is remote from ordinary life and enjoys her status, but too often this figure is simply a rebellious teenager mooning over scoundrels.
Further, there are times in this season when the story's connection to changing times in Britain is more groan-inducing than smoothly textured. Margaret attends a party and, well, who would be there but John Profumo, whose scandalous behaviour in the nascent swinging London of the 1960s would rock the establishment. Kirby has tremendous energy and verve and is a scene-stealer in her episodes, yet there is nothing there except her melodramatic rage. The education of Prince Charles gets some time, too, and, well, the upshot is that he found it hard to fit in at school.
What kept the engine of The Crown going in Season 1 was its simplicity – it was an origin story about a long-reigning monarch. Now, it is less about Elizabeth and more a series of beautifully filmed vignettes about other people. They are all toffs and there are far too many scenes of grand parties and speeches. The emphasis on rocky marriages among toffs becomes tiresome because these are, after all, unrelatable characters living lives of splendid wealth and unmatchable privilege.
Yes, it is still so lavishly made that it is breathtaking. But The Crown now leans toward a three-hanky weeper about marriage. It is less than it was, like the monarchy itself, and of interest to monarchy fans only. Pity.