'The Crown' Season 2: TV Review

Less Claire Foy, sadly, but still royally rich.

Expanding the focus beyond Claire Foy's Queen Elizabeth hurts, but Peter Morgan's Netflix drama remains a strong depiction of power and privilege.

Peter Morgan surely could have called his Netflix drama Queen Elizabeth. That he opted for The Crown is something worth considering when watching the second season of the show, which is, in at least one way, a very clear disappointment.

There is no question that Elizabeth, played with perfectly regal inscrutability by Claire Foy, is often a secondary character this season. Because Foy is so excellent, her occasional shift to the background over these 10 episodes is a loss, but doesn't wholly detract from Morgan's nuanced exploration of the paradoxically potent impotence of British royalty in the 20th century.

The Crown returns with the Suez Crisis in 1956 and stretches through the Profumo affair in 1963; most casual observers of British history will be able to immediately identify how this period presents a struggle when it comes to depicting Queen Elizabeth as a protagonist. The opening season could focus on a young woman coming of age in a position of unimaginable visibility when all she wanted was to be a wife and mother, but the new cycle positions her in the middle of a tumultuous historical moment in which her active participation was less easy to see. When free-spirited sister Margaret (Vanessa Kirby) zings Elizabeth with, "You've managed to disappear and become invisible while wearing the crown," it feels cruel, but maybe accurate.

The challenge of the season is perhaps best captured by the obligatory scene in which Elizabeth learns about the launching of Sputnik. It's a sequence that has been played for high drama in countless movies and TV shows depicting the Cold War, a moment that's usually seen as deflating, a sign of temporary Russian superiority in the space race, or inspiring, as plucky Americans prepare to rise as underdogs. Instead, Elizabeth watches the news and reflects, "I'm not sure how I feel about a Russian satellite circling the earth just above our heads," and it plays as both candor, because Elizabeth is so often seen as an intellectual blank slate, and an assessment of her limited sphere of influence. 

She's the ruler of England, but we know she's not going to emerge heroic in the space race. She's also not going to lead British forces into battle atop a stallion in Egypt or take a podium and rescue the government as scandal flares up. She's going to continue a limited advisory role and in this respect, again, The Crown can't help but lose, since Winston Churchill (and with him John Lithgow's towering performance) is gone and successors Anthony Eden (Jeremy Northam) and Harold Macmillan (Anton Lesser) are defined on the show, as they often were in life, by not being Winston Churchill. And Elizabeth is going to try to hold the crown together by holding her family together, namely Margaret (Vanessa Kirby) and frequently disenchanted and petulant husband Philip (Matt Smith).

The prospect of multiple episodes largely dedicated to Philip is likely to concern many fans of The Crown. Feckless and disappointed by a life that many would compare to a fairy tale, Philip remains a work-in-progress and Smith is marvelously unsparing in a performance that makes Philip's unrest increasingly understandable, but only sometimes more sympathetic. The idea that this restless cad could upstage Foy's Elizabeth is infuriating as a viewer, but it strikes me that that's meant to mirror our and her annoyance that his wandering eye could jeopardize the monarchy — that he's a figure who has to be negotiated with and that he's a character who has to be understood.

The "Why do we have to keep tolerating him?" irritation is meant in contrast to every welcome appearance by Kirby, whose energy and teasing, modern incredulity at the pomposity of palace life make her one of the show's most underappreciated and pleasing elements. For the second straight season, following the creative peak that was "Assassins," Morgan has delved into the importance of portraiture and representation in leadership, this time dedicating the fourth episode to the meeting between Margaret and photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones (Matthew Goode), whose romance is also the heart of a later episode.

The vignette-style storytelling that including "Assassins" and the smog-centric "Act of God" in the first season is even more in evidence as Morgan moves other players to the forefront. Young Prince Charles' education shares an episode with Philip's tragic, character-explaining backstory. Alex Jennings' Edward, treated with some kindness before, gets a buffoonish returned to England that's tied to the release of the Marburg files. The Lord Altrincham, the journalist and peer briefly notorious as the Queen's Critic, is given a generous spotlight hour. A miscast Michael C. Hall is a distraction in a surprisingly hilarious episode in which England goes swoony over JFK and particularly Jackie O (a decent Jodi Balfour). Providing unexpected continuity across the season is former royal secretary Tommy Lascelles (the great Pip Torrens), who becomes almost a courtly fixer in one of the few instances in which I suspect Morgan shoehorned in a character he loved too much to let go.

Even if we spend time in the South Pacific with Philip or watch Charles struggle to fit in at prep school, it would be wrong to say that the second season of The Crown ceases to be Elizabeth's series. If the first season was a superhero origin story, the second season is Elizabeth testing the limits of her powers and realizing how frequently loved ones can be her kryptonite and also recognizing, maybe for the first time, that it isn't just her life that was consumed when she became queen. Elizabeth has moments of backbone and passionate determination, and Foy makes those scenes thrilling because so much of the season is Elizabeth observing. It can't be easy to play shades of "quite, inward-facing reflection," but Foy does a lot of that over 10 episodes, while also subtly pushing Elizabeth toward middle age, adopting a new walk and tweaking her cadences.

Foy remains surrounded, as always, by one of television's most sumptuous productions, a triumph of costumes, cinematography, set design and corgis.

It's a season of transition for The Crown and for Elizabeth — literally, since Olivia Colman will move into the role — and part of that transition is awareness of the compromises necessary to maintain the institution. That process involves dedicating time to some less beloved figures and there's some frustration, but ample fascination to that.

Cast: Claire Foy, Matt Smith, Vanessa Kirby, Victoria Hamilton, Jeremy Northam, Anton Lesser, Matthew Goode
Creator: Peter Morgan
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)