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The Crown has lost its way in season two

Marital woes: Claire Foy as the Queen in The Crown.

To read the gushing media reports, you’d have thought round two of The Crown was a winning combination of the Second Coming, unicorns and sliced bread.

I suppose I’d best start with a spoiler alert. So here goes: spoiler alert! I’m afraid this warning hasn’t been made because I fear divulging some crucial plot point – Philip’s an awful shit; Margaret’s a terrible bitch; Macmillan’s a bloody fool – in the lavish second season of The Crown. No, I’m alerting you because I fear I’m about to be a bit of a spoiler myself.

To read the gushing media reports and breathless online commentary that have been issuing from orifices and offices worldwide since the new series began streaming on Netflix in December, you’d have thought round two of The Crown was somehow a winning combination of the Second Coming, unicorns and sliced bread. What it actually is is something of a right royal mess.

The first season – “a glittering jewel of a crown”, I remember breathlessly gushing in these pages a year ago – had the virtue of surprise and was, as a whole, a polished piece of television, although not without its flaws. With a widely reported £100 million ($190m) spent on it, it certainly glowed like a well-polished ruby, with exquisite sets, lighting and costuming and a first-rate performance from Claire Foy as Elizabeth.

The new season, which has an equally enormous budget, exudes a polished glow, too. But its performances and opulent period design and costuming become so much window dressing for a drama that, at many points in its latest 10 episodes, seems to lose its way.

Central to season two is the fault line in the royal marriage: Philip’s resentment of his loss of independence. After thrashing about like a trapped shark towards the end of series one, Philip, we are invited to conclude in the early episodes of series two, is now rebelling by playing away. The suspicion of infidelity is left to simmer across the whole 10 hours and eventually reaches a conclusion of sorts in what is a beautifully played scene in the final episode. Foy and Matt Smith as Philip do excellent work together.

The private lives of this public couple – could their marriage really be that rocky, we plebs wonder – drives this season forward well enough. But as creator Peter Morgan attempts to flesh out his characters and overlay scandal and history, too many episodes groan with simply ludicrous, silly or formulaic scenes that spoil the show.

In episode eight, when the Kennedys come to visit, we are asked to believe the Queen is jealous of Jackie’s frocks and star power, but then, in some excruciating dialogue, they bond like a couple of teenagers when comparing their mutual shyness.

Episode six, entitled “Vergangenheit” (German for the past), plays out like a third-rate mystery – complete with a flashback to buried Nazi documents – with revelations that that old rogue the Duke of Windsor was a Nazi sympathiser and a traitor to Britain. An important skeleton certainly, but given fatuous treatment.

If there is a single overarching theme for this season, it is how the past informs the present. Unfortunately, this often sees episodes attempting stories in the past and the present and failing to satisfyingly tell either.

Episode nine, for example, offers a clumsy juxtaposing of Philip’s and Charles’s time at the awful Gordonstoun School and features two duff and overblown set pieces: Philip imagining walking around the wreck of a crashed aircraft in which his sister died, and another of him – as a lame metaphor for himself – building an entranceway to the school by himself in the rain, block by heavy block. Clunk!

Oddly, given how central Elizabeth and Philip are, the episode that works best, entitled “Beryl”, mostly concerns the romance between Margaret (a brilliantly waspish turn from Vanessa Kirby) and Antony Armstrong-Jones, and not the Queen at all. In fact, it seemed to have wandered in from a better show altogether.

The Crown, if Morgan has his way, will apparently be around for another four series as he brings this uneven blend of truth, guesswork and flights of fancy up to the present. One can’t help wondering whether in the end the show will really only amount, like the royals themselves, to diverting pomp and circumstance.

THE CROWN is streaming on Netflix.

This article was first published in the January 13, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.