Easy lies the head that watches The Crown. For all its high-toned intrigue — sudden deaths, doomed romances, empires on the wobble — the debut run of Netflix’s lauded drama felt oddly soothing, a clotted-cream Xanax for the soul. And the second season wastes no time plunging once more unto the binge-ready breach: As the first episode opens, a storm rages in Lisbon, and inside the Mountbatten-Windsor marriage. The union between young Queen Elizabeth (Claire Foy) and her reluctant consort Philip (Matt Smith) has reached a breaking point after his five months abroad — a trip meant as much to tamp down his growing rebellion as to serve ceremonial duty. Though the Duke may have taken his directive to go out into the world too loosely; rumors of infidelities abroad have landed back at Buckingham Palace with a thud. There’s also more than one prime minister to contend with after the loss of Churchill, a looming crisis in the Suez Canal, a new love interest for the wayward Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby) in the form of a roguish photographer (Matthew Goode, always great), and possibly the patter of regal little feet too.
That’s hardly all, and it’s a lot to get to in the compressed time frame — approximately 1956-1964 — covered in these 10 episodes before its leads are recast for the projected leap ahead in seasons 3 and 4. (At least one crucial part has already been settled.) Some bits, not surprisingly, translate more strongly than others: Philip’s international furlough breathes literal fresh air into the chintz-lined confines of the show, though it doesn’t mistake his small rebellions for a mere high-seas bachelor party. As powerless as he feels, this is a man whose choices have real lasting consequences for the commonwealth — something he clearly wants to forget but never quite can, especially when a pretty but ruthless Australian journalist challenges him to confront it. (We also get much more of his childhood in flashbacks threaded across several storylines). The continued attempts of Elizabeth’s prodigal uncle, the former King Edward, to escape his life of stifling post-abdication leisure and return to the royal fold he claims to loathe but can’t quit are handled in a quietly powerful episode that ends with a rare cut to photographs of the real Edward — damning images that convey without a doubt the true content of his character. A palace visit from JFK and Jackie (Michael C. Hall and Jodi Balfour) brings the electric jolt of America’s own royalty, though their storyline plays oddly against the series’ usual restraint, as if the couple were starring in their own druggy, bickering telenovela. And there’s nearly an entire hour devoted to poor Prince Charles, the adolescent heir to the throne who somehow seemed to merit less attention and affection than one of the Queen’s beloved corgis. The episode’s depiction of his struggle to find a place in the world — or even a warm, safe corner at his gulag-like Scottish boarding school — is both illuminating and deeply depressing. Next to that grim existence, his aunt Margaret’s late nights and scandalous love affairs seem like a mad mod romp.
Peter Morgan’s creation works so well as a whole because it’s consistently well written and lushly filmed — so lush it almost shames a small screen — but its greatest strength once again is in the casting. As much as every silent footman and aristocratic party guest seems hand-chosen, it’s the stars who don’t just carry the script but all the spaces in between, too. Foy channels the private struggles of a relentlessly public figure with divine subtlety, emotions playing across her face like weather. She’s both fierce and vulnerable, a mother and a daughter and a wife and a sovereign constantly renegotiating the shifting, tricky borders between her often thankless roles. Smith’s and Kirby’s royal obligations pale next to hers, though their own lonely battles inside the golden birdcage are no less affecting (and sadly for Foy, almost always infinitely sexier). None of them could leave if they wanted to, but watching them make history is its own great escape. A–