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English weather has traditionally been known to be dreadful, but as it turns out, it can get worse. What has since been dubbed “The Great Smog” descends upon the country’s capital in “Act of God” and wreaks havoc over queen and country.
Though as we learn early in the episode, the eventually deadly combination of air pollution and London fog — as well as the mass casualties it caused — could have been prevented had Churchill actually listened to the scientists warning him of it. Instead, surprise, surprise, the Prime Minister made things worse by recommending people keep burning coal in an effort to bolster the economy and possibly, make my lungs hurt by proxy. (As if the cancer and respiratory ailments on this show weren’t enough.)
This is what leads a Downing Street employee by the name of Collins to go rogue — at least as rogue as a dedicated civil servant can go — by turning to none other than Churchill’s rival and predecessor, Clement Attlee, and revealing that the Meteorological Office has issued an urgent weather warning, the first of its kind. He also drops this incredibly prescient line, effectively proving that history does indeed repeat itself: “This is not a government, Mr. Hadley. This is a collection of hesitant, frightened old men, unable to unseat a tyrannical, delusional, even older one.”
But wait, there’s more! Collins also shares minutes from a Cabinet meeting that show Churchill ignoring any previous suggestions for precautionary measures or setting up a Clean Air Service. Imagine trying to convince him about global warming.
Meanwhile Philip, who has now been given the title of Duke of Edinburgh, is also concerned with ensuring the skies remain clear. However, this has to do more with the flying lessons Peter is giving him, and not any actual worry for the environment. (Royals. They’re just like us!) Unfortunately, this becomes a point of contention between him and Elizabeth, as she argues that her family’s private lives are in no way a concern of the Cabinet, because, you know, there are better things to do, like running a whole country.
In any case, the smog does settle upon London effectively grounding all planes and halting any transportation save for walking. As people slowly succumb to it, including Churchill’s secretary Venetia Scott’s roommate, it becomes increasingly clear that London’s hospitals are understaffed and underfunded.
NEXT: No one has the foggiest idea what to do
As is typical of any bad weather that leaves you confined to your home, the fog begins to exacerbate existing problems while also giving rise to unusual conversations. In the case of the latter, it’s Elizabeth asking her grandmother if this smog is an Act of God, and what role the divine plays in the monarchy. Turns out Queen Mary — because once a queen always a queen — is firmly “Team God Put Us Here To Give Ordinary People Something To Strive For.”
Elsewhere, Churchill doesn’t heed anyone’s warnings, not even Elizabeth, the queen herself and continues to deny-deny-deny how dangerous the fog truly is, instead focusing on curtailing even more of poor Philips’ freedoms — namely, the flying. This prompts Philip’s “Uncle Dickie” to pay Elizabeth a visit and inform her of this, stating that no one is confident in the Prime Minister, not even his fellow politicians. Encouraged, Elizabeth decides to take matters into her own hands and make a couple of changes to the power-hungry Prime Minister.
Speaking of Churchill, the old chap gets a firsthand experience of how devastating the fog really is, when the poor visibility causes a bus to hit poor Venetia after she takes her extremely sickly roommate to the hospital. The loss is particularly gutting for the old man considering she’d recently quoted his autobiography and inspired him. If this isn’t proof that Churchill is the worst, I don’t know what is.
To his credit, Churchill does rush down to the hospital after receiving the news. However it doesn’t take him long to leak this to the newspapers and cause an impromptu press conference that sees him announce that he’ll be providing money to hospitals. It’s an ingenious move that not only cements his job, but also makes it seem like he’s the only politician who cared enough to make an effort. (Drat.) It also means that when he does arrive at his meeting with Elizabeth the next morning, she doesn’t have clear grounds to fire him. (Double drat.)
But like any good politician, Elizabeth is able to think on her feet and after saying she’s bringing up a “delicate matter” quickly shifts gears to where Churchill will have to sit at the dinner she’s hosting. The move throws him off guard, as he admits to his wife later, and he does in fact agree to let Philip continue his flying lessons — though the Duke will still have to check in with Cabinet regarding any loop-de-loops he might want to attempt. (Okay… Maybe royals, they’re not just like us.)
The episode does end on a slightly happier note, with the four-day fog finally lifting and the sun shining through. Though Elizabeth is still left wondering what might have happened had the smog continued while Churchill still clung to power and the government floundered.
Well, according to the text at the end of the episode, it would be safe to say even more people would have died. Especially since the list of casualties is now thought to have been around 12,000, instead of the previously thought, 4,000. At least it eventually led to the Clean Air Act of 1956 getting passed. Because even smog clouds have silver linings.