Death looms over the royal family as Elizabeth and Philip start their family
If there’s one takeaway from the series premiere of The Crown, it’s that this show has spared no expense on the details. There is a meticulousness present in every scene as the script and director Stephen Daldry focus on the small, seemingly unimportant details of the royals’ lives: attendants telling drivers where to take the family; the preparation of the king’s breakfast; the renovations to Philip and Elizabeth’s home. The show’s stately pace is made more amenable by the attention to detail, which creates a very engrossing experience.
We begin in 1947 at Buckingham Palace. It’s two years after World War II ended, and King George VI (Jared Harris) is in the bathroom coughing up blood. He’s only mildly concerned about this and flushes it down the toilet because he has more important matters to attend to: his daughter Elizabeth’s (Claire Foy) wedding.
King George heads downstairs to a room filled with noble-looking men. There, Philip (Matt Smith), his daughter’s Greek-Danish fiancé, has just finished renouncing all of his foreign titles and is waiting for his soon-to-be father-in-law to give him his royal title. This is also where we get our first look at Elizabeth, who is sitting outside of the room peering in. Once the ceremony is over, she shares a fairly intimate moment with her fiancé.
Philip: I’ve signed myself away.
Elizabeth: Or, won the greatest prize on Earth.
Philip: That’s certainly what they think [beat] — it’s what I think, too.
These opening few scenes are filled with foreshadowing. King George VI’s time in the bathroom and the difficulty he has speaking while naming Philip Duke of Edinburgh let us know he’s not long for this world. And, this exchange between Philip and Elizabeth hints at the struggle their marriage will face once she ascends to the throne. Philip is being facetious about signing his life away here, but little does he know that’s likely the case. Part of him probably does feel that way, however, since most of his family isn’t allowed to attend the wedding because some of them had ties to Germany.
The opening title sequence begins right after that exchange… not something I would typically include in a recap, but Hans Zimmer’s score is powerful and beautiful and fairly reminiscent of Mozart’s Requiem. It’s the Classical period mixed with the trappings of modern cinematic music, and the classical influence, which conveys order, feels very fitting for a series that’s concerned with political and familial order.
Once the credits are over, the episode resumes on Elizabeth’s wedding day and we’re introduced to the show’s other characters. There’s King George VI’s right-hand man Peter (Ben Miles), who is married but can’t help but share stolen glances with Elizabeth’s younger sister, Margaret (Vanessa Kirby). There’s Elizabeth, the Queen Mother (Eileen Atkins), and Queen Mary (Victoria Hamilton), who look down on Philip’s family. And, then there’s Winston Churchill (John Lithgow), who is beloved by the country after the war and upstages current Prime Minister Attlee when he shows up at the wedding.
The episode draws more attention to the future tension in the marriage with Elizabeth’s vows. In the wedding, she vows to obey Philip — and an aside from Winston Churchill makes it clear that she might have had the option to remove that clause because she would one day be queen but she insisted on keeping it in there.
After the stunningly directed wedding, the family gathers for pictures and Prince George VI presents his daughter with his wedding gift to her: a video camera. “If your marriage is as happy as mine has been, I don’t want you to miss a single thing,” he says. The video camera works as a nice little nod to how the royal family’s celebrity status escalated as the power of their royal status diminished (and how the family’s scandals have been well-documented thanks to technological advances like the video camera). Even in 1947, there’s this sense that the family always has eyes on them. There aren’t too many moments in this episode when they’re actually alone; they’re always surrounded by attendants.
The first part of The Crown‘s series premiere ends with the royal family greeting their subjects from the balcony of Buckingham Palace. (You can check out a photo of the real life moment over at our sister-publication Time.)
From there, the show fast-forwards a few years and now Philip and Elizabeth are parents to Prince Charles and Princess Anne. The family is busy celebrating Philip’s promotion in the navy when they are summoned back to London because King George had to have his lung removed. Although, the doctors say he’ll be fine, we know that’s not the case.
Actually, several people become aware of King George’s poor prognosis, including Winston Churchill, who was re-elected prime minister in 1951. Curious about the king’s health, Churchill pays him a visit and takes note of the fact that he’s wearing make-up now to hide how ill hes become. During their visit, George informs Churchill that he plans on having Elizabeth and Philip go on the Commonwealth tour because he’s still not back to full strength.
From history, we know that Churchill and Queen Elizabeth II shared a close working relationship when she initially ascended to the throne, and the premiere starts hinting at that, too. Throughout the episode, Churchill refers to Elizabeth as “her,” which he says rather emphatically. His wife urges him to resign from his new position because his health isn’t the best, but Churchill refuses because “she” needs him.
George’s doctor eventually informs him about the malignant tumor they found when they removed his lung and tells him he has at most a couple of years left. Just in case his poor life expectancy wasn’t clear enough, the show hammers it home with a loud ticking clock in the background. The King decides to keep this news from his family, especially with the holidays approaching. However, it’s clear that it’s weighing heavily on his mind. In one of the episode’s most emotional moments, George starts to tear up when carolers visit the family over Christmas to perform “In the Bleak Midwinter.”
The time comes for George to tell Elizabeth that she’ll be going on the Commonwealth tour. She’s fine with it, but Philip is far too pleased because it will mean leaving the children in England for months. “My work is as a naval officer, not grinning like a demented ape while you cut ribbons,” Philip says, indicating that he’s already starting to resent the requirements of this marriage. However, Philip eventually acquiesces. This won’t be the last time he will have to put aside his pride because of the monarchy.
Even though he’s dying, George’s lighthearted side shows through. There’s the amusing detail that he enjoys dirty limericks, and at the end of the episode, he wakes Philip at the crack of dawn to go shooting, taking immense pleasure in the fact that Philip jumped out of bed naked. As the two of them get ready to start their excursion, George reminds Philip of his duty: “She is the job. She is the essence of your duty — loving her, protecting her. Of course you’ll miss your career, but this for her and for me will be a greater act of patriotism or love.”
Philip says he understands, and then their boats take off down a dark lake for some shooting. (Another interesting detail is how they don’t reload their own rifles while shooting.) As the sound of gunfire rings in the air and the Requiem-esque score crescendos, the action cuts back to Elizabeth, who ventures into her father’s office and sits at his desk to test it out. Sitting there at his desk, she examines his daily briefing box, which is engraved with “The King.” But, we know that will change very soon.
The Crown‘s series premiere was a fairly somber affair that relished in examining the small details of being part of the royal family and zooming on those small moments that revealed the family’s interior lives. The episode hints at how all of this can be rather lonely since there isn’t anyone else who can know what it’s like to be part of the royal family. It’s probably even lonelier when you are the king or queen, and that’s why George tells Elizabeth it’s important to have the right person by her side since she will depend on him when things get tough.