TV Review: The Crown: Smoke and Mirrors

The Crown

S1, E5: ‘Smoke and Mirrors’

In which we finally see the crown being placed on Elizabeth’s head, and The Crown finally makes a case for why she might want it

Grade: A-

A cracking episode that redeploys the tag-team of Philip and David to examine the monarchy, to rich and illuminating effect. There’s a series’ worth of quotable lines, and a dissertation’s worth of symbols. If you watch no other hour of this show, watch this one.

“Who wants transparency when you can have magic? Who wants prose when you can have poetry? Pull away the veil and what are you left with? An ordinary young woman of modest ability and little imagination. But wrap her up like this, anoint her with oil and hey presto, what do you have? A goddess.”

The Crown is not a subtle show. It is restrained, and meticulous, and frequently thoughtful. But it is not subtle. And Smoke and Mirrors is not a subtle episode. It opens with a brief summary of its thesis statement, and then interrogates and rephrases the statement throughout its duration. But it’s such a fascinating thesis, and the reframing is so elegant, that I can’t bring myself to complain.

Smoke and Mirrors is an episode about what the crown means to its wearer – what the weight and significance of it might be to a monarch who has theoretical power that she can seldom exercise. It is also (as you could probably guess from the title) about the perception of power: the metaphorical (and literal) lens through which you look at power, and the meaning of ritual and symbolism.

It’s inevitable, I suppose, that the show examines these things using David and Philip. In an episode about the purpose and perception of monarchy, you need an outsider’s eye, and David and Philip are outsiders from precisely opposite angles. David was cast out when he chose love over obligation, and Philip was brought in when Elizabeth (in a sense) did the same. I wish we had more of Elizabeth’s take on it all, but I suppose it can’t be helped. What can they know of the crown who only the crown know?

“You have to anoint me, otherwise I can’t be King.”

We begin with the always-welcome Jared Harris playing George, and smile mistily through a lovely, tender encounter where Elizabeth plays Archbishop to her father to practice for his coronation. I haven’t mentioned before how loving a father George is, and there is a definite sense here of George inducting his heir into the role she will play. They play out the ritual of the anointing of the King with holy oil with an endearing combination of solemnity and playfulness, and Elizabeth watches her father wear the crown. We cut to present-day, as the young Queen tries out her crown, sitting uneasily atop her head with her Festival of Beige cardigan and tweed skirt beneath it.

“I never made it that far.”

And what of the man who would have been King? We see David pimping himself out to a heritage-hungry magazine, and see his urbane façade fall, however briefly, when he is asked why there are no photographs of him with the crown. Later, he visits an ailing Queen Mary, and we are once again reminded of the painful, tender relationship between the two: David curls up next to ‘Mummy’ on her deathbed, and responds reassuringly to her plea to him not to leave her. Whatever David’s vicious letters to an impassive (and sceptical?) Wallis Simpson may say, David cares. Cookie (as I insist on calling Victoria Hamilton’s weirdly petty Queen Mother) has excellent reasons for not wanting David’s presence at her daughter’s coronation, but David makes a curiously sympathetic figure when he’s told that though the family is obligated to invite him, they need not invite his wife. He storms furiously back to Paris as the insult sinks in, spitting out some choice rhyming couplets at the ‘Auld Lang Swine’ the Archbishop of Canterbury as he does so.

“There’s no need to matronise me.”

Elizabeth wants to keep the peace in ‘the marital bedchamber’ (as the Duke of Norfolk will later indignantly put it) and offers Philip a place on her Coronation Committee. He is initially suspicious of her transparent attempt to placate him, but agrees on condition of full autonomy. He mutters, though, that the ‘men with grey beards’ hate him. Oh, Philip. Everybody hates you, except Elizabeth and me. And I’m not sure about Elizabeth.

“Meanwhile, the people who have come to share in it are locked outside.”

Elizabeth is indulgently twinkly about his pouting, but warns him not to ‘go mad’. He is all ‘Who, me?’ at this, but after a montage of pacing and scribbling, followed by some snarking with his friend about the collective noun for ‘stuffy old Etonians’, I am already bracing myself.

And here it comes: Philip wants to 1) televise the ceremony, and 2) allow – gasp! – tradesmen and commoners into the Abbey, as democratising gestures. The Committee is appalled, and Elizabeth has some fantastically sniffy things to say about the proles watching her coronation with their dinners balanced on their laps. There’s a point here about whether the Crown should modernise at all – whether, as Churchill puts it, the Crown ‘should remain above temporal matters’. But Philip has seen his family dethroned – has in fact seen close family killed – because they were out of step with their people. Elizabeth may have swallowed the party line about the monarchy ennobling the masses, but Philip has a point when he asks how they can be uplifted when they can’t even see what is going on.

And then it hits me. The reason I love Philip is that he is this show’s Pete Campbell: he’s a petulant man-child who is the only one to see or even remotely embrace the future.

“I will not kneel to my wife.”

And also like Pete Campbell, he combines genuine progressiveness with self-absorbed chauvinism. The Queen’s Consort is supposed to kneel and proclaim an oath of fealty to his sovereign, and Philip doesn’t want to. He tries to dress it up as a gesture of modernity, but Elizabeth sees right through it – and indeed Philip very quickly bitches (with a hilarious lack of self-awareness) about the unattractive self-entitledness that her Crown is bringing out in her. Smith and Foy have crackling chemistry as they spar heatedly over whether Elizabeth is making her demand as a wife or as a sovereign. I cheer when she snaps ‘I am both, and a strong man would be able to kneel to both.’ And I have never been prouder of her than when Philip pushes her to make an exception for him and she says, after a pause: ‘No’. In Windsor, I didn’t get a sense of what Elizabeth wanted, if anything. It is thrilling here to see her stiffen her sinews and draw a line in the sand in her marriage on what seems to be her own account.

Nevertheless, the show gets terrific mileage out of whether or not Philip will actually bend the knee. Impressive, since it’s basically a foregone conclusion. After the Anointing (mirroring the opening scene with Elizabeth and George), we see Philip, all but tossing his own little crown up and down like a basketball sub waiting to be called in. When it is his turn, he walks up to the woman who was his wife and is now his sovereign, half-chuckles ruefully and then drops to one knee. He races through his oath as Elizabeth Regina gazes impassively ahead, but sneaks in a defiant (and presumably unsanctioned) kiss to her cheek after he’s done. His own line in the sand.

“And to think you turned all that down. The chance to be a god.”

Meanwhile, David and Wallis are hosting a Coronation Viewing Party, watching the flickering black-and-white images of the televised ceremony. David begins in classic Eurovision Snark style, dissing the Gold State Coach as the ‘most uncomfortable ride known to man’. But he swiftly falls into a half-dreaming rhapsody as he steps through the rites. When he is asked why the anointing is hidden from view, there is an aching sincerity in his ‘because we are mortals’. In defence of the ‘crazy’ ritual, David mockingly lays out the purpose of the ceremony: to mask the fundamental ordinariness of the mortal beneath the crown. But beneath the irony, you can hear David wondering whether function follows form; whether the ceremony can transform the mortal into someone worthy of bearing it. Whether the purpose of the ritual is to take you closer to God.

When a guest wonders that he passed up the chance to be a god, David smiles and says he gave it up for something better still. But we end with the strains of a bagpipe, and the almost inexpressible loneliness on David’s face. Godhead exacts its price, but so does exile.

Historical notes

Does a female consort have to kneel during a King’s coronation? Per Wiki, it’s not obvious that they do. This suggests a whole other layer of gender politics behind Philip’s kneeling: a male consort must kneel where a female need not, because a female is naturally subject to her husband anyway, whereas a man would be assumed to rule over his wife. Therefore a male consort must symbolically abandon his dominion by kneeling.

Odds and sods

Queen Mary dies in this episode. This really should not have been a footnote, but it is mostly treated as one.


For more of my posts on The Crown, see here.

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