TV Review: The Crown: Scientia Potentia Est

The Crown

S1, E7: ‘Scientia Potentia Est’

In which Elizabeth FINALLY has some hot sauce in her bag swag.

Grade: A

Now that’s more like it. In one of the most purely satisfying hours of television I’ve seen this year, Elizabeth Regina kicks arse, takes names and manages to have fully twenty minutes of fun. It calls for celebration. It calls for all-caps. It calls for misquoted Beyonce lyrics.

I’ve complained before about how absent Elizabeth herself seems to be from the story of her reign. I’ve complained before about how little power or agency Elizabeth seems to have. Well, Scientia Potentia Est finally, finally allows Elizabeth to take the reins, even if only temporarily. It’s an episode about power – who has it, who uses it and how it should be used. And it gives Elizabeth, at least momentarily, a voice.

“Okay ladies, now let’s get information.”

Elizabeth would like to be better-informed. This is not because she thinks the people around her keep things from her (although they do), but because she thinks her education has left her woefully ill-equipped to deal with the Very Serious Personages with whom she has to do. And it has – we see precisely what that education consists of, and it is eye-poppingly inadequate, even if it involved one-on-one tuition from the Vice-Provost of Eton College. Elizabeth has been drilled on the Constitution and the role of the monarchy, and the correct order of precedence and table etiquette taught in French. And that’s apparently it. Even when she tentatively asks whether she ought not to know a little mathematics or science, she is told not to worry her pretty little royal head about those things. When Churchill starts pontificating about the ‘obvious reasons’ that Eisenhower cannot be allowed to run a summit with Kruschev alone, she has to ask for a ‘reminder’ of the obvious reasons. Which, by the way, seem to boil down to ‘I am clinging by the skin of my teeth to the delusion of relevance’.

But it is when she meets with her tutor that the true depths of her ignorance are revealed to her. Professor Hogg (A twinkly and charming Alan Williams) asks a brisk initial question about what formal qualifications the Queen has – for example, the Higher School Certificate. Silence. Very well, an intermediate qualification? Silence. Any private-schooling equivalents? Silence as Elizabeth clasps and unclasps her hands in her lap. Then a crushingly gentle ‘I see’. It is heartbreaking. I wanted to hug her – and I guarantee you, it is the first time that I have felt that way for our conservative and somewhat unlikeable protagonist.

“Slay, trick, or you get eliminated.”

So of course a humiliated Elizabeth storms off to her mother, to ask – perfectly reasonably – how she could have let her down like this. And this is where Elizabeth learns her first lesson: when going to war, remember your weaknesses. Cookie is wearily dismissive of Elizabeth’s complaints, saying first that Elizabeth was raised to be a lady, dammit, that furthermore nobody wants a ‘bluestocking’ as Sovereign, and that anyway Elizabeth’s education was a damn sight better than Margaret’s (poor Margaret!). But when her motherhood is called into question, she unerringly goes right for Lilibet’s weak flank: ‘I would’ve thought you’d think twice before throwing stones on that score’.

In a word: Ouch.

And it doesn’t get better with Cookie’s perfectly-timed parting shot: ‘Oh, don’t force something that doesn’t come naturally, dear. That’s what I’ve learnt.’

That’s going to leave a mark.

Elizabeth has occasion to be reminded of the lesson again, when Lascelles announces his retirement (Noooooooooooo!) and Elizabeth requests for young and sympathetic Martin Charteris to be her personal secretary – over the senior, Michael Adeane. Lascelles points out that this violates customary precedence, and Elizabeth murmurs ‘I was hoping that it would be possible for me to make my own decisions just this once.’ Lascelles’ silence shrieks ‘What in the world gave you that impression, your Majesty?’, but he seems to acquiesce. However, when Charteris is caught scoping out his new quarters, Lascelles rewards his presumption – and indiscretion – promptly.

A chastened Charteris turns down the promotion, and Elizabeth storms – once again – to Lascelles to demand why. And Lascelles reminds her that she has no cards to play here except her own desire, and you know who else played that card? You guessed it. Look, I love Lascelles devotedly, but I am getting a bit tired of the abdication being used to cudgel Elizabeth for the crime of expressing the smallest desire. ‘Tommy, could I have honey instead of marmalade on my toast?’ ‘No, your Majesty.’ ‘But why not, Tommy?’ ‘Because The Abdication.’ ‘Tommy, could I wear my hat at a different angle today?’ ‘No, your Majesty.’ ‘But why not, Tommy?’ ‘Because the Abdication.’ ‘Tommy, may I use the lavatory now?’ ‘No, your Majesty.’ ‘But why not, Tommy?’ ‘Because the Abdication.’

That said, Lascelles has a valid larger point that if you’re going to upset precedent, you’d better have a compelling reason. In this dojo, you are not entitled to any opinion you cannot defend.

And Elizabeth once again breaks my heart when she pleads with Tommy to let her keep an ally. Lascelles is sympathetic, but the show seems to suggest that Elizabeth’s best –and only – ally is herself.

Which brings us to….

“I do not come to play wit’ you hoes”

Winston Churchill has suffered a stroke, which suggests his chosen successor Anthony Eden ought to step into the role at least temporarily. One small problem: Eden’s receiving major surgery to remove gallstones. In America. This means Britain is without leadership, a small detail that Churchill is determined that the Queen not know. He promised her that the country would have a healthy man in charge, and if she doesn’t know, then technically he remains ‘a man of my word’. ‘Too much knowledge’, says Churchill, ‘is a dangerous thing’. Too much hubris is a dangerous thing too, Winston. As is too desperate a grasp on power, as Churchill suffers a second- and more serious – stroke. Downing Street elects to keep lying, thinking they’re in too deep now, and Elizabeth would likely remain none the wiser except for the guilty conscience of one of them.

Elizabeth calls in Jock Colville (Nicholas Rowe) to talk to him about Charteris. He thinks she knows about Churchill already, and blurts out the whole thing. And now Elizabeth has far more to think about than Charteris.

She worries whether she should, as usual, do nothing. But Professor Hogg reminds her that in these circumstances, it is her duty to act. Something that a young woman steeped in the constitution already knows. And this is where Elizabeth is taught her second lesson: when going to war, remember your strengths. Elizabeth has the benefit of an intensive – and exclusive – training in the finer points of the British Constitution (which in this case, is all the knowledge that’s needed), and furthermore – as Hogg reminds her – ‘they’re British, male and upper class. A good dressing down from Nanny is what they most want in life.’

And so Elizabeth goes to the mattresses, clutching the talisman of the little red notebook she used to take down her notes from the Vice-Provost of Eton. She instantly deploys Prisoners’ Dilemma, separating Lord Salisbury and Churchill. And then proceeds to tear them multiple new assholes. To Salisbury, she is stern; to Churchill, she is gentle and reproachful. In her clipped, even tones, she reads out the constitutional principles the men have violated, and reminds them to treat her with the respect her office deserves, rather than that her age and gender might suggest (Awwwwwww, HELL YEAH!). She lets them twist in the wind and then turns the knife deliciously by dialling the bigness and blueness of her eyes up to eleven and essentially saying ‘How could you, Uncle Winston/Bobbety?’

In both cases, these two enormously powerful men are reduced to chastened schoolboys within seconds. Churchill scrambles to recover some face by blubbering some self-serving nonsense about being able to step aside now that Elizabeth has come into her own. But he has been taken to school, and the lying old so-and-so knows it. She rings a bell to dismiss them. It is everything. Everything.

“If she hit it right, I might take her for a flight on my chopper.”

Elizabeth is –rightly – pleased with her evisceration of the two, and even Philip notices her new strut. And this is where I screech ‘Philip, I love you, but I SWEAR TO GOD IF YOU HARSH MY BUZZ….’

Fear nothing, Philip’s working on a buzz – or should I say hum? – of his very own. Murmuring that his badass wife seems ‘taller’, he tells her to blow off her appointment with Michael Adeane. And what does he have in mind? One option: he could fetch stilts to reach his tall woman. Or the second? She could kneel.

And your humble reviewer chokes on her pasta.

Okay, I remember wondering about the shift in Elizabeth and Philip’s relationship after the coronation. But if this is the avatar kneeling takes in their marital lexicon? That. Is. Awesome. Do I slightly wish that Philip had instead knelt himself, while blasphemously muttering the words of his coronation oath? Hmmm, maybe. Am I a little worried that I have spent an entire paragraph discussing a blow-job? No, no I’m not. I think on some level I always knew this would happen.

Look, this isn’t a perfect episode, and who knows how long this will last. But for now, let us steal away from a sovereign who, for once, seems to be enjoying her position.

Odds and sods

  • Love the echoes of blue in the episode: the bright blue coat little Elizabeth wears, a vivid splash against the grey of the cobblestones and the black of the Oppidans and Tugs of Eton; the same blue of the full-skirted dress Elizabeth Regina wears as she strides down the stairs of Buckingham Palace.
  • I winced at Eisenhower’s pity for a grey Anthony Eden, passed out with exhaustion. ‘That, gentlemen, is not just a man, but a sad metaphor…the second-most powerful man of what was once the most powerful empire in the world.’
  • I don’t think Professor Hogg is coming back. A pity, because I do think Elizabeth’s education remains woeful and Hogg is delightful.
  • Anthony Eden insists that Churchill say – out loud, in front of other people – that he needs him. I am not the only one to think that this conversation is….distinctly Brokeback in tone.
  • Oy, with the music.


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

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