S1, E9: ‘Assassins’
In which The Crown paints a portrait of an old man as an artist
Well, here we go. If you feel there’s just not enough attention paid to Winston Churchill in Britain, then hoo boy, are you in luck with this episode. If you are a passionate aficionado of horse fucking, oh man have you come to the right place. Oh, neither is true? Yeah, sorry about that.
“I never let accuracy get in the way of truth if I don’t want it to.”
The bulk of the episode is taken with Churchill’s prolonged Lion-in-Winter-ing, framed (ahem) around his sittings with his portrait-painter Graham Sutherland (Stephen Dillane, better-known to me at least as Stannis off Game of Thrones). It’s well written and beautifully acted, but hits on nothing that we haven’t seen before. Churchill has a white-knuckle grip on power: check. Anthony Eden is screamingly frustrated with the old bastard’s obduracy: check. Churchill refuses to acknowledge his own limitations: check. Churchill is obsessed with his own legacy, and image rather than reality: check. And I could have predicted the pencil-measuring contest that Churchill tried to get Graham Sutherland to engage in. Sutherland refuses to be drawn (ahem), of course, which is entertaining. I liked the meditation on what painting means to Churchill, and the image of him returning, again and again, to one particular small domestic landscape. Is it a little heavy-handed that the pond is a metaphor for Churchill’s own private domestic pain – the loss of his little daughter? Perhaps, but it is rather moving that Sutherland is so invested in capturing the rawness of that private pain and fragility, rather than simply satirising the old warhorse dozing in his armchair. I like that after a series in which everybody (including the Queen) have tried to coax Churchill into retirement and failed, it is a fellow-painter whose gaze – and work – strips the veil forcibly from Churchill’s eyes.
“You never forget your first Prime Minister”
Churchill finally retires, and Elizabeth is suddenly and suspiciously sentimental about it. I understand that he is her first Prime Minister, and there is tremendous mystique about The Man Who Single-Handedly Beat Hitler In A Thumb-Wrestling Match Or Something. But – er – the last time they had any significant screen time together, Elizabeth had caught Churchill in a dangerous and irresponsible lie that had nearly jeopardised the country she technically rules. Before then, he was obsessing about foreign policy and whether her husband could take flying lessons – while the country was paralysed by what he dismissed as ‘weather’. Before then, he was artificially prolonging her coronation so that he could continue in power. Woman, he has done nothing but use you, lie to you, and micromanage you for his own ends! Where is this dewiness coming from? What do you mean, ‘what will I do without you’? What will you do without the selfish hubristic crybaby? Worry not, you’re basically married to one.
“I say this as a breeder myself, it would have been a good match.”
The remainder of the episode is taken up with a random, utterly unearned and poorly executed love triangle. We are introduced to ‘Porchey’, or Lord Porchester, a diffident fellow who loves horses and hates Central London. He proposes to his girlfriend, who presses him about his torch for ‘her’ –‘her’ being the Queen. ‘We are very close’, admits the man whom we have literally never seen or heard of before this, the penultimate episode of the season. But he swears he’s over ‘her’.
He doesn’t seem to be, though. They bond intensely over the correct pacing strategy for one of their prized horses, and then over the right match for him when they put him out to stud. He and Elizabeth are two conscientious introverts with lots in common, as Margaret is quick to point out.
It hasn’t escaped Philip’s notice either, and he is an absolute dingleberry about it. Normally Philip’s sulks are leavened with humour or penetrating political insight, or grounded in a poorly-expressed but legitimate grievance. Here he is being an enormous dick about Lilibet and Porchey, with zero leg to stand on. It’s not remotely charming, and is furthermore written without any artistry. Porchey is dull but nice, Philip is exciting but an arsehole, and Elizabeth is…also there. I hates love triangles, haaaaaaaaates them, precious. Even ones as half-hearted and abrupt as this one.
Matters come to a head when Elizabeth takes Philip (why?) to actually see her and Porchey’s prized stud ‘cover’ the selected mare. Philip is crass and embarrassed about the hot horse-on-horse action, he and Elizabeth have a tearing row, and she stormily tells him that she could have married Porchey, and it would have been easier, maybe even happier. But she chose the passionate, difficult relationship she has with Philip because she’s only ever loved him. She challenges him to say the same, and Foy does beautiful work here, letting her rage and heartbreak blaze through her eyes. Later, Philip mouths a silent ‘I’m sorry’ and…what, that’s it? No! Give him hell! That can’t be the end of it! What the hell?!?
Anthony Eden proclaims proudly and repeatedly that he has a clean bill of health, and there is nothing to fear anymore. His bile duct would, I suspect, beg to differ.
Odds and sods
- There is a fantastically creepy sequence where Porchey and Elizabeth pass appraising eyes over a sequence of brood mares, like they’re on The Bachelor or something. (And surely the makers of The Bachelor are weeping salt tears at not having thought to call their show Stud or Stallion).
- ‘Not sure I can trust a modernist with an English name. Give me a German or an Italian. They’re the ones who have to start all over again. Whatever would an Englishman want to change?’
- Matt Smith imbued his silent ‘I’m sorry’ with unnecessary ambiguity, I thought. I had to rewind to see what it was. I sincerely thought he’d said something sassy and/or menacing. Or something suggested that he has in fact only ever loved Elizabeth. But – you know – bitchily.
- I rather enjoyed Philip’s attempts to find euphemisms for the horse-fucking. ‘A pop? A shot? A shag? A horse hump.’
- Are…..Philip and his friend Michael having an affair? Don’t try to distract me with glances at waitresses and flight attendants, Peter Morgan. If Philip wants to ride his bicycle, interested minds want to know.
For more of my posts on The Crown, see here.