In the first season of Netflix’s historical drama The Crown, Season 2 of which premieres on Dec. 8, Elizabeth (known as Lilibet by her friends and family) becomes Queen Elizabeth II, ruler of the United Kingdom. In addition to being a political and patriotic figure, she is also a wife, mother, daughter, and sister, dealing with an unimaginable amount of pressure because of the position she was born into. The show’s first season earned praise for its thoughtful and expansive exploration of life during the first decade of Queen Elizabeth II’s rule, particularly for how it delicately shed light on the inner thoughts and feelings of such a notoriously opaque ruler. So it's a massive disappointment that Season 2 of The Crown is marred by its obsession with Prince Philip (Matt Smith), giving him far more screen time than Claire Foy's utterly captivating Queen Elizabeth II.
Ahead of Season 1, Netflix billed The Crown as a fictionalized account of “the inside story of Queen Elizabeth II's early reign, revealing the personal intrigues, romances, and political rivalries behind the great events that shaped the second half of the 20th century,” according to a release. But Season 2 lopsidedly delivers on that promise. There are episodes in this new season where the queen virtually disappears as Philip’s self-aggrandizing and immature antics take center stage. The first two episodes are very Philip-heavy, as the restless husband languishes in his relative irrelevancy at the palace and then sets off to sea on a diplomatic trip that he uses as an excuse for carousing and, the show teases, romancing women other than his wife.
He dominates the last two of the 10 episodes, as well. Episode 9 occurs half in flashback, as Philip’s admittedly tough childhood is used to rationalize his insistence that his sensitive, not particularly athletically inclined son Charles be sent away to the same strict and hyper-masculine boarding school he attended. The finale examines his connections to a politician involved in a famous British political sex scandal and ends with Elizabeth tearfully confronting him about how his behavior is affecting her, both personally and professionally. By that time, I’d spent so much time inside Philip’s head that Elizabeth’s emotions seemed secondary and distant.
Though at times you may get the sense that the show is judging Philip's pettiness, wandering eye, and otherwise inappropriate behavior, that judgment is undercut by the show favoring his story, his voice, and his inner life over the queen's. It’s a frustrating development for an otherwise fascinating show — because there is no universe in which the story of a long-serving woman ruler of a modern empire is less interesting than the one-dimensional one of the male mate who's jealous of her power.
It’s not that Philip’s relationship with Elizabeth and the development of his character is irrelevant to the story The Crown is trying to tell, it’s that the amount of time the show spends depicting boat rides and schoolyard bullying feels like time that could be better spent with Elizabeth as she grows in her political life and mothers her children. In focusing so heavily on Philip, the show also begins to value his perspective over the queen’s, often relegating Elizabeth to playing the role of the put-upon wife, waiting for his calls and hand-wringing about what he might be up to.
While it’s important to show that even the queen can be forced into such a role in a patriarchal society, focusing on her husband in this plot minimizes Elizabeth and urges the audience to empathize with Philip, which, given the abundance of tortured male antiheroes on TV, isn’t exactly exciting uncharted territory. Sure, it’s worth talking about how Philip’s belief in and experience of that patriarchal society affect his wife, the queen; Philip is not comfortable being secondary to his wife and seems to take that out on her by making casually cruel comments and by disappearing on his own adventures for months at a time. But what is all of this like from Elizabeth’s perspective? For a show that hit its stride by picking apart what must be going on in the mind of a famously enigmatic ruler, it’s a real disappointment that The Crown no longer seems to care.
There is no universe in which the story of a long-serving woman ruler of a modern empire is less interesting than the one-dimensional one of the male mate who's jealous of her power.
This fascination with Prince Philip hasn’t come out of nowhere, however. Ahead of the new season, showrunner Peter Morgan told the audience at a Royal Television Society panel that Prince Philip would be at the center of this era of the decades-spanning series. “I find [Prince Philip] extraordinarily interesting,” Morgan explained. “His childhood, again, you couldn’t make it up. The soul of Season 2 is about his complexity.”
The actor who plays him seems to have a similar affection for Prince Philip and a desire to see him fully explored. “Rightly, as a society, we’ve celebrated Elizabeth as a wonderful example of a powerful, stylish, brilliant woman,” Matt Smith told The Guardian in a recent interview. “But in many ways, what an example of a roguish, brilliant man. Why aren’t we as men allowed to celebrate that, fictionally or not? And I just found a lot to celebrate in Philip.”
It's certainly true that Prince Philip's background is rich material, as he comes from several royal families. The Crown Season 1 took interest in the titles he abdicated to marry Elizabeth, as well as the thrill-seeking itch he scratched with his military service. His life changed dramatically when he chose to wed the woman who would become monarch, and he’s consistently been portrayed as a man who wrestles with his regrets for tying himself to an institution like the crown. All of that is relevant, certainly, to the royal family and most intimately, to the queen, his wife. But Season 2 is obsessed with Prince Philip to the detriment of the whole series. His high seas exploits drag out for too long and do little but hammer home an already obvious point, and the frequency of his tantrums and hangdog expressions make it impossible to root for him at all.
It’s maddening, then, that The Crown isn’t more interested in elevating the voice of the young woman at the center of such a historically and emotionally complex story. Becoming queen has thrust Elizabeth into a situation that requires her — impossibly — to be everything to every single one of her subjects, during some of the most turbulent periods in modern history. The high points of the season involve her exercising her power and doing her best to operate within a regimented system that considers her to be a figurehead. And Foy is captivating in those scenes, especially when Elizabeth goes against her advisers and visits Ghana, stirring up international press attention by dancing the foxtrot with the country’s president.
Like many fans of The Crown, I’m watching this show because I find Elizabeth’s situation and her manner impossibly interesting, considering the eras she's lived and served through. But instead of spending more time exploring Elizabeth’s relationship with the Kennedys, for example, we're informed about when her husband doesn't find her desirable. ("I thought you were hoping for more children from me," Philip says to Elizabeth after a visit from her royal stylists. "Then why would you do something like that to your hair?”) A little of that signalling goes a long way. (In other words, we get it.) And though the health of her marriage is certainly a key piece of Elizabeth’s life, the series’ bias towards fully investigating the source of Philip’s manpain and anger steals away her ability to really be heard by the viewer on that subject.
In 2017, I find myself less and less interested in empathetic investigations into why men treat women poorly or feel entitled to all the sex they want. (It should be noted that Smith told The Guardian in the same interview that the new episodes leave it up to the audience to decide if persistent rumors of Philip's infidelity are true.) The reasons behind Philip's laddish behavior are so far down the ladder of things I want to know about the royal family that they're basically on the ground. After all, educated, adult men know very well how they should behave — it’s just that the existing patriarchy enabled them to take and take until society finally (belatedly) put its foot down.
Proportionally, there are more than enough nuanced presentations of flawed men on television, so it's not quite enough of a rationalization to say that The Crown is often disapproving of Philip's actions and attitude. It's disheartening that Morgan, the show's male showrunner, freely admits that he finds Prince Philip more interesting than his female lead, and that's an example of a much larger cultural problem.
"By default, women have it easier than men when they attempt to craft characters of the opposite sex," novelist Sally Koslow told The Atlantic in 2013, "because our whole lives we've been reading vast amounts of literature written by men." This underscores the extreme representation bias that still exists in media, which has offered both men and women less female characters to follow and care about. It’s not particularly difficult to see how this issue rears its head in the new season of The Crown. When women are consistently othered, they may feel inaccessible or uninteresting to writers of the opposite gender, who are very used to finding points of connection with the men on their screens and in their books.
When it was announced this summer that Jodie Whittaker would be taking over the role of the Doctor (which Smith incidentally played from 2010-2015) in the long-running British sci-fi series Doctor Who, there were lamentations from fans — including a former Doctor — that with this first woman cast in such an iconic role, boys would be "losing a role model." That assumes, of course, that young boys can't or won't identify with a female character. And according to a study in the Sex Roles journal, that might be true. In that study, elementary school aged boys were less likely to identify with a female fictional character than girls were to identify with a male fictional character. And in the case of the second season of one of Netflix’s most lavish series, that mental roadblock is readily apparent.
So, if you've been hoping that The Crown Season 2 would deliver an in-depth portrait of a woman leading an unprecedented life, I'm afraid you've chosen the wrong show, at least this season. This is Prince Philip's story, and all the poorer for it.