Season 2 reminds us that there might not be a better-looking show anywhere on TV than The Crown, with stunningly sumptuous costumes and set design. We’re treated to some dazzling cinematography as well, as Philip trots around the globe on a goodwill tour. Elizabeth’s world is vividly depicted in every detailed frame, and The Crown‘s visuals are consistently a triumph… even when the storytelling lags behind.
But Season 2’s stories are disappointingly low-stakes
We can’t rewrite history, obviously, but this era in Elizabeth’s reign is a relatively dull one, and The Crown is forced to focus on small-scale stories to fill out the time. An entire episode is devoted to a newspaper columnist daring to criticize the Queen for being too stiff; another depicts American preacher Billy Graham’s visit to England. The result is a season that’s too often dramatically inert, and at times feels as stuffy and uneventful as The Crown‘s detractors must think it always is.
Elizabeth takes a backseat on her own show
Claire Foy’s performance as Elizabeth is one of The Crown‘s jewels, so it’s unfortunate that she’s so often relegated to the background in Season 2. Elizabeth spends most of the season gazing out of windows or fuming at the television, watching other people do things. She doesn’t get to grow much, after she evolved so beautifully in Season 1 from wide-eyed innocent to hardened matriarch. Foy still finds ways to show off her formidable acting skills — she does fume gorgeously, after all — but this is our last chance to see her play Elizabeth, with Olivia Colman taking over next season, so it feels like a missed opportunity.
We get lots of Philip — whether we like it or not
Matt Smith might actually have more screen time than Foy this season, as Philip embarks on that so-called goodwill tour — aka “a five-month stag night” where “men are expected to indulge” — and chafes at Elizabeth’s authority over him. He’s quite detestable at certain points, making cruel comments about his wife’s appearance, and Smith lends him a reptilian menace. But we do discover some soft spots in Philip’s psyche as well, in a flashback episode that reveals the harsh upbringing he received at boarding school. Some have complained about Season 2’s Philip overload, but I actually came to appreciate the show’s complicated portrayal of him, along with Smith’s warts-and-all performance.
Princess Margaret steals the show
Here’s the good news: Season 2’s best episodes revolve around Elizabeth’s headstrong sister Margaret, and Vanessa Kirby is fantastic in them. Still reeling from last season’s split with divorced airman Peter Townsend, Margaret falls under the spell of a bohemian photographer (played by The Good Wife‘s Matthew Goode), who excites her with his utter disdain for decorum and tradition. Margaret truly is a tragic heroine — always cast aside, never anyone’s first choice — and that heartbreaking truth makes Margaret’s story the unexpected highlight of Season 2.
John Lithgow’s Winston Churchill is sorely missed
We know: Churchill retired in 1955, so he was no longer a part of the Queen’s inner circle at this point. Still, the lack of the iconic Prime Minister’s larger-than-life presence — and Lithgow’s Emmy-winning performance — leaves a huge void in Season 2, one that’s insufficiently filled by mealy-mouthed PM successors like Anthony Eden. (Surely, the British people would agree with that assessment.) Lithgow’s Churchill gave Foy’s Elizabeth someone to spar with and confide in last season, and without him to play off of, she’s left adrift.
The JFK and Jackie episode is a seriously mixed bag
Season 2’s eighth episode will likely get a lot of attention, with President John F. Kennedy visiting the UK and Elizabeth feeling a flare of jealousy around his celebrated wife Jackie. Jodi Balfour (Quarry) is admirably fragile as Jackie, confessing her crippling shyness to Elizabeth in a standout scene. But Dexter star Michael C. Hall is distractingly miscast as JFK — he doesn’t look anything like him! — and it ends up being an unnecessary detour from Elizabeth’s own story.
Elizabeth and Philip’s marital strife is Season 2’s central conflict
Viewed as a whole, though, The Crown‘s second season boils down to the increasingly fraught relationship between Elizabeth and her husband Philip. It disintegrates into a marriage of convenience — they’re not in love, but can’t possibly divorce, “ever” — and Philip’s extramarital dalliances leave the Queen stewing with pent-up rage. It’s almost too soapy in the early going, but it builds to a grand finish in the Season 2 finale, with Philip nearly caught up in a sex scandal that brings down the ruling government. As the two monarchs finally have it out about Philip’s indiscretions, Foy and Smith shine, putting a spotlight on the peerless acting and writing that is The Crown at its absolute finest.