Posted on Jan 9, 2017 | No Comments
The Crown: Assassins

*Spoiler Alert*

Netflix’s new original series The Crown deals with the complexities of public life. For many heads of state, individual desires invariably give way to civic duties, as they attempt to build a stable public persona. But what happens when a queen or a prime minister’s personal life begins to eclipse the public persona they worked so hard to build?

The Crown, which chronicles the early years of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, is the newest addition to the high-quality television movement. The sets and costumes are so good that I was often distracted during the first episode wondering about their costs. From a technical perspective, the show is immaculate, but it’s the depth of the story that sticks with you. Most notably, the show humanizes its famous subjects offering insights to their motivations. The episode titled “Assassins” stood out for me as the prime example of this dynamic.

Episode Nine begins in a peculiar manner. It starts with the title “Assassins” coming across the screen, which lead me to speculate that perhaps there was an assassination attempt against the Queen I’ve never heard about? It then capitalizes on this suspense by introducing two mysterious new characters in the first scene; no context included. As the episode progresses, we learn that these new characters are the Queen’s horse breeder and his somewhat jealous fiancé. There are no actual assassins to deal with in this episode just symbolic assassinations on the public personas of the Queen and the Prime Minister.

The episode focuses on Winston Churchill’s resignation from the role of Prime Minister after decades of public service. A leviathan of English politics, Churchill lead Great Britain through the crisis of World War II. Years later, the conservative MP faces a United Kingdom slowly progressing towards socialism and must come to accept that his time has passed. His health fails, yet the leviathan refuses to accept his own mortality. As a gentle nudging towards resignation, his own government commissions an oil portrait in Churchill’s honor. Being an avid painter himself, let’s just say, Churchill doesn’t give the famous modern artist his cabinet hires an easy time. In these exchanges between the painter and the PM, we begin to understand the man behind the legend; the sacrifices made for the good of a nation and the inability of even the world’s most powerful people to escape pain and loss.

John Lithgow gives the performance of a lifetime as Churchill. From his first scene in the series, all doubts are laid aside about casting an American actor as such an important British figure; he is Churchill on screen. It should be noted that casting this role was no easy feat as Michael Gambon’s emotionally charged portrayal of the Prime Minister in Churchill’s Secret would likely still be fresh in many audience members’ minds (assuming The Crown would pull a similar demographic to Masterpiece, which it very likely does). But Lithgow, backed by an excellent script, revealed more to me about the man who was Churchill than a full feature length film on the subject. “Assassins” becomes a meditation on aging and acceptance, with the painter playing the role of the assassin, shattering the illusion of vitality that Churchill had so successfully kept alive. Then again, Churchill does burn the painting in the end, so who’s to say he’s not the real winner in the dual of the artists?

The series focuses on the duplicitous lives figures like the Prime Minister and the Queen lead as they build up their public persona’s and hide behind them. “Assassins” uses hobbies as a narrative vehicle to explore this dynamic. Through Churchill’s love of painting and scrutiny of his portraitist’s work, his own inner turmoil is revealed. In the same regard, Elizabeth’s passion for horse raising and breeding give the closet insights in to how her mind works. Horses as a narrative device also provide a window in to her marriage with Philip as the episode exposes his martial insecurities through his jealously of an obviously platonic relationship between Elizabeth and her horse breeder. The discord in Elizabeth and Philip’s marriage sharply contrasts to Churchill’s relationship with his wife, Clementine. As horse breeding serves to pull the royal marriage apart, Clementine’s support of her husband’s hobbies and interactions with his portrait artist demonstrate her deep understanding of her conflicted husband. Ultimately, Elizabeth waits to confront her husband until she is dressed in full Queen regalia, hiding behind the crown for composure to protect the injured woman underneath.

This public versus personal dynamic offers insight in to the lives many politicians and celebrities lead as they shape our policies and our cultures. Whether or not you believe the monarchy should still hold the position it does in England, The Crown is worth a watch as it contemplates the powerful people who influence world events.