For those of you worried that "The Crown" wouldn't be able to recover from the departure of John Lithgow's excellent Winston Churchill, I'm happy to declare that this isn't the case. The series has a wonderful deep bench of acting talent, and the writing, primarily by Peter Morgan, remains fantastic. In many ways I like this year's episodes better than the first, as everyone feels more settled into the series format, and more risks are taken.
The first episode of the series begins in 1956 with Suez Canal crisis, which coincides with a five month separation between Elizabeth and Philip, who is sent to tour the Pacific. The last episode takes place in 1963 during the Profmo affair, mirroring another test of their marriage. There's plenty of political and social upheaval in this run of episodes, and the United Kingdom changes greatly during the time period, but this series of "The Crown" feels much more personal, with the state of the royal marriage constantly at the forefront. Two episodes center on Philip, including a fantastic one that mirrors his difficult childhood with that of a young Prince Charles (Julian Baring). Two episodes center on Princess Margaret, who finds a new partner in photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones (Matthew Goode). And then there's the fantastic installment devoted to poor old Uncle David, the exiled Duke of Windsor.
There are artistic liberties being taken left and right in the name of historical melodrama, but you rarely see such literate and well-researched historical melodrama. The Duke of Windsor episode finds ways to tie the publishing of the Marburg Papers to the UK visit of evangelical preacher Billy Graham (Paul Sparks) via the Queen experiencing a personal crisis of faith. The much-anticipated episode featuring the Kennedys postulates that a meeting between the Queen and Jackie O. (Jodie Balfour) spurs her political actions in Ghana. There's so much here for a history buff to enjoy. At the same time, the characters have never felt more like genuine, complicated people. Though there's still some occasional pageantry, "The Crown" feels more like "Mad Men" than "Great Moments From History," especially with the amount of alcohol Princess Margaret downs.
Once again, Claire Foy delivers a tremendous performance as Queen Elizabeth, humanizing her and elevating her in just the right amounts. I love her moments of uncertainty, feeling insecure about impending middle-age, or the awkward filming of her first televised Christmas message. However, it's still spine-tingling to see her fully wielding the power of the Crown, dressing down a Prime Minister or making a surprise appearance before an astonished underling. Her clashes with Philip are more impactful this year, and Matt Smith has really stepped up as a scene partner. He's much more sure-footed, not afraid to have Philipp come off as obstinate or petty or even cruel at times. Yet this is also easily the most sympathetic and fascinating Prince Philip I've ever seen onscreen.
And then there are all the smaller roles, inhabited by dozens of memorable performances. Matthew Goode makes a vaguely unsettling, and occasionally very funny Tony, who plays wonderfully with Vanessa Kirby. Anton Lesser has several good appearances as Prime Minister MacMillan, and I was so happy to see Alex Jennings back as the Duke of Windsor. Sadly Michael C. Hall wasn't able to do much with John F. Kennedy, but he was barely onscreen long enough to register. It sticks out as an odd piece of stunt casting. Jodie Balfour's Jackie was considerably better, and she had the more important role anyway.
The production values remain obscenely gorgeous. The usual British prestige pics I've seen this year don't even come close. There's more emphasis on remote landscapes and moody interiors, but somehow there was also the budget for Philip's far-ranging tour of the Pacific, a Nazi funeral, and a state visit to Ghana. What's more, the level of the filmmaking continues to impress. I particularly enjoyed the finale with its long silences, and the Kennedy episode for its use of various different forms of media.
I'll be very sad to see this cast go, but as long as Peter Morgan, Stephen Daldry, and the rest of the creative team are still committed, I'm sure the further series of "The Crown" are going to continue to make for excellent viewing.