Elizabeth toughens up in dazzling new season of ‘The Crown’

San Francisco — As the second season of Peter Morgan’s “The Crown” becomes available on Netflix on Friday, we may look back to the series’ first year and think of how very young and in many ways naive Elizabeth was when she ascended the British throne. There are traces of that young woman in the new season, of course, but she is now seasoned, tougher, wary and more strategic in both her personal and professional lives.

That’s just one of the reasons that the new season is even more engaging that the first. The other reasons include Morgan’s writing, spot-on direction from Stephen Daldry, Phillip Martin, Benjamin Caron and others, and superb performances at almost every level.

Elizabeth (Claire Foy) frets about being middle aged, and in fact, this is Foy’s last go-‘round as Elizabeth — Olivia Colman assumes the role, and the crown, next season. Foy may not look middle aged, but she convincingly projects both age and experience playing the monarch during an especially turbulent part of her very long reign. There are challenges in domestic politics, international relations and in Elizabeth’s marriage — all testing her resolve, and all contributing to making her an even more determined monarch and wife.

The Cold War is in full swing and Britain, like other nations, is adjusting to an evolving role on the world stage. The politics and policies of the past will no longer do in the 1950s. By extension, the traditional role of the monarch is also shown to be out of date, but Elizabeth is initially reluctant to make changes in her largely ceremonial office.

Elizabeth visits a factory in 1957 and gives a speech that unintentionally belittles the “average people” by referring dismissively to their tiresome little lives. The speech rouses the ire of a lesser peer, Lord Altrincham (John Heffernan), who vents his frustration with the queen in the pages of a previously little known journal he publishes, saying she sounded like a “priggish schoolgirl” and that her speaking voice was “a pain in the neck.”

The attack causes an uproar, but over time, it leads to the first steps toward modernization of the monarchy, through a greater effort by Elizabeth to welcome those “average people” to Buckingham Palace.

On a personal level, we see Elizabeth and Philip (Matt Smith) disagreeing over their son Charles’ education, with the Duke insisting that the boy attend his own alma mater, Gordonstoun School in Scotland, known for imposing rigorous physical demands on its charges. Charles is awkward and shy at this point in his life and doesn’t take well to the school. But neither did his father years before when he was a boy. In one of the many remarkable scenes of the second season, Philip is shown as a youth (played with extraordinary depth by Finn Elliot), sent from school in Germany to Gordonstoun. In 1937, his sister, Cecilie (Lucy Appleton), and four other members of his extended family are killed in a plane crash. Philip erupts in anger and grief, and the event becomes formative for the man he will become, a man who learns to contain his own emotions and tough things out and expects his son to do the same.

In the first two seasons of the project, Morgan has not only balanced both the personal and political sides of the story, he’s also shown how they relate to each other. How Elizabeth deals with her marriage is one example. Her approach is just as forthright as it is when she decides to insert herself into foreign affairs.

When President John Kennedy (Michael C. Hall) and his glamorous and very savvy wife Jacqueline (Jodi Balfour) visit London after Jackie wowed Paris, Elizabeth is on her guard, and for good reason. At first, we see a flash of Elizabeth’s relative youth and personal insecurity. She’s jealous, awkward at being outshone by Jacqueline. In time, though, the moment of perceived weakness becomes instrumental in shoring up Elizabeth’s resolve and triggers her strategic move to travel to Ghana, where, in a calculated effort to show Jackie Kennedy that she is more than an uninterested woman with thick ankles, she is photographed dancing with Dr. Kwame Nkrumah (Danny Sapani). It’s just a photograph, but Nkrumah has been flirting with both the US and the Soviet Union, and Elizabeth’s boldness in going to Ghana is to remind Nkrumah that Ghana is still part of the Commonwealth.

The Commonwealth, in a way, protected Britain for decades, but times are changing, especially on the world stage.

After living in the shadow of Winston Churchill (John Lithgow) for years, Anthony Eden (Jeremy Northam) finally has his chance to be prime minister, but makes a career-killing miscalculation in response to Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser seizing control of the Suez Canal. Eden’s reactive decision, which diminished Britain’s standing in the world community and had reverberations for the domestic economy, was urged by his underling Harold MacMillan (Anton Lesser), who abandons Eden after the decision backfires. Public confidence in the government hits bottom, and although the monarch’s power is limited, Elizabeth’s status takes a hit as well.

The Suez crisis is about much more than Britain preserving access to oil through the canal: It is one of several pawns in the Cold War influence game played by the world’s superpowers. Smaller nations, like Ghana and Nasser’s Egypt understand their value to the various superpowers like Britain, the US and the Soviet Union, and skillfully play their would-be suitors against each other.

The new season covers other significant moments for the royal family, including Margaret’s (Vanessa Kirby) romance with Antony Armstrong-Jones (Matthew Goode), the ambi-sexual photographer who would become her husband, and the Duke of Windsor’s (Alex Jennings) attempt to return to England and assume some position in British society. While there may be those who defend “Uncle David,” we can assume Peter Morgan is not one of them. The Duke’s dressing down by the niece he derisively called “Shirley Temple” is delicious, wicked and welcome.

The performances are mostly spot-on. Foy especially stands out, which we would expect anyway, but her skill in balancing the queen’s transition from a shy, relatively awkward former school girl to a woman developing survival skills is simply breathtaking. Smith is equally good, displaying the conflicts he feels about his personal and professional roles in the marriage. Kirby, Goode, Northam, Balfour, Sapani and Lesser bring each of their characters to three-dimensional life. Chloe Pirrie is especially impressive as Eileen Scott, the long-suffering wife of Philip’s private secretary and close friend, Michael Parker (Daniel Ings). Parker accompanies Philip on his five-month world tour which included a lot of philandering at least on the part of Parker and perhaps on Philip’s part as well.

Back at home, Eileen has endured her husband’s indifference and infidelity long enough and decides to file for divorce, which would set off a PR disaster enveloping the monarchy. Pirrie invests Eileen with backbone and determination, and, in so doing, provides an example for Elizabeth to consider when it comes to her own marriage.

The only minor fault among the performers is Hall as JFK. It’s one of the hardest roles to play because the real thing, even after all these years, is ingrained into our minds and ears. Hall kind of looks like Kennedy but his Boston accent is all over the place—and only occasionally in the vicinity of Boston itself.

No matter. “The Crown” has plenty of other reasons to hook you once again. Two seasons in, it is decisively clear that “The Crown” is on track to be an important work of historical literature. The fact that it’s one of the best shows in town is just the jewel in “The Crown.”

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