Episode 2 of “The Crown” Season 5 starts off with Jonathan Pryce’s Duke of Edinburgh telling an Italian interviewer about his newfound interest in carriage driving. More than the resemblances with the duke, what strikes at the very outset is the scrubby intolerance he has with any person who is from a different background. The old man was infamous for his insensitive and crude remarks about anyone from the press or media, and The Crown gets this little detail quite well. As he gets the unfortunate news of the passing away of 5-year-old Leonora Knatchbull (we got a hint from Episode 1), he ends the interview and attends the funeral at the Knatchbull family residence. We get a sense that this episode, crudely titled “The System,” will focus on the Duke of Edinburgh to a greater extent. Oh no, they better be good this time, I thought, as flashbacks of “The Crown” Season 3’s Moondust settled upon me with anticipation.
A lot of the success of The Crown stems from the fact that it is a show that presents the interior dynamics of a family that no one really knows to be certain. The creators of the show do not delve into moments that have been already captured by media outlets but tend to draw a line between these protected walls. It takes us through rumors and possible consequences of the scrutiny with a terrific dramatic bend. The second episode attempts this by throwing light on Philip’s much-talked-about connection with Penny Knatchbull (Natascha McElhone), the mother of Leonara. Penny is the wife of Norton Kantchbull, who is the grandson of Lord Mountbatten, who was played in the last season by Charles Dance. Philip’s connection with Penny stems from a shared understanding of loss and grief, and Philip opens up, with his trademark resolve, about the grief he felt when he lost his sister in an air accident. Philip understands the enormous void that Penny must be feeling after the loss of her child and attempts to fill it by persuading her to find an interest, or for lack of a better word, an escape. He talks about his love for carriage riding and how it has given him a new lease on life after his accident, which shut down his love for polo. Penny shows Philip an old carriage that now rests in their backyard shed. Philip repairs it with the help of his workers. He then insists that Penny accompany him for a ride, which cuts to a beautiful and relaxed sequence of both of them riding through the countryside and bonding over the duration. Interestingly, The Crown does not portray the relationship between Philip and Penny as anything more than friendship, even if their fondness for one another did ring the gossip bells time and again.
Philip’s ability to find ways of escaping from the system that he belongs to and so deeply cares about stands in stark contrast with Diana’s, whose side of the story we see in parallel in this episode. At first, this contrast is not palpable, but as the episode moves forward, the contradictions mirror each other in a polarizing fashion. For Diana, there is no escape. She has no one to go to, neither her insecure husband nor the Queen, whose stoic permanence is never of any help. She is joined by her friend and well-wisher, James Colthurst, who informs her that there is a journalist named Andrew Morton who would like to write a book on her. Diana learns that she would not have to be directly involved with the material, but to paint an accurate and, for that matter, honest portrait of the Princess of Wales, he would require her input. This can be arranged via tape recordings that can be passed forth by Colthurst. Diana agrees, although Colthurst has his share of doubts about the prospect and warns Morton to be careful with her since she is naïve, and he doesn’t want her to get hurt. As Diana begins to record her answers, detailing painful incidents of the past—her struggles with bulimia, her alleged suicide attempts while she was pregnant with William—it becomes a chilling foreshadowing of what’s about to come. Debicki is mesmerizing in these scenes; she is so ungainly yet precise in her impersonation of Diana’s body language that it is hard to picture anyone else in the role. Debicki makes sure her performance is unshowy yet resilient, demonstrating a full-bodied woman taking the risk to own her legacy.
Philip and Diana- the two characters who move parallelly in the second episode of The Crown are given a brief point to face each other. Both of these figures have had troubled childhoods, and they even share an outlier status that cannot be shaken. Still, their perspectives on holding on to the institution of marriage as a sort of individual sacrifice cannot be more different. Philip reminds her that she is no longer a novice to understand that the family is not a family as it is deemed to be, but a system that has a boss. As long as the system is granted their full loyalty, there won’t be any constraints on how you lead your life. Diana is stunned at this reflection and doesn’t know how to react. This scene is pivotal in understanding how Philip is perhaps the only person in the inner circle of the family who truly understands Diana’s grief. He is on her team, as he reminds her. It also establishes the central conflict of the otherwise teasingly lighthearted episode surrounding the members of the Royal Family. Most of them are holding on to the relationship out of duty, not love. They are bound by the inevitability of the system that they cannot escape, or else they would have to row their boat away into wilder waters until it reaches the grave—a cold reflection made by Philip.
Episode 2 of “The Crown” Season 5, “The System,” does take the story forward with considerable speed. We were all waiting to see how The Crown would focus on the all-revealing tape recordings of Diana that would go on to shake the foundations of the Royal family, and the episode does not disappoint. One only wishes there was a little urgency in the proceedings, some more focus in the way the episode chooses to reimagine the atmosphere of this period of time. The episode ends with the publication of Morton’s book, and it certainly feels rushed. All of a sudden, he is getting attention, and copies of the book are getting sold. Who is this person? What were the consequences that he faced, and how did the publishing come about? How did Colthurst react to the end product? These questions hang in the air as the episode ends in an abrupt fashion. One wishes the director had taken some liberties as well as persistence in Philip’s carriage-riding tricks to reveal what happens within the household as the book is about to get published. The supporting characters, and for that matter, the boss herself, the Queen, are barely present in this episode. It dims the effect of the overall interest created by the contrast between Philip and Diana. Hopefully, the next episode will throw some light on these matters, but for now, we are down with one more episode of “The Crown” Season 5. So far, we’re barely meeting the bar that the last season set.