Episode 6 of “The Crown” Season 5 wants you to decode the tiniest of links that can join an entire ancestral heritage as well as bridge over the larger holes in the history of marriage. It is titled Ipatiev House and traces the roots of Elizabeth’s 20th-century predecessors, starting at the dining table of King George, where he gives a letter to his wife, Queen Mary, seeking approval of an impending decision that will change their lives forever. The year is 1917, as we are placed right in the center of the Bolshevik Revolution along with the First World War. The letter that is passed on to Mary by King George includes the permission to bring back the Russian royals, which includes Nicholas, his wife Alexandra (she and Mary are first cousins), their five children, and their house help, all of whom are imprisoned in Ipatiev House.
The answer is no. Soon enough, under the garb of transferring them to a safer location, the Russian soldiers bring the family together for a photograph and then shoot them mercilessly. Their dead bodies are dumped in a mass grave. It is a lot to take away, given that this is just the prelude to the episode. But then, Ipatiev House doesn’t stop there and goes on for the next hour to thread a rather jarring connection between the complicated history of the royal family with the Russians and that of the marriage between Elizabeth and Philip. A little peak in is not enough, as this episode suggests in its own understanding of the personal as political. Let us dive in!
Cut to the present, as Boris Yeltsin (Anatoliy Kotenyov) becomes the first ever democratically elected President in Russia. British Prime Minister John Major returns from a short trip to Russia to report his first impressions of Yeltsin. Major had a hard time handling his tipsiness, but still, he was impressed with his eagerness towards nourishing relations with the monarchy. If that would mean an extended invitation to Britain, he is all ready for it.
We return to Jonathan Pryce as Philip, who has grown accustomed to the duties that his role demands. His routine is so busy that when Elizabeth asks him if he ever gets tired, he is slightly surprised by the question. There is so much distance between the two of them after four decades of marriage that nothing is left to be said anymore. Philip finds fulfilment in carriage driving, as the earlier episode had hinted, with a particular fondness for the companionship of Penny.
Even as the Queen extends an invitation to Boris, she is informed of his association with the brutal murders of the Tsars at Ipatiev House when he was working as a functional officer. Boris sits beside the Queen during lunch and talks about their mutual views on the monarchy. When he also extends an invitation to the Queen to come to Moscow, she takes the opportunity to remind him of the ghastly history of her ancestors that traced back to Ipatiev House, which, if the Prime Minister remembers correctly, involved his presence. They deserve a proper burial, she says. Boris is a little stunned at the Queen’s directness, yet he promises to look into the matter to ensure that the bodies are given a burial.
The conflict arrives in the search for the bodies when the forensic team requires a sample of DNA in order to determine whether these bodies truly belong to the tsars. It turns out that Philip is the closest living relative, as the Tsarina was his great-aunt. The episode then takes a turn to build on Philip’s eagerness, propelled not by the Queen but by Penny, to trace his ancestral history back to its roots. His blood is taken for the DNA sample, and soon it is informed that the bodies indeed belong to the Romanovs.
From this revelation onwards, Ipatiev House takes a strangely incisive look at Philip’s growing interest in the Tsars and the confrontation that ensues between him and his wife over their differences that have grown so huge as to have turned into a chasm. Philip clearly makes his point that he seeks emotional and spiritual companionship with Penny, and the Queen is stunned at his justification. Philip even suggests that she strike up a conversation with Penny, as it might remind her of her family’s contribution to the deaths of the Tsars in the first place. I must say that the scene feels a little too far-fetched in this episode. The Crown was never subtle in its connecting links, but this episode takes things to a jarring point of saturation.
The relay of Elizabeth’s stagnant marriage with Philip does not fit well with the political implications of reclaiming one’s own history. Why, I thought, did the makers hammer in this connection? To focus on Philip? His relationship with Penny has been given way too much importance this season. In the earlier seasons, Philip’s arc was more rounded and definitive because of the rugged sense of energy Matt Smith and Tobias Menzies brought to it. Jonathan Pryce fails to match that ground, unfortunately, and comes off as unceremoniously loud and nagging. The writing clearly does him no favors here. The zero chemistry between him and Imelda Staunton’s Elizabeth might be the point the creators want us to hold, but it does not make up for the lack of emotional heft that Ipatiev House offers.
Some of the strongest moments of the show are in the silences or the looks the characters exchange without saying a word. Elizabeth’s pause after she is informed that Petty has arrived and the self-conscious manner in which she affirms her point in front of her are well done. Note how she shrugs off her sweater after the conversation is over and almost has tears in her eyes. The performance anxiety has taken a toll on her. Philip is able to observe that quite early in the episode, even though he is not able to sympathize with her at any given instant. This episode also chooses to imagine how the facade of performance is bound by duty. It is not a determiner of one’s standards but definitely reveals character and goodwill. Notice how Boris has the nerve to mock the monarchy and the palace in his own language in front of the Queen. Just a few moments ago, he was singing the praises of the Queen and extending his favors. Notice how Penny is far more relaxed with Philip but rather stiff and careful with her words when talking to his wife. She knows for certain that word has reached her.
Ipatiev House concludes with Elizabeth downplaying her own hurt, like always, to make peace with Philip. She invites Penny to go to church with her in order to leave no room for media speculation. Elizabeth wants to nip it in the bud, even as her grief grows and accumulates inside her. Stauton gets quite a chance here to showcase her abilities of restraint and controls her projection of grief beautifully. If only the creators of the show could match her in an episode like Ipatiev House, which does not quite know when to nip itself in the bud.