If the first season of The Crown was all about the rise of a youthful and popular monarch and the twilight years of a venerable prime minister, the second season is decidedly not. One of the final shots in season 1 showed Prime Minister Anthony Eden (Jeremy Northam) passed out in a drug-induced haze as newsreel footage of Egypt's leader, Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser (Amir Boutrous) fizzles out before him.
When season 2 picks up in 1956, the crisis has escalated to a boiling point that would prove catastrophic for British influence on the international stage, otherwise known as the Suez Crisis.
It's a theme that comes back throughout this season of the show as Queen Elizabeth II (Claire Foy) finds out that the old rules no longer apply when it comes to governance and monarchy. Here's a quick primer to help you follow along.
How did the Suez Canal come to exist, again?
Deep breath, now: Egypt had officially been a protectorate (a nice word for what is basically a colony) of Britain from 1914 to 1922, but France and England had held a presence there since the nineteenth century, when the two countries oversaw the construction of a canal which could connect other territories of interest to North Africa.
Built over ten years in the 1860s, the 120-mile canal connects the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea, providing an invaluable passage for European commercial shipping.
The British had maintained a military presence in Egypt after their formal protectorate of the country (basically a form of colonial rule) was dissolved in 1922. In 1936, the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty granted Britain primary control of the canal zone, which was vital to British economic interests.
Okay, okay — but why the crisis?
In July 1956, Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt's charismatic and nationalist leader, decided to seize and nationalize the Suez Canal, which until then had been administrated by the British military. We actually see this play out in the very first episode of The Crown's new season, when Egyptian soldiers burst into the headquarters of the Suez Canal company in Port Said, as Nasser makes a speech to an enthusiastic crowd about the need for Egypt to take back its own resources.
The whole thing was a severe embarrassment for Prime Minister Anthony Eden, who, as we saw in The Crown's first season, had been waiting in the wings for years to succeed Winston Churchill at the head of the country, and felt personally slighted by Nasser.
This was all compounded by Eden's mounting health problems. In season 1, he had to take a leave of absence to have surgery for gallstones, which then led to another surgery in 1957 — post Suez Crisis — to replace a bile duct. In order to manage the intense pain these health issues incurred, Eden began to take an increasing number of drugs, which The Crown implies, may have impaired his judgment in an already precarious situation.
In October 1956, Israeli troops — conspiring with Britain and France — attacked the canal in an effort to wrest control from Nasser's forces. British and French troops joined in a couple of days later. (They were actually all supposed to strike at once, but the French and British were late to the party.) But the whole thing fell apart in less than 24 hours when the United States refused to back their stratagem, which was enormously humiliating for both Eden and the monarchy.
So, what's the big deal?
Nasser acted with the support of the Soviet Union, who was determined to diminish the Western presence in the region. In the midst of the burgeoning Cold War, the incursion by Britain, France, and Israel was seen as a rapid escalation of the conflict, which could possibly lead to a outbreak of actual fighting.
The United States government, at the time led by President Eisenhower, was furious that the United Kingdom, France, and Israel had acted without consulting them, and threatened all three countries with economic sanctions if they did not immediately withdraw from the region. The incident caused a marked decline in British and French influence as world powers, and shook the foundation of both countries' colonial empires, which would be dismantled over the next decade. It also signaled the rise of the era of American dominance in international affairs, which we'll see play out over this season of The Crown when the Kennedys come for a visit.
How did this all end?
Anthony Eden resigned in disgrace, and was succeeded by Harold MacMillan (Anton Lesser), who would serve as prime minister until 1963 — at which point he had his own crisis to deal with, so stay tuned.