While scanning reviews of Netflix’s The Crown season 2, one might be surprised to see the word “soap” tossed around. In a world where the Lyon family chews through more scenery in an episode of Empire than a hungry piranha could in a week and the titular town of Riverdale is besieged by murderers, millionaires, and sexy, sexy teenage love triangles, the buttoned-up British drama seems to pale in comparison to those dramafests. However, the descriptor all makes sense by the time you hit the Crown season 2 finale, “Mystery Man.” The 2017 closer is filled with governmental intrigue, sex scandals, and romantic upheaval. Yet, even with those very soapy tendencies, there’s still some big sweeping moments that need explaining. So, let’s get into it.
The major throughline of The Crown season 2 is the tension between Queen Elizabeth (Claire Foy) and her petty, sometimes-aimless husband Prince Philip (Matt Smith). Did Philip ever cheat? Did he simply want to cheat? What could keep him “in” the only relationship in the world that could never end in divorce? To answer these questions, “Mystery Man,” places Philip into the real-life Profumo Affair. The 1963 scandal rocked British politics by revealing then Secretary Of State For War John Profumo, a married man, had a short affair with a young woman who was also very briefly sexually involved with Soviet Naval attaché Yevgeny Ivanov. That reveal would be bad at anytime, but it's catastrophic in the middle of the Cold War.
As a massive, British-culture-changing scandal, it makes sense the Profumo Affair shows up in The Crown. The surprising choice is Prince Philip’s addition into the infamous transgression, as the real-life Philip was never publicly implicated in it. Yes, it was known Stephen Ward, the alternative medicine guru to high society at the time and the connecting figure of the Affair, had drawn Philip multiple times, but it has never been said their friendship extended beyond that.
However, the finale suggests their friendship actually ran quite deep. As Elizabeth suffers through a high-risk pregnancy, Philip gallivants around Europe. Although we don’t see him with Stephen, all of this socializing immediately follows the “osteopath's” invitation to the royal to attend one of his many parties; the kind of parties we now know Soviet officers and British officials can meet the same woman. By the end of all the intrigue around Ward and Philip’s relationship, we’re left asking whether the the Queen’s consort was accidentally photographed with Christine Keeler (Gala Gordon), the young woman at the center of the Affair. Elizabeth’s sister Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby) muses, “There is something Philip in the shoulders” of the episode’s titular “Mystery Man” snapped with Christine. Philip denies it.
And, that denial is the real point of the Profumo Affair ensnaring Prince Phillip behind the scenes. The possible infidelities aren’t the real concern here. Rather, they’re a vehicle to settling the uncertainties in the royal marriage. With the Affair’s damning suspicion in the air — during a pregnancy no less — Elizabeth and her husband are forced to actually put their cards on the table in a way they hadn’t prior in the season, and, therefore years earlier.
So, their emotional conversation is actually a bookend and a callback to the scene that opens The Crown season 2, where Elizabeth demands to know what concessions will end Philip’s whining. It’s dark, cold, and a literal storm rages outside as the couple talks in premiere “ “Misadventure” about the very public cheating rumors circulating in the press. Nine episodes later, they’re now debating private speculation about an affair; outside, it’s sunny and placid. All of these differences suggest how Elizabeth’s opinion on her marriage has changed. Instead of trying to placate her rolling stone of a husband, she has the receipts and isn’t afraid to use them.
In another callback to “Misadventures,” the queen confronts her husband about his latest ridiculous explanation for questionable travel (read: dolphins) by pulling out a photo of a beautiful ballerina. In the season 2 opener, Elizabeth finds a photo of performer Galina Ulanova (Aliya Tanikpaeva) in Philip’s travel bag. The queen removed the image, left a shady note about family in its place, and never speaks about it again. Now, about seven years later, Elizabeth is unearthing the long-forgotten dubious photo to prove she’s always known how plausible Philip’s unfaithful past is.
Unlike what happened on that stormy boat in Lisbon years ago, Philip isn’t allowed to make demands anymore. This time, he has to both physically and metaphorically shut the drawer on that subject forever and swear fealty to his wife. “You are the essence of my duty … [I'm] in, not out,” Philip stoically explains, directly referencing the boat conversation. Elizabeth appreciates his honesty, admitting if Philip needs to blow off some “steam” under the pressure of the monarchy, she can “look away” from the occasional extracurricular activity. Yet, Philip doesn’t want that as he hints there are actually no extracurriculars to look away from in the first place. “You can look this way,” he offers. So, this little marital play ends with Philips head resting in Elizabeth’s lap, a long ways away from the icy standoff that opened season 2.
While two more short scenes follow the study-set détente (the true relationship détente of season 2) both feel like the epilogue to Elizabeth and Philip’s “look this way” conversation. Now that all their cards are on the table, including the trump card of “Misadventure's” Galina photo, the royal couple can welcome another child into the world and lord over the monarchy’s latest official photo, together.
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