The Crown: Assassins

“Deposit your ugliness and go.”

Recap

The episode has two storylines. One concerns the cracks in the marriage of Queen Elizabeth and her husband Prince Philip; the other is about Winston Churchill’s having his portrait done and being forced to retire.

Reactions

The episode opens with a romantic song from the period, while we watch a couple meeting. At first we don’t get a good view of the woman, who from the back resembles Queen Elizabeth. The woman in question (not Elizabeth but an American) is receiving a proposal from a fellow (Lord Porchester, called Porchey throughout the episode). Porchey used to be in love with Princess Elizabeth; the woman he’s proposing to is concerned that he still is. I must say I rather like the idea that someone is carrying a torch for our monarch!

Philip arrives home late and shuts the adjoining door of their bedrooms. What’s he doing all these late nights? So far we just have hints of drinking and perhaps flirtation, but anything else? Anyway, all is not well in the royal marriage, and Philip’s feelings of inadequacy are made worse by Queen Elizabeth giving Porchey a direct line. I don’t see the attraction of Porchey (sorry, Joseph Kloska) but there's nothing like a shared interest. In the end Queen Elizabeth makes a speech to Philip, that she has always loved him and only him, and can he give her the same assurance? (This is a strong hint that Philip has been or is being unfaithful, as is the conversation with Princess Margaret earlier, when she mentions Philip’s “other” passions. Who, I wonder? Michael? Or some unnamed woman? Internet gossip is unclear.) Queen Elizabeth has been compelled by her position to mature much faster than usual, while Prince Philip, with his ill-defined role as consort, has been retarded in his maturity. I have not made up my mind about this storyline, but it’s fair to include. Most marriages suffer under stress, and the royal pair must feel it.

The other storyline, however, is fantastic. Churchill is no longer fit to serve as Prime Minister. He needs to resign. But how do you make that happen? Anthony Eden, who believes he should be Prime Minister, is most convinced of this of all, and ends up having a fight with Churchill on the subject. Now, I don’t like confrontations – in person, I mean, I appreciate them in storytelling – but sometimes the only way to reach a goal is to fight the dragon – and Eden does it. Now that Churchill and Eden are in much better health than they were in the seventh episode (Scientia Potentia Est), each man feels as if he deserves to be at the top. But Eden is the only one with a clean bill of health, and he demands that Churchill resign. Besides, if a person is not willing to confront another, s/he does not deserve to be Prime Minister.

Both Houses decide to give Churchill a portrait for his 80th birthday. It sure sounds like an honor, commissioning a portrait, but Churchill is immediately suspicious. Were all the people behind this being devious and spiteful? Or should the gesture be seen as a way to honor a man while compelling him to retire?

Churchill’s approach to painting is telling. He leaves stuff out of his landscapes, such as ugly factories, if they don’t please. Well, that may be permissible for a painter – at least in some cases - but it’s an irresponsible, even dangerous attitude for a Prime Minister. Churchill certainly was not that way when he was younger, when he did not shirk from threats. Of course, there’s a difference between dangers external and internal. With external dangers, you can conquer and emerge a hero, but what can you do against old age?

After the painting is unveiled, Churchill finally stands down and we see his last audience with Queen Elizabeth. She says that she has been expecting this for some time; that is to say, his resignation is long overdue. But she does not harangue him; she is learning to be firm but gentle. And as he is no longer her Prime Minister, their relationship relaxes. He sits in her presence; he kisses her on the forehead instead of her hand.

Now this is a great scene: As Churchill’s car is pulling away from Buckingham Palace after his resignation, in the mirror he sees the next car pull up. It contains Anthony Eden, who is coming to the monarch in his first act as the new Prime Minister. (The Prime Minister is dead! Long live the Prime Minister!) In a totally classy move, Churchill orders his own car to stop and he gets out in order to extend his good wishes to the man to follow him (both literally and figuratively). I like how we don’t have a verbal exchange between Eden and Churchill but we just get the visual, watching them from a distance as they shake hands, framed as they would have been seen by the drivers of the two cars. In the end Churchill shows himself to be a better man, putting his beloved Great Britain first after all. Kudos to Lithgow in all these performances; he has brought the wit and gravitas of Winston Churchill to the role.

Churchill hates the portrait so much that it is burned, with his wife standing by.

Title musings. The title “Assassins” made me wonder if there had been an attempt on Queen Elizabeth’s life back in the 1950s; my knowledge of British history of that period is fairly sketchy (and one reason I’m enjoying this series). But the title is metaphorical, not literal. One could argue that Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip are doing things to undermine, if not assassinate, their marriage – but that application of the metaphor is rather weak. The first use of the word “assassin” is used for the portrait painter. A portrait painter can make a huge difference (consider what Hans Holbein did for Henry VIII). We have the government trying to assassinate Churchill’s career, or, as they probably saw it, put it out of its misery. Finally, the Churchills assassinate the portrait itself by burning it. However, the real assassins are time and age; we are all mortal, even the best of us.

Bits and pieces

We got to see some horse humping! I wonder how they directed that as animals are notoriously difficult to direct. Did they pick the black filly for the stud Aureole before filming, or did they see which filly the stud preferred, and add the dialogue after? Moreover, apparently one horse played Aureole the racehorse and another played Aureole the stud.

At last we see that Elizabeth does know horses, something that has been told in the past but never shown.

This episode is superb in how it uses music, with the song at the beginning evoking nostalgic romance to the "Happy Birthday" and "He’s a Jolly Good Fellow" to celebrate Winston Churchill’s 80th and the iconic music from Elgar.

Appreciated the conversation between Churchill and Sutherland and Churchill’s painting and repainting of the pond on his grounds. Churchill said he kept painting it because it was a challenge, while Sutherland related it to the grief that Churchill experienced at the death of one of his children. But couldn’t the most logical reason be the most straightforward – the pond is on Churchill's property, and hence the most convenient subject?

The discussion of Churchill and Sutherland about the loss of children reminds us that infant mortality was much greater in the past: even in developed nations; even among the privileged. And a reminder that death takes everyone, sooner or later.

And here’s a question: I can understand the desire to be portrayed as younger, but what versions should one use when promoting one’s self? Should it always be the current age? Or how about the age at which one was at the top of one’s career? (Should I update the photo I'm using on this blog?)

Quotes

Porchey: For her there was only ever Philip.

Churchill: Whatever would an Englishman want to change?

Churchill: For accuracy we have the camera. Painting is the higher art.

Churchill: I never let accuracy get in the way of truth if I don’t want it to.

Clementine Churchill: Even the socialists admit you saved the country.
Churchill: Through gritted teeth.

Eden: At some point, every leader must ask himself, whether by staying in office, he is giving to the country or taking from it. Helping or harming.

Churchill: You’re not just painting me, you know. You’re painting the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and everything that great office represents. Democracy. Freedom.

Sutherland: Age is cruel. If you see decay, it’s because there’s decay; if you see frailty, it’s because there’s frailty.

Overall rating

I thought this episode was excellent, with the zigzags to Churchill’s inevitable retirement. The other story, the trouble in Queen Elizabeth’s marriage with Prince Philip, and her flirtation with Porchey was important but not quite as compelling, but the portrait story elevates the entire episode. Four out of four brushstrokes.

Victoria Grossack loves math, Greek mythology, Jane Austen and great storytelling in many forms.

2 comments:

Billie Doux said...

It is a fascinating little bit of history that this episode covers. And I mean the portrait. I worked in an art museum for many years, and the destruction of an important piece of art appalls me; I had a hard time seeing the episode as an episode and wound up reading up a bit about Graham Sutherland and the portrait itself.

As he and Sutherland are going through the sittings, Churchill keeps trying to one-up Sutherland; Churchill is a great painter himself, doesn't Sutherland want some tips from Churchill on how to paint him, Churchill is after all the leader of the free world, and so on. All the while, Sutherland is seeing Churchill as old and frail and *done*, and it's Sutherland who guesses why Churchill keeps painting the pond without being able to capture it. Wow.

The bits about Elizabeth and Philip's marriage are more tantalizing than interesting. I can understand why the writer would want to hint at their marital problems instead of stating anything outright, but I thought it was interesting that the episode began with Porchey proposing to someone else that wasn't Elizabeth. They were saying that Elizabeth might have been a lot happier with someone like Porchey who shared her strongest interest, horses, and possibly hinting that Porchey would have loved her for herself, and Philip didn't. Philip's unhappiness with his role isn't overly dramatic, but it's a constant drip drip drip, isn't it?

Mallena said...

I can kind of see why Churchill was bummed about his picture. My avatar should have more grey in the hair and less red. I haven't had hair that red for 10 years. Pictures are hard, the first thing I always do is look to see if I look heavier than everyone else around me.

This was a very good episode and good review!