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The Crown: Ipatiev House

Penny: "Thanks to this, we'll be able to learn about your family in their final days. You don't find this exciting? Seeing one's entire essence and history."
Prince Philip: "What? Reduced to a series of banal, anonymous lines?"
Penny: "I'm sorry. There is nothing banal about this. This is our essence. Our lives. Written in another glorious language."

Episode description: "Eager to lead a newly democratic Russia, President Yeltsin tries to win the Queen's support while she navigates new rifts in her marriage with Philip."

This episode is a big departure from the bucolic life of the 1990s royals – remember the dull carriage driving of a previous offering this season? – and reminds us that life can be brutal. Only "Aberfan," the episode in Wales, when a coal "accident" happened and scores of children died, was worse. As that was an accident – albeit the result of negligence – it did not provoke the same visceral reaction as the deliberate murder of the Romanovs.

The open takes us back in time to 1918 and shows the royals in two different countries: the United Kingdom and Russia. King George V is preoccupied with hunting pheasants and with stamp collecting. The Tsar Nicholas, on the other hand, has lost control of Russia to revolutionaries; he and his family will soon lose their lives.

The guns in the parallel scenes are being used to kill living beings, which is the main purpose for guns, and in both sets of scenes, those committing violence are reveling in it. Of course, in one case humans are being killed; in the other, only pheasants – but the birds might argue they have as much right to life as any other creature, and they are being shot in enormous numbers.

After the murder of the Romanovs we return the current time, in the 1990s. Prince Philip is flying around the world, giving speeches and attending ceremonies, being super avtive, while Queen Elizabeth is preparing to receive Boris Yeltsin, the newly elected leader of Russia. Yeltsin wants her to visit Russia, as a show of support for his democracy. She says she will do so if he can assure that the Romanovs get a proper burial. Yeltsin is not pleased by this, but he accedes to her request.

After some work – and some DNA, involving Prince Philip – the Queen and her husband take a trip to Russia. The Queen hopes this will bring them back together, and she makes a very lame joke on the airplane. The speech Queen Elizabeth gives in Russia emphasizes the differences between herself and her husband. The makers of The Crown are beating us over the head with the “they’re so different” motif.

In this episode, Prince Philip is very much the forerunner of Prince Charles. Both men need someone to listen to them, to put them first. Prince Philip, at least, has the courtesy not to embarrass his wife; he gets the Queen to bless the friendship. This is done very well. She is not happy about it, but she agrees. Besides, she has her own gang: her mother, her sister, and a whole bunch of Corgis.

How true is any of this? Any of this? The creators of The Crown may deserve to have their poetic license revoked; I have seen pushback on several of their threads. For example, I’m not sure that Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip were really having marital problems at this point. There may also be no evidence that Queen Elizabeth negotiated with Boris Yeltsin for the proper burial of her distant relatives. Queen Elizabeth could have decided to visit Russia simply in order to support democracy and to encourage stability (alas, it did not work). At any rate, the two main threads of the episode seem unsupported.

Back to 1918: the theory that the British royals were reluctant to take in the Russian royals seems to be valid, although whether they did or not may have made little difference. Given how calm the British are these days (and jeez, how absolutely petty the royals are) it may be hard to realize that those in the palace sometimes feared for their lives. They have reason for these fears; King Charles I was beheaded; monarchs have been murdered in other countries. And although the British populace seems to adore its monarchy, the recent death of Queen Elizabeth brought out different feelings from many in the various colonies who suffered greatly, especially at the beginning of her reign.

Title musings. “Ipatiev House” is the title of the episode, and it refers to the place where the Romanovs were housed before they were murdered. I like this title.

Bits and pieces

My favorite character (by far) in this episode is John Major, played by Jonny Lee Miller.

Boris Yeltsin’s rude comments in the presence of the Queen reminds us why you should always have your own translator around when engaged in anything diplomatic.

For those who are wondering why Prince Philip was the best person to supply DNA, it’s because mitochondrial DNA only goes through the maternal line. He had a straight maternal line to Queen Victoria, as did Tsarina Alexandra and her children.

They could not use Prince Philip’s DNA to identify the corpse of Tsar Nicholas, which explains why that identification would have been delayed.

Prime Minister Major talks about the marriage of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and his second wife, Anna, as being successful and long. Well, they were married for fourteen years. That’s not so long these days. Of course, that was a while ago, when life expectancies were shorter (and Fyodor was considerably older than Anna and the marriage was ended by his death).


Queen Elizabeth: I am curious to hear your impressions of Mr. Yeltsin.
Prime Minister Major: When the coup was launched, he could easily have compromised with the plotters, tried to make a deal with them, but he never wavered, and the people love him for it. That said, I'm not certain I've seen him sober yet.
Queen Elizabeth: I thought you had spent several days in his company.
Prime Minister Major: I did.
Queen Elizabeth: He can't have been drunk all that time.
Prime Minister Major: I think he might have been.

Queen Elizabeth: Don't you ever get tired?
Prince Philip: Only by sitting still. We're different that way.

Yeltsin (in Russian): We all know the truth. It was in this house that the Romanovs' deaths were sealed. Not the Kremlin. She should be careful. Or she will end up with a bayonet up her arse too.
Queen Elizabeth: What did he say?
Yeltsin: Hmm?
Interpreter: How thrilled he is to be here.

Queen Elizabeth: And if I ask you... to end your companionship.
Prince Philip: That would be a mistake. I don't want to be asked to give up something when I've done nothing wrong. But I accept that the newspapers and some other idiots might see me in the company of a beautiful young woman and, well, jump to the wrong conclusions. So I'd like you to do something.
Queen Elizabeth: What?
Prince Philip: I'd like you to befriend Penny. I'd like you to be seen with Penny.
Queen Elizabeth: You're asking me to legitimize your...
Prince Philip: My friendship. My companionship. Yes.

Overall rating

This is a hard one to rate. Artistically there were some things I liked about it – the juxtaposition of the dead pheasants to the dead Romanovs, for example. And I liked how Prince Philip got permission to have a companion in Penny Knatchbull. However, in other ways, the episode kept beating us over the head, with both Elizabeth and Philip complaining about how different they have become. I also suspect a lot of it is not true. My rating may be biased; these days I am finding it more difficult than ever that anyone should be granted, by virtue of their birth, the right to rule over others. Two and a half out of four dead peasants pheasants.

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

1 comment:

  1. I found the murder of the Romanovs to be brutally filmed. I actually had to turn away when the soldiers turned on the girls. As you say, the juxtaposition of the human bodies in one truck and the bird carcasses in another was powerful and only enhanced just how gruesome all the blood and shooting was.

    The part of this episode I loved was Elizabeth setting Penny straight on why Queen Mary would make the decision she did. Throughout the episode, Elizabeth is being set up as not quite as intelligent, not quite as curious, not quite as literate. By calmly telling Penny exactly what the truth was, she put herself into a great light. The following shot of her clinging to Queen Mary's desk chair as she shed a few tears was incredibly moving.


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