“The Crown’s” second season is captivating in a way that almost isn’t fair. The costume drama, which follows the early years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II (Claire Foy), is the kind of story that we’ve told for eons, whether that is the Bible’s take on King David or Shakespeare’s interpretation of Cleopatra — the inner life of a real ruler, at the intersection of duty, personhood, and power. It’s a show that covers so little that is new. Many of the events in the series were well-documented in the media at the time. Many of the characters in it, including Her Royal Highness herself, are still-significant public figures today. “The Crown” sounds like it should be a dry slog through the too-familiar territory of rich and famous people feeling sorry for themselves — a less soapy, more stodgy “Downton Abbey.”
But as fans of the first season can attest, because “The Crown” is executed so well — from the magnificent locations and historical table-setting to the fantastic, scintillating lead performance by Foy — this well-trodden material is turned into a rich and compulsively watchable narrative about history, celebrity, and the inescapable difficulties of being a person. Showrunner Peter Morgan, who is the sole credited writer on nearly every episode of “The Crown,” brings his experience as a playwright to bear on this production, with even more destabilizing character combinations than the first season. The second season of “The Crown” might be even more engrossing than the first: Where the first installment depicted Elizabeth’s call to action, and the rocky path to standing her own ground, the second season focuses on one of the enduring mysteries of royalty — the endlessly scrutinized and speculated over royal marriage.
The season begins on a storm-tossed ship, which is the closest Elizabeth and Philip (Matt Smith) can get to a private conversation in the mid-‘50s. Two episodes later, in an ambitious opening gambit that lays the groundwork for the season to come, we will return to the same scene — the same couple, the same ship, the same exact conversation, to watch all over again. The audience sees the exact same scene twice: The first without any context, and the second with three hours of context, which inflects each note with deeper meaning. In between, Morgan contextualizes — ruthlessly, relentlessly, in every direction. This three-episode jump doesn’t happen again, but throughout the second season, Morgan’s scripts take more risks with the timeline: He has more confidence in challenging the audience, and loops through history as a result. It’s destabilizing, but kind of brilliant: It makes watching “The Crown” itself an act of parsing history.
It also ends up showcasing moments over meaning, and instants over arcs, in a way that allows the lead performances to dazzle. Foy is doing the best performance currently on dramatic television in her Elizabeth, and this season gives her the opportunity to tease out the Elizabeth that befriended Jackie Kennedy (Jodi Balfour), met privately with the Reverend Billy Graham (Paul Sparks), and confronted her uncle — the former king Edward VIII (Alex Jennings) — about his encouragement of Adolf Hitler. It is difficult not to be on Elizabeth’s side in every scene she is in, because Foy cuts through what might be self-seriousness in the script to seize its emotional center. Her Elizabeth is both infinitely powerful and infinitely terrified, a woman who has no choice but to be what others put upon her. The season depicts how prematurely aged she is by her station — how she has the life of an elderly woman, in her mid-thirties, because she has to be the better person in every single encounter she has. It’s a fascinating trap, royalty: Elizabeth ought to be the happiest woman in the world, with her palaces and gowns. But because she is determined to be a good monarch, she can never really live for herself. Every mistake is dissected in public; every criticism must be accepted with a smile and a mantle of politeness.
Personal crises lead to standalone episodes that are all worth writing home about — the feminine competition in “Dear Mrs. Kennedy,” the unexpected magical realism of “Paterfamilias,” and the smooth, sexy episode “Beryl,” in which the princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby) meets the man who would eventually become her husband: Tony Armstrong-Jones (Matthew Goode), a sexually adventurous artist who oozes midcentury charm. It’s unreal how well done the entire episode is, from Kirby’s unstable and brilliant performance as the spoiled, heartbroken princess to the final shots of the episode, which silhouette Goode in a darkroom lit red as if he is the villain in a horror movie.
But then again, set piece after set piece in “The Crown” is worked to perfection, even — especially — just when it seems the show might be getting a little too self-important about the heavy weight of the crown. Best of all, “The Crown” shows versatility; it adapts to reflect the episode’s concerns, making for individually beautiful chapters. The first season showcased some of that. The second season does it even better. “The Crown” gets so good at delivering its emotional resonance that even some of the show’s epilogues are heartrending — like the episode about modernizing the monarchy, entitled “Marionettes,” or the one about Nazis and Christian forgiveness, “Vergangenheit.” There are few shows currently on air that convince you of how carefully considered its vision is, but “The Crown” does it constantly — whether that is the way the light streams through the window onto Philip’s shoulders, or the set of Elizabeth’s jaw as she addresses her prime minister. For that alone it is remarkable.
Philip, who in the first season remained a mostly dutiful husband, becomes a frustrating pain in the arse in the second season — and Smith leans into Philip’s public-school education and old-chap athleticism to create a devastating portrait of poisonous masculine pride. The second season covers a lot of ground, but ultimately boils down to an exploration of this very complicated marriage — between a man too proud to accept his wife is in charge, and a woman who wishes she could obey her husband like all the other wives she knows. “The Crown” works because the dramatic stakes of royalty, while themselves stunning, serve mostly to complicate how hard it already is to be a human being. In Morgan’s hands, the marriage — like the monarchy — is an instrument with which to measure how the world is changing around the royal family.
And it is changing quite a bit. The second season is a tumult of altered stakes and modernizing efforts — like televising the queen’s Christmas address and her sister Margaret (Vanessa Kirby)’s lavish wedding. The nature of celebrity is shifting; class distinctions are changing; and the significance of women in the public eye is evolving, too. (The announcement, Monday morning, that Prince Harry is engaged to marry “Suits” star Meghan Markle is perfect promotional timing: A case study in the delicate, managed balance between public partnerships and private desire. Watching “The Crown” and knowing that one day, a black American woman would become a royal princess is the most delicious dramatic irony of all.)
Morgan has been fascinated with this particular monarch for some years now — he wrote both “The Audience,” the play “The Crown” is based on, and “The Queen,” about the queen’s slow and rocky response to Princess Diana’s death. Again and again, the focus is on how this very particular sort of woman — an upper-class, horse-breeding Brit who has been surrounded by servants and courtiers since birth — learned how to evolve along with her country. To love Britain is, on some level, to love the queen, too; and though “The Crown” comes down rather positively on the notion of monarchs and titles, it’s difficult to argue with its central thesis, which is that in the strange job of being a queen in the 20th century, Elizabeth has done a very good job of it.
It feels strange to fall under the spell of “The Crown’s” second season, for any number of reasons: The cozy comforts of a costume drama seem too far out of step with the world in 2017, a second season is often less captivating than the first, and there’s more TV out there than ever — including a sharp, pessimistic dystopia set in British near-future, which is quite at odds with “The Crown’s” British near-past. But then again, it is a show about a woman persevering at all costs, even when the men she loves most fail her, out of a sense of duty to the future. Perhaps it is not strange at all.