Season Two of The Crown opens with a fight that hasn’t happened yet.
Queen Elizabeth and Philip (Claire Foy, Matt Smith) are formally dressed, sitting across the room with their backs to one another. We don’t know why or how they got there, but we know that Elizabeth and Philip are on a ship near Lisbon that is at the mercy of a small rain storm. Their words are restrained. The faint tinkling of glass fills the silences, suggesting a long-simmering tension that has come to a boiling point and reminding us that every conflict in the royal marriage is pressured by forces beyond their control. The forces of church and state and public opinion are always rocking the boat.
No one can last forever serving others out of mere duty.Inside the ship, the queen strips down their marriage to its mechanical core. Something isn’t working. What’s the least we can do to make this work, or at least appear to work? She approaches the argument coolly by appealing to duty: we’ve made an agreement called marriage, the way out that is open to other people (“Divorce” mutters a glum Phillip) is not available to us, and thus we need to find an arrangement that will make our marriage work. “What is it going to take,” she asks him “for you to be in and not out?”
You don’t have to like it, she seems to say, just do your duty.
When we finally see this fight in context in episode three, we realize at least some of the hurt that was left unspoken. Philip doesn’t tell her how disappointed he was, instead of a loving send off, all he got was a note with a brief appeal to duty: Always remember you have a family. Elizabeth doesn’t explain how the photo of a famous ballerina in his travel bag raised suspicions that were only later all-but-confirmed by reports of his carefree behavior while at sea. They’ve been hurt. They both retreat into a mechanical, dutiful relationship that is hardly a relationship at all.
What becomes clear throughout season two is how desperately lonely it is to wear the crown. Bound by duty, informed by precedent, Elizabeth has all but given up on trying to use her authority according to any of her own instincts. Instead, she resigns herself to a life of dutifully fulfilling her obligations. When she accepted the crown, that symbol of power and responsibility from which the show derives its title, she accepted that this role was her duty, and she begins to expect that those around her ought simply to do the same.
In this sense, Elizabeth is like any woman who has ever accepted a role—whether as a mother, wife, or queen—that is loaded with cultural expectations. Her personal instincts are suppressed as she filters each decision through the lens of her duty and prioritizes her responsibility to others. But as Elizabeth grows in confidence as queen, she increasingly loses herself. When her sister Margaret (Vanessa Kirby) remarks over breakfast, “I prefer you to be yourself, but I realize that’s impossible—you have no idea who you are,” it is clear that the lines between her role and herself have blurred permanently.
It is good to lean in to duty, to give up preferences in order to take responsibility for the good of others. Jesus himself taught that the blessing of fruitfulness follows the death of the seed, and such a willingness to give up oneself in the name of serving others is admirable.
But The Crown shows us that we cannot live on duty alone.
While her husband and sister keep the minimal requirements of their duty, they feel a lack of purpose and grow eager to accept any invitations. Both find friends far beyond the palace walls—the further the better, it seems—while Elizabeth finds herself increasingly isolated. One of the few times she ventures out is to meet the wife of Philip’s private secretary, an old friend from their days in Malta. But Elizabeth jeopardizes any remaining shred of friendship when she asks for a favor. Little does Elizabeth know, this appeal to duty won’t work on Eileen Parker (Chloe Pirrie), who feels she has lived her whole life doing favors for the royal family. Elizabeth seems genuinely surprised to find that not everyone is capable of running so efficiently on duty alone: not her restless husband, her heartbroken sister, or her wounded friend Eileen.
Unable even to express her own loneliness, Elizabeth finds herself drawn to visiting celebrities who might offer some spark of friendship. She arranges a meeting with Billy Graham (Paul Sparks) in episode 6, confessing to him that she admires the certainty that he provides when he illuminates the scriptures. Under his preaching, she says, she feels the “great joy of being a simple congregant, of being led,” rather than bearing the responsibility of being head of the church, where “above me there is only God.” Billy Graham understands immediately. “That must be lonely sometimes,” he says. “Yes, it is,” Elizabeth laughs. Which is why it is so heartbreaking when Elizabeth believes she’s found a moment of honest connection with another fellow high-profile female, Jackie Kennedy (Jodi Balfour), only to discover Jackie’s betrayal in mocking Elizabeth’s home and her rather boring personality.
But meaningful relationships must be built out of more than just a passing connection. Without a sense of duty to one another, we slip into and out of relationships casually. We can enjoy moments of kinship, but without commitment, we fail to offer one another friendship at the most critical moments of our lives. Elizabeth is helpless to offer much more than a letter to Jackie Kennedy when her husband is shot. We need those who feel a duty toward us to show up at our lowest moments.
By the end of the season, Elizabeth finds herself exhausted and alone in Scotland. She’s pregnant again, Philip is frequently gone, and her sister is married to a man whose commitment seems suspect, at best. And it is at this moment of weakness that duty calls her husband back to her. Elizabeth has made a controversial appointment for Prime Minister and fled back to Scotland. When Philip arrives at the palace he finds angry protestors outside and the angry accusations of his sister-in-law inside. “Why are you here?” he asks Margaret. “I could ask you the same question in reverse,” she says. “Why are you not here?” It’s a fair question, and one that sends Philip, finally, off in search of his wife.
It doesn’t appear to be love that draws Philip to Scotland, but duty. He finds his wife as curt, silent, and tight-lipped as duty has trained her to be. But later, in a moving fight that is both the antithesis and the continuation of the opening scene, Elizabeth finally brings up all of the suspicious behavior to which she has been attempting to turn a blind eye. She’s willing to continue to look the other way but Philip is the one finally to bridge the space between them: “I’m saying I don’t want you to. You can look this way.”
As a Christian, I am often tempted to slip into a mechanical obedience. I recognize my responsibility to my children, my husband, my church and, absent the desire to fulfill my role, I convince myself to serve out of duty. We are to serve one another, yes, but not just in the name of duty. Service motivated by anything less than love clangs like a tuneless cymbal, drawing attention to itself but not pleasing anyone. No one wants to feel they are being treated with mere duty. No one can last forever serving others out of mere duty.
Up to this point, Philip and Elizabeth have managed to maintain the appearance of a marriage. They have lived their lives on parallel tracks. It is painful to watch their mechanical obedience to routines that help them avoid one another, so it is a relief when they finally crash into one another. They still have enough passion left to lash out a little. Away from the palace but on solid ground, they complete the argument they began at the beginning of the season. Finally they can both ask for what they want: a relationship built on desire, not just duty. Because duty will remind us to show up, but only desire inspires us to reach across the gaps that duty leaves between us.