Claire Foy knows how to breathe. She expresses more with each exhalation than most actors do with their whole bodies. In a scene from the second season of the Netflix drama The Crown, which premieres tomorrow, we see Foy, as a 30-year-old Queen Elizabeth II, attending the ballet alone. It is 1956, and her husband, Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, is somewhere at sea. What began as a short yacht trip to open the Summer Olympics in Melbourne stretched into an extended five-month circumnavigation; the Queen remained in England with the children while the Duke sailed around the globe with no clear date of return.
When we see the Queen in her box at the ballet, she has just learned from her mischievous younger sister, Princess Margaret (the slinky, droll Vanessa Kirby) that Philip’s best friend and private secretary, Mike Parker, has earned a reputation for arranging dalliances between aristocrats and beautiful women, namely ballerinas. As the principal dancer twirls across the stage in a tutu, she keeps glancing up at the Queen in her box with a glare that transmits both fear and smugness. Did the prima ballerina have an affair with Philip, or are her knowing glances a figment of the Queen’s imagination? What we do know is that the Queen can never breathe a word of discomfort to anyone. And so, she simply breathes.
We see Foy’s chest rising and falling, faster and faster underneath the weight of her diamond choker. She is experiencing as much of a royal panic attack as is allowed in full view of thousands of theatergoers (which is to say, it’s subtle). Her clavicles thrum with anxiety and her eyes dart back and forth across the stage. Confronted with a potential adulteress, she must keep her composure. This is where Foy truly shines as the monarch. She understands that embodying the Queen is an exercise in communicating volumes while saying almost nothing. In The Crown—as well as in, I would imagine, the day to day lives of the Windors—subtext is everything.
The first season of The Crown, created by the playwright Peter Morgan, was mostly prologue. If the current Elizabethan monarchy was written as a comic book, season one would be the hero’s origin story, in which she must realize and accept the gravity of her powers. Morgan has spent much of his professional life fascinated by Elizabeth’s reign. He wrote the Helen Mirren biopic The Queen, and also The Audience, a hot ticket play starring Mirren that explored much of the same terrain. The first season showed his tender interest in her youth, when she frolicked in fields with hunting dogs and bred horses.
Morgan’s script is kind, in the first season, to the 25-year-old Princess, who grew up knowing her fate but was not fully ready to embrace it. When her father, Bertie, dies suddenly and she becomes the sovereign, it takes her several months—and several episodes—to get her proper bearings. When she does find her sea legs, her transformation into a stoic leader is swift. Season one ends on a bitter note, after Elizabeth forbids her sister from marrying the man she loves, the once-divorced Peter Townshend. Both the Parliament and the Church reject Margaret’s plea to marry, citing Townshend’s past as a liability against the Commonwealth, and the Queen is forced to accept their verdict and leave her sister heartbroken. This is a cold move from a sister, but a bold move as a monarch. It is not that Elizabeth puts country over family, it is that she recognizes that for her, the two entities are never truly separate. This sets up a tension that runs throughout the second season of the show: how much of her personal life Elizabeth must sacrifice to reign supreme, and how so little of her heart remains her own.
Which brings us back to her breathing. Foy is, in the second season, a genius of restraint. So much so, that the secondary characters in the show threaten to eclipse her spotlight. Vanessa Kirby, as Margaret, is radiant as a woman in love. In the fifth episode, she falls for the swinging society photographer Anthony Armstrong Jones (Matthew Goode, cutting a sharp profile as a caustic roue in ivory cashmere) and she manages to veer wildly between immature infatuation and petulant entitlement, icy sarcasm and besotted romantic. Matt Smith, as Philip, is also given prime rib scenes this season, as we see him grow grizzled and cocky on the royal yacht in the absence of his wife and then callow and mean when the rumors bring her to the ship for a tense confrontation about how to save the marriage.
This tete-a-tete on the boat, which opens the season, becomes the driving narrative force of the first three episodes. Morgan shows us the fight once, and then two episodes later—after lingering on the conflict over the Suez Canal and the Prime Minister’s clandestine plan to foment it—he shows it to us again. This time, we dive deep into the drama that has led to the face-off, from Philip’s gallivanting to Elizabeth’s increasing insecurities about her age and desirability. It hits hard when Elizabeth tells him that they are “like no other couple in the country” because they have no escape hatch; they are at the point of dysfunction where any other pair would separate. Instead, she offers to make Philip a Prince, to mollify his complaints that even his young son outranks him. In the end, it is a band-aid on their troubles, but then, Philip seems like a cat with the cream once he wears the red velvet crown.
The Crown is one of Netflix’s most expensive and expansive investments to date. Morgan reportedly got a $100 million budget to make the first season. The result is a period piece that is so sumptuous and baroque that it feels deeply transporting, the show feels literally fit for a queen. Often this excess is intoxicating. The costuming on the show is impeccable, as are the crisp interiors, the brisk foxhunts at dawn, the crown jewels that gleam like lighthouses from Foy’s appendages.
And yet, spending so much time among the inherited riches can make one feel dizzy. As Morgan himself has said of the monarchy, “It is clearly a deranged institution and a completely insane system, but perhaps it’s the insanity that makes it work.” He is so fascinated by the royal family because deep down, he questions their purpose, even when faithfully recreating the Queen’s drawing room down to the last gilded ottoman. In Vanity Fair, Morgan said that he sees his work on The Crown as being closer to The Godfather than to Downton Abbey:
It is essentially about a family in power and survival. I wish I could get to write sequences like the revolving door and shooting people and horses’ heads, but I can’t. Because this is not a violent family.”
The Corleones are the authors of their own downfall, and while the Windsors continue to flourish in England, it is clear that Morgan hopes with the second season of The Crown to destabilize the monarchy myth that he set up so seamlessly in the first. Where the first season depicted Elizabeth as a bit of a naif, new to the job and wobbly as a result, the second season sees her fully shouldering the work, while clearly suffering privately from a deep unhappiness. This interior drama may be where Morgan and his collaborators are inventing: We still do not know if Philip really strayed, or if it made the Queen despondent. But it is clear that The Crown, which was gave us a gentle portrait of the sovereign’s early years in its first season, may now raise some eyebrows at Buckingham Palace.
If Megan Markle streams The Crown for insight into her new life, she will see her future grandmother-in-law making impossible choices, choices that would not have at one time allowed her into the narrative. But, as Foy so brilliantly conveys in the new season, there was so little leeway in the young queen’s life. She sacrifices her own contentment, her own comfort, in order to maintain an even keel. Inside, she is seething. But she is remembering to breathe.