I admired season one of “The Crown,” the lavish Netflix series about the life of Queen Elizabeth II, but season two, which premiered on Friday, December 8, manages to exceed it. That’s all the more impressive given the absence of John Lithgow, whose Emmy winning performance as Winston Churchill was seen as a highlight of the series’s first year. If I say the show doesn’t miss him it’s not to diminish his contribution to the series but rather to highlight how richly the show evolves even without him.
And if any show needed to prove itself after the loss of a cast member it’s this one. While Lithgow’s storyline ended after season one, the entire rest of the cast is set to be replaced after season two. The ambitious plan for the series calls for the characters to be aged next year as the show follows the royal family through the decades. But while it’s bittersweet that the cast is stepping down just as they’ve hit their stride, the series has proven sturdy enough to weather such changes.
If there’s one benefit to the absence of Churchill it’s that the show has room to more deeply invest in its returning characters, especially Elizabeth’s husband Philip (Matt Smith) and her sister Margaret (Vanessa Kirby). Each of these 10 episodes feels like its own short story exploring a different personality or facet of the royal family, from an episode exploring Philip’s ego, alienation, and desire for purpose during a foreign tour, to another that showcases the lowest lows Margaret experiences as her rebellious personality chafes against the duties of a proper princess. Margaret also has new romance with Tony Armstrong-Jones (Matthew Goode) reveals a new side of the princess as well as a provocative new side of British social norms.
The arrival of the Kennedys (Michael C. Hall and Jodi Balfour) isn’t just a way to mark the time — hey everybody, it’s the ’60s! — it also becomes an insightful look into how two very different women in very different cultural contexts struggle under the weight of public notoriety. The way Elizabeth’s view of Jackie changes speaks volumes of how she views her own uncertain role in the affairs of her country.
As for lead actress Claire Foy, she too has evolved in the role of Elizabeth. The new monarch’s uncertainty in season one has given way to a steadiness and a pragmatism in season two. She’s steelier, able to dress down a prime minister this time with the confidence of her crown. But Elizabeth just can’t win: just as she has settled into her role, the society around her has unsettled around her. Customs have changed in England, and her traditionalism isn’t a comfortable fit anymore.
What’s most impressive about Foy’s performance is how she is able to express all that internal conflict through Elizabeth’s stiff upper lip. Being the monarch doesn’t allow her much freedom to open up, but when the camera holds on Foy’s face the actress is able to convey a world of emotions in the slightest changes of expression.
But don’t take my word for it. Critics have also weighed in with their praise. As of this writing season two of “The Crown” has a MetaCritic score of 88, seven points higher than season one. Sonia Saraiya (Variety) writes, “Foy is doing the best performance currently on dramatic television in her Elizabeth.” Jen Cheney (Vulture) adds, “On every level, ‘The Crown’ is deserving of praise.” Lorraine Ali (Los Angeles Times) says, “Elizabeth’s personal life, Philip’s identity crisis and the geopolitics of the era are seamlessly triangulated here.” And David Wiegand (San Francisco Chronicle) agrees with me that “the new season is even more engaging that the first.”
Have you started binging “The Crown” yet? Watch our exclusive video interviews with Matt Smith and Vanessa Kirby discussing the second season below.
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