fragile masculinity

The Crown’s Must-Watch Episode Is About Being a Man

Matt Smith as Prince Philip. Photo: Mark Mainz/Netflix

I, like many of my fellow Crown-heads, think there has been a smidgen too much Prince Philip in season two. I’ll take Elizabeth’s clipped politesse or Margaret’s devastating side-eye (heck, even Michael C. Hall’s weird JFK impression) any day over Philip’s scowling and whingeing. Imagine my surprise, then, when the episode that absolutely blew me away was episode nine, “Paterfamilias”: a Philip and Charles–centric episode set in the men’s respective boarding-school days, and a perfect piece of stand-alone drama even for those who have yet to delve into The Crown’s riches.

It’s an episode that looks at family ties on an deeply intimate level, depicting Philip (the great Matt Smith) and Charles not merely as duke and future king, but as father and son. It also redeems some of Philip’s more unappealing traits — namely, his perpetual insecurity regarding his masculinity — by exploring where this fragility comes from, and how he ends up projecting that warped sense of self onto Charles. The Crown is at its best when it plunges galoshes-deep into the messy stuff of being both a person and a royal, and this episode shows the characters at their most devastatingly human.

The episode centers on Philip’s decision to send Charles to Gordonstoun, the rugged boarding school in the Scottish highlands that he attended, instead of the more hoity-toity Eton College (where Charles would literally be able to see Windsor Castle out the window, and to sleep in his own bed if he so chose) lest the future king become “another wet, namby-pamby, mollycoddled twit, like the rest of the British upper classes.” Gordonstoun, Philip declares, is where he learned to be a man — surely it will do the same for Charles. “In order to grow up properly, you need to get away from all this nonsense,” Philip tells his son, who is daintily eating hard-boiled egg from a silver cup. “This is not the real world.” And he’s not alone in propagating this notion of manliness; later, we see Elizabeth watching a news report that lauds Gordonstoun as the perfect place to turn the waifish prince into a man who can “serve the country.”

The rest of the episode jumps back and forth between the two boys’ Gordonstoun experiences. English boarding schools are a notorious crucible of masculine hazing, and this episode explores how a uniquely British rite of passage plays out within the context of the royal psyche. At first, both boys are bullied mercilessly, with the other students mockingly referring to them as ‘your royal highness’ (not to mention running for hours in the mud, ice-cold showers, and other Dickensian horrors). Yet Philip responds by fighting back and growing stronger. Charles, meanwhile, buckles under the weight of the bullying and physical hardship.

Midway through the episode, we learn that Philip’s already-challenging boarding-school days were interrupted by tragedy. After Philip gets in trouble for fighting at school, his beloved sister Cecile (who is, by the way, a full-blown Nazi!) changes her plans to spend the holidays with him, and ends up getting on a plane to London. After hitting some bad weather, the plane crashes, killing her, her husband, her two kids, and the newborn baby she gave birth to on the flight. (This is depicted in harrowing detail — trigger warning for viewers with fear of flying — and all true.) After her funeral, where a crowd of Nazis with swastika armbands salutes the coffin, Philip’s even-more-horrible father berates him for causing his sister’s death. “You may hate him now, but one day probably you will be a father yourself,” consoles Uncle Dickie, Philip’s mentor, in a rather on-the-nose bit of dialogue. “You will fall short as all parents do, and be hated, and you will know what it is to pray for the forgiveness of your own son.”

For Philip, the rigorous environment of Gordonstoun is what helps him survive the trauma of his loss. When Philip returns to school, he is changed; the rigors (really, more like abuses) of boarding-school life become a way to work through his pain and emerge stronger. We watch him build a wall with his bare hands, straining under the weight of the bricks, covered in mud. And, when he finally goes into the school and asks his classmates for help, we recognize it as a major accomplishment.

Charles is, well, different. Charles is a delicate little feather of a boy — the episode opens on him shivering in the corner of a muddy rugby pitch, before getting knocked to the ground as his classmates mock him — who would be better suited to Wells for Boys rather than running Tough Mudder in the Scottish highlands. “He’s uncommonly shy, sensitive, delicate,” an adviser tells Elizabeth at the beginning. His time at Gordonstoun is depicted as an unending nightmare; the other boys torment him mercilessly for his weakness, and he is forced continuously into grueling physical feats that wear down his spirit instead of nurturing the skills he has (suffice to say, he comes in last in the school challenge, which his father shows up to preside over). The postscript for the episode reveals that Charles remained at Gordonstoun for five more years, describing it as “a prison sentence” and “absolute hell.” (He ultimately sent his own sons to Eton.)

Charles’s education also becomes an occasion to explore one of the the show’s ongoing questions: what it means to be a man married to a queen. When Charles is being mercilessly bullied and Elizabeth tries to pull him out of the school, Philip threatens to leave the marriage. “Bullied children are scarred for life, and scarred children make destroyed adults,” argues Elizabeth, talking to a man rather scarred in childhood himself. So Philip plays his familiar, dog-eared trump card. “You and I had an agreement, a deal that ensured there would be some level of equality between us in the marriage,” he shoots back. “Charles’s education is my responsibility. Yours is to honor my word and keep your husband.” It’s clear that this is not merely about an education or passing on a legacy, but something bigger — about Philip asserting his place in the royal landscape, and shaping Charles, thus the future of the monarchy, in a way he hasn’t been able to do himself.

“Paterfamilias” is a nice companion piece to “A Company of Men,” from earlier this season, in which we saw how threatened Philip is by Elizabeth’s power. Sent off on a royal tour, Philip acts out in the most stereotypically male way — by getting on a boat with a bunch of dudes, growing a vacation beard, and getting laid on various tropical islands while sending missives home to his “lunch club” about his conquests. His fragile sense of masculinity has to do with his diminished royal rank; as he complains to Elizabeth at one point, “Right now, I am currently outranked by my 8-year-old son!” “Paterfamilias” shows how these intertwined crises — of masculinity and of status — intersect in his parenting of Charles, both in how Philip wants to impose a certain picture of manliness on the boy, and how his own residual childhood trauma leaves him blind to his son’s suffering. Charles, adrift, is in need of love; Philip, denied that himself, has only tough love to offer.

The end of the episode features one of the series’ most heartbreaking scenes. After Charles bungles the Gordonstoun Challenge, Philip takes Charles on a flight in his plane as a “treat.” Amid heavy turbulence, Charles starts to cry. Philip, who was initially comforting his son and giving him his version of a pep talk, loses his temper. “Don’t be so bloody weak,” he screams, ripping Charles’s headphones from him and sending the boy sobbing into the back seat. “Out! Get out!” Philip — who dealt with his own family tragedy by becoming a fearless pilot — sees in his son not a vulnerable child in need of nurturing, but an echo of the weakness that he himself needed to squash in order to survive. Both father and son emerge as painfully sympathetic.

Yet for me, the excellence of this episode also points to a flaw in the series. As Kathryn VanArendonk noted over at Vulture, “there’s a small voice in my head that’s muttering, ‘Oh, sure. Take a show about the longest reigning monarch in British history, someone who happens to be a woman, and turn it into a story about masculinity and fatherhood.’” I can’t help but feeling that the show has always held Elizabeth at an arm’s length, to its detriment. For all the emphasis on family, we don’t actually see many scenes of Elizabeth being a mother, perhaps because the show is loath to dig into her weaknesses. In one powerful moment earlier in the season, Philip observes that Charles “isn’t a child to [Elizabeth] … he’s also the Crown. A living embodiment of who will replace her, supersede her. Loving a child who, through no fault of his own, represents your own death can’t be easy.”

Yet despite occasional glimpses of Elizabeth’s detachment from Charles, the show mostly depicts her in rather a rose-tinted light, showing how she balances her queenly duties with preternatural grace, rarely succumbing to human weakness. Likewise, in arguments with Philip, she pretty much always occupies the moral high ground. As a depiction of motherhood and femininity in the context of a royal life, the show is slightly limited by the way it glamorizes Margaret and handles Elizabeth with kid gloves. Yet when it comes to showing how fatherhood and masculinity floundered within the royal family, The Crown does not hold back. While many of the show’s storylines are hard to relate to, “Paterfamilias” feels like a much more universal parenting story — one that reminds us there is often a very heavy weight resting on a child’s head, even without the promise of a crown.

The Crown’s Must-Watch Episode Is About Being a Man