The second season of The Crown might just as well have been subtitled "The Americans are coming!" Not that the season is all Yanks, all the time (or even most of the time), mind you, only that one catches slow glimpses of American power waxing as British power further wanes. The Kennedys, says Philip (of all people!) are like "royalty," and even supposedly staid aristocrats respond to them like teenagers with a celebrity crush. Similarly, Billy Graham cruises through, his emotional revivalism disgruntling the more respectable class of Anglicans. More ominously, an American historian forces the British government's hand on the Marburg files, which reveal much about the Duke of Windsor's dalliances with the Nazis. Everyone, especially the Queen Mother, grouses about the strange fissures emerging in British society: too much feeling on display, louder grumbles from the working classes, insufficient respect for the divine right of kings, and an increasingly noticeable unwillingness on some parts of the Commonwealth to continue deferring to the UK's might. Or lack of might, given that the season opens with Nasser considerably damaging the UK's brand over the Suez Canal crisis.
Historians quip that "the middle class is always rising"; it's The Crown's thesis, meanwhile, that the monarchy is always in crisis mode. And to solve a crisis, you need to work the optics. The series' fixation on media is a hallmark of modern monarchy films, including The Crown scriptwriter Peter Morgan's The Queen,* and like The Queen, a good chunk of this season involves us watching the characters on the screen watching screens of their own--that is, when they aren't listening to the radio, reading the papers, dealing with photographers, or watching themselves being satirized on stage by Beyond the Fringe. In particular, the clashing styles of photographers Cecil Beaton and Anthony Armstrong-Jones embody this season's take on the monarchy's relationship to the twentieth century, with Beaton producing images of an untouchable, otherworldly monarchy and Armstrong-Jones images that seem intimate and stripped of artifice. (The contrast is further embodied in the technological differences between their cameras.) The royals have little to do except perform for the media and, in turn, consume their own images through the media. Lord Altrincham's critique of Elizabeth, as represented here, has nothing to do with substance (as one character points out, the great thing about a constitutional monarchy is that the monarchs have no power) and everything to do with acting; when Elizabeth dines with the hoi polloi in Buckingham Palace, she behaves with outward grace and a distinct lack of inward graciousness. Her successful intervention in foreign policy by dancing with Kwame Nkrumah is explicitly staged as a battle of competing photo ops, in which she trumps the Prime Minister and her advisors with a greater display of media savvy. At the same time, the season drills down on the lack of "humanity" (as Philip glumly observes when he dismisses his errant personal secretary) of this approach to the public eye: Eileen Parker's rage when both Lascelles and Elizabeth try to get her to back down on divorcing her adulterous husband in order to save Philip's reputation is one of the more spectacular examples, as is Jackie Kennedy's sad apology to Elizabeth over what turns out to have been an abuse- and drug-induced spiel of insults.
Last season's movie camera makes another symbolic appearance, as Elizabeth passes it on to Philip as he goes away to find himself on a five-month Commonwealth tour. On the one hand, giving Philip the camera hints that Elizabeth has relinquished the director's eye in favor of being the camera's object; on the other hand, it also suggests, as we see with Nkrumah, that she has instead learned to manage the camera from in front. Philip's travels, though, parallel Elizabeth's later voyage to Ghana in another way. The Commonwealth tour is supposed to be a largely all-male escape from the cameras--notably, when Philip gives in to "vanity" (his word) and invites a female reporter to interview him in Australia, he quickly discovers that his hormones have kept him from perceiving that the woman might have a brain. Both Philip and his secretary, Mike Parker, treat the Commonwealth as an opportunity for male adventure; while the cameras linger on natural beauty and partly-clothed bodies, Parker's lascivious letters to the Thursday Club (where waitresses have to deal with pawing hands as part of the job) indicate just how much exploitation is involved. (That being said, your mileage may vary about just how much exploitation the series is engaging in here.) Indeed, one of the season's not-so-subtle arguments is that the older men in charge seem entirely incapable of grasping how they're perceived by those not like themselves, whether overseas (Anthony Eden's massive miscalculations) or at home (the painfully out-of-touch speech that Michael Adeane writes for Elizabeth; Macmillan's choice of successor). The women, one hastens to add, do not actually fare that much better, as Elizabeth's cringe-inducing encounter with Eileen Parker suggests. But whereas Philip largely treats the Commonwealth as a personal playground of games and dancing that liberates him from the constraints of public life (that is, until Parker's scandal brings everything to a crashing halt), Elizabeth dances the foxtrot with Nkrumah in what both understand to be a significant political gesture. Elizabeth accommodates herself to life before the camera, and finds a degree of power there, while Philip, who believes that he can escape the cameras, learns otherwise. Still, as the season's final image of them--a squabbling extended family, not the poised and alone Elizabeth, before Cecil Beaton's eye--suggests, it's difficult to successfully package the messiness of private life.
*--Alert viewers will probably pick up the direct visual quotation from The Queen: the stag, both alive and dead.