This episode centres on the great London smog of 1952, but for me it was a breath of fresh air. At last, an episode that didn’t feel like ‘The Philip’! I enjoyed watching events unfold in this climate-change mini-disaster movie.
The episode opens with Philip having a flying lesson. Thankfully, it then swiftly moves onto the arrival of the smog, and Philip’s involvement for the rest of the episode is largely restricted to opening his curtains in a motif that illustrates the opening of each successive day of smog.
After the credits, the real episode begins with scientists realising that unprecedented smog is imminent and then hurrying to cover themselves by running a report over to the government. Their gloomy certainty that no one will read it is tragicomic, given the head-in-the-sand attitude that many big business and governments still employ today about environmental issues. We then follow how the smog affects the lives of different characters over the next few days. The central issue is that Churchill responds to the smog by dismissing it as weather, an act of god beyond the interests of the government. As the situation worsens, the Queen, the leader of the opposition Clem Atlee, and even members of Churchill’s government become increasingly tempted to act against him.
Elizabeth continues to be a frequently opaque character. I enjoyed the evidence of her pragmatism when she decides to walk to visit her grandmother because the smog has made driving impossible. She spends much of this episode listening to various people advise her on what her role actually is, and whether she should use her influence to force Churchill to step down. After last week being so focused on her trying to get concessions for Philip, it was nice to see her deal with political problems focused on the nation as a whole rather than her own family. In the episode’s the final moments, when she deals with Churchill, it was a great payoff that hinted towards her future strength. I look forward to seeing her come into her own more in later episodes. In general, I think the show has a tough job to do in arguing that Elizabeth’s inaction and impassiveness is in itself a strength, and making that story a dramatic and engaging one, but here we got to see her manipulate Churchill which was exciting!
The episode also centres a lot more on Venetia Scott, a fictional secretary of Churchill’s who here provides us with an insight into the lives of women outside the royal household. We previously met Venetia when she had to crouch outside Churchill’s bathroom and read the daily reports to him through the keyhole. In this episode she acts as a foil to Churchill, her youth and energy playing off against his age and inertia. Equally I found her brown-nosing a little grating.
Of course, as often seems to be the case with TV shows, the increased focus on Venetia is intended to draw the audience in before she is hit by a bus. Effectively, she is fridged. Her death is the motivation Churchill needs to address the smog – after a touching moment in which we see Churchill’s grief when he is shown her body, he pulls himself together and spins political gold. The actual moment in which Venetia is hit by the bus was great TV – it is so sudden and shocking and equally, horribly ordinary. The aftermath also provided my favourite Churchill moment so far in the series, as I think it really gets across the message that although Churchill is an irascible old man who is not always in tune with the country’s needs, he has a genius for working the political machine. Generally I feel very ambivalent towards Churchill.
Margaret continues to exist. No really, she only appears in this episode to open curtains. I feel like they need to shift the balance either way – completely ignore her for a while, or give her something more substantial to do, let her interact with Elizabeth or cause a scandal or something. Her affair has no stakes for me, possibly because the chemistry between the two actors is weak.
My takeaway from this episode: the show as a whole continues slow, slightly bombastic, and undeniably beautiful, and how the monarchy functions and interacts with the government is now clearly its primary interest. I hope that we get more time on Elizabeth’s feelings and her interpersonal relationships in future episodes. I thought the political issues highlighted in this episode were dealt with in an engaging way, and I will repeat, I loved her final scene with Churchill, but I am starting to feel frustrated by how little are allowed to understand Elizabeth.