WHAT IT’S ABOUT Peter Morgan’s second installment picks up in 1956, with the outbreak of the Suez crisis, as Prime Minister Anthony Eden (Jeremy Northam) tells Queen Elizabeth II (Claire Foy) that Britain must intercede militarily. This season also delves deeper into questions surrounding the rumored infidelities of Prince Philip (Matt Smith) and the struggles of Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby) to find love, while John F. Kennedy (Michael C. Hall) and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy (Jodi Balfour) finally get to Buckingham Palace. This will be Foy’s last season. She’ll be replaced in the third by Olivia Colman.
MY SAY Let’s cut straight to the moment you really want to know about: When does Jackie turn up? Waiflike and ethereal in her pillbox hat, Balfour’s first lady makes her arrival in the eighth hour, when she instantly upstages JFK, or rather Hall, who accessorizes the scene as opposed to actually “star” in it. This is all about Jackie and the queen, who shortly find common ground in their lives, then a common bond — shattered a few weeks later when Elizabeth learns of some unkind remarks the first lady made about her at a party. You may even distantly recall the details: something about “thick ankles” and “incurious.”
A few delicious scenes later, the queen and Jackie meet over tea. As Jackie dissolves into an apology, an arctic chill comes from the other side of the table. The queen slathers butter on a scone, listening if not quite hearing. But beneath the table is where the real action is. Her ankles — those famous ankles — are tightly crossed, in an attempt to hide their girth. Her majesty, the queen, is human after all.
If the second season of “The Crown” is more entertaining than the first — or just flat-out better, which it is — little moments like this demonstrate why. There are countless ones over these 10 hours. The first season was initially hagiography masking as a high-end TV series. The second season is "Vanity Fair," full of characters, life, humor, passion and buttered scones. Morgan not only has a series to match his 2006 Oscar-winning movie, “The Queen,” but finally one to exceed it. “The Crown” — the second season, anyway — is magnificent.
It’s actually left to Margaret’s new boyfriend, the future Lord Snowdon (Matthew Goode), who, in one off-handed remark, explains how “The Crown” lifted its game on the second go-round. “Surface is so dreary,” he drawls. “What people hide, that’s what interests me.”
Besides those ankles, you can easily guess what Foy’s Elizabeth has become adept at hiding. Disappointed or failed by those closest to her, including patronizing prime ministers and a husband with a wandering gaze, she retreats into herself, becoming a monument to probity.
But monuments tend to get old fast. It’s the flawed humans that make interesting TV, and season 2 has a crowd of them. The first three hours are largely devoted to Prince Philip’s Commonwealth Tour to Australia aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia. These make a self-contained movie that manages to restore his dignity while slyly diminishing it in the process. He finally gets the title he seeks, along with the sartorial flourishes it requires — robes and a crown, each oversized and a little lopsided.
“The Crown” is about two institutions — the monarchy and marriage — but only in the closing seconds do both meet heart to heart, or head to head. In a breathless final scene, Elizabeth’s bows down to touch Philip’s. This will be your last look at Foy as Elizabeth. Be sure to savor it — and her.
BOTTOM LINE Magnificent, and improves upon the first.