The Crown, Season 2: Reconciliation and Her Majesty

Sometimes forgiveness can also come with some serious heartbreak and firm boundaries, as it did with the Queen and her uncle.

Carrie Willard / 2.14.18

The second season of The Crown is just as beautiful as the first, and more complex. As we watch the marriage of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip ever-so-slightly unravel at the seams and Princess Margaret’s love life take dizzying turns, the Queen still has to hold down her day job, which is to rule over the British Empire.

Peter Morgan, the creator of The Crown, was recently interviewed on NPR’s “Fresh Air.” NPR summarized their conversation:

He says, “Let’s just stop thinking about them as a royal family for just a second and think about them as just a regular family.” Like any family, Morgan says, the House of Windsor has its share of shame, regret and “misdemeanors of the past”; and, of course, “no family is complete without an embarrassing uncle.” In the case of the Windsors, the uncle in question was King Edward VIII, who abdicated the throne [in] 1936, paving the way for Elizabeth to become queen in 1952.

The “uncle in question,” whose given name was David, appears in the middle of the second season of The Crown, in an episode called “Vergengenheit,” the German word for “past.” Here’s a little secret: when a writer uses a four-syllable German word instead of its one-syllable English counterpart to describe something that happened in the first half of the 20th century, there are probably going to be Nazis. Sure enough, it is revealed in this episode that David colluded with the Nazis, betraying his country and Elizabeth’s beloved late father, King George VI. This is revealed to Elizabeth at the same time that David asks her for permission to come home to England after his retirement to France. In order to grant this permission, Elizabeth understands that she must forgive him for his misdeeds of the past. At the time that he asks, she thinks that his only “misdemeanors of the past” involved his scandalous marriage to a divorced American woman, Wallis Simpson, along with some obnoxious insults directed toward his niece, the Queen herself. When it is revealed that his betrayal of his family and his country were much more grave, Elizabeth feels deeply the possible consequences of her forgiveness.

In case this is all getting too serious, on his visit to England to scope out his possible future there, David stays with an old friend nicknamed “Fruity.”

At the same time, the Queen takes an interest in the televangelist Billy Graham. With the reluctant permission of her aides, she asks Graham to preach at All Saints’ Chapel at Windsor. Prince Philip once again reveals himself to still be the sinner that we grew to know and love (to hate) in Season 1 when he asks the Queen if he can just skip the church service: “Can’t you just say I’m off sinning somewhere?” Which leads the Queen to utter the line that might be everyone’s favorite from this season: “Do shut up, Philip.” The Queen is moved by Graham’s words about sin, and takes them to heart as she makes the difficult decision about whether, and how, to forgive her uncle.

After the Queen has heard Billy Graham preach, and at the same time (at least in the television series) learns about the depth of her uncle’s betrayals, David meets with her at Buckingham Palace to ask her for a job under her monarchy. She turns down his request, and then feels guilt for her denial. With her reflections with the Rev. Graham about her identity as “just a simple Christian,” she wants, earnestly, to forgive her uncle’s misdeeds. She consults with her husband (who by all accounts, should be enthusiastically approving of her desire to forgive, given his own need for it) and then talks with her late father’s trusted advisor, who both strongly urge her not to allow her uncle to have a position in the British government. She emphasizes her Christian duty, as the ruler of a Christian nation, to forgive, and struggles with this even as she hears more details of her uncle’s betrayal of his own countrymen.

In the end, the Queen denies her uncle’s request for a job, and she reminds him that, under the terms of his abdication of the throne, he only has permission to return to Great Britain at the pleasure of the monarch, which she then explicitly denies. In response, David hurls insults at her, attacking her directly, as well as her beloved late father. She speaks back: “There is no possibility of my forgiving you. The question is: how on earth can you forgive yourself?”

Of course, we don’t know exactly which words were spoken between Elizabeth and David, or whether she consulted Billy Graham about her internal dilemma. Graham reminds her that nobody is beneath forgiveness, and even when Jesus was dying on the cross, he asked God to forgive those who killed him. The Queen gently pushes back with Jesus’ own words: in that case, Jesus himself said, “They know not what they do.” She sees this as a conditional forgiveness, and if they had done this knowingly, maybe they would be unforgivable.

It’s at this point that you might want to whisper through the television into Billy Graham’s ear: “She’s talking about NAZIS.” It’s the same feeling a lot of us get when reading Jesus’ words about forgiving “seventy times seven” times. Really? Even Nazis?

The fictional Graham continues: “God himself forgives us all. Who are we to reject the example of God?”

The Queen, with a freshly lowered anthropology, given the news of her shady uncle, replies, “Mere mortals.”

Graham offers a “solution” for being unable to forgive: “One asks for forgiveness oneself. Humbly and sincerely, and one prays for those that one cannot forgive.”

The next scene shows Elizabeth alone, on her knees, praying in the chapel, and again, on her knees in her bedroom at night. When a tipsy Philip comes in and congratulates her for her decision to send David back to France, she confesses to him that she still thinks that her inability to forgive her uncle was a “failure” of Christianity. Philip reminds her that she protected her country and the reputation of her family.

This is hard stuff, and while most of us don’t have national security interests in mind, we often don’t find neat, tidy answers to the difficult work of reconciliation. When we are called to forgiveness, even “seventy times seven,” there’s no deadline attached to it, and there’s nothing that says that we should be expected to do it alone. The words of the baptismal covenant come to mind: “I will, with God’s help.” We might even, as the fictional Graham of this episode suggests, ask God’s forgiveness for our inability to forgive.

When reconciliation and forgiveness become law, instead of reminders of God’s grace towards us, they don’t become easier to achieve. And forgiveness does not always mean that we let the wolf back into the chicken coop. That would be cruel to both the wolf and the chickens, and the farmer who has to clean up the mess. We have to be careful when we paint broad brushstrokes about forgiveness, remembering that the victims of domestic abuse have been told for generations (by the church!) that they should forgive their abusers to keep the peace.

I don’t think that it means that we should give up on forgiveness and reconciliation altogether, of course. I think we do need to remember that we need God’s help to forgive, and that sometimes God’s timeline is not on our calendar. Forgiveness may not always look like we think it should, with everyone hugging and getting a nice cushy government job at the end of the episode. Sometimes forgiveness can also come with some serious heartbreak and firm boundaries, as it did with the Queen and her uncle.

I appreciated this episode so much, for its glimpse into the Queen’s struggles to try to piece together a broken family, and looking to Jesus as her guide. The episode showed how deeply unsatisfying it was for the Queen to not have a tidy answer to the problem of her uncle and his misdeeds, and how she still turned to God even when she was not getting the answers that she thought she might want.

I wrote about my own struggle with reconciliation here, and described the waiting time as leaving a door open, but not standing in front of an open door waiting all day. I am so grateful that we can ask for God’s help to keep that door open for all the times that we can’t, even when “we” wear a heavy crown on our heads. There are echoes of this in Morgan’s NPR interview — thinking of the royal family as just a “regular family,” and the words he gave the Queen that we are “mere mortals.” God save the Queen, and God save us all.


5 responses to “The Crown, Season 2: Reconciliation and Her Majesty”

  1. Linda Klitzke says:

    Excellent, Carrie! Wonderful reflection on a very difficult topic.

  2. Tchadinfos says:

    Carrie Willard, thanks a lot for the post.Really thank you! Much obliged.

  3. Ananda Krishnan says:

    Brilliantly written.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.