john lithgow the crown spinoff and other musings

John Lithgow, The Crown Spinoff, and other musings

Tara and I seldom watch TV shows and movies — I’ve focused on doubling down to catch up on my reading. Having said that, we burned through The Crown during the holiday break and I have some thoughts, spoilery though they may be:

For one, the series tends to focus on the tension between the two Elizabeths — and, to some regard, the two Georges early on — that haunt the halls of whatever mind lurks beneath The Crown. Every tension, every conflict, comes down to the struggle of mere mortals who make their way as gods. It’s an interesting twist on an old story, the one from Bulfinch’s mythology in which gods pretend to be men. I’m thinking less of the gospel narrative and more of the kind of trickster behavior you see in Loki, more so in the visiting of Jupiter and Mercury (Zeus and Hermes) upon the people of Lycaonia, which caused the Lycaonians to worship Paul and Barnabas as if they were gods themselves. Apotheosis is no easy burden when shouldered by flesh and bone. Perhaps that’s why it killed the only man who may have been worthy of such a transfiguration. And perhaps, having taken such a burden, he had good reason to trade the load and tell us his yoke was easy.

Elizabeth Windsor wants to bind herself to her sister Margaret. Elizabeth Regalis, as head of the church and state, wants to set a precedent for Everyman. Or Everywoman, depending on the subject. George Windsor wants to enjoy his time as a father behind the scenes with his girls, left to his speech impediment and his introversion. George Regalis wants to beget a new England (though not New England) through the bloodlines of his sires. It’s like a continued Jekyll and Hyde motif, like a slow, British horror story played out again and again: do they really have what it takes to bear the burden of godhood? Yes they do. They have what it takes to choose duty. But duty to what? In the world of The Crown, the plodding inevitability of monarchy seems like something they cling to in spite of a rapidly changing world.

And yet, faced with the prospects of an American Despot (an evocative potential book title if ever there was one), the prospects of “American carnage,” one wonders if the extreme evils of absolute power might be balanced by the extreme goods of absolute power. After all, giving total power to an individual makes it just as easy for a nation to renounce power and choose the way of the servant. Hasn’t Pope Francis show us this is true? The makers of the show certainly have a bias, for they’ve twisted Princess Margaret into an ahistorical version of herself in which she did everything she could to fight for her affair with the divorced airforce commander and only The Crown, The Church, The Cabinet, and those with common ancestry — namely Elizabeth — stood in her way.

Yet questions linger: what of the Margaret who tested whether she really loved this man to this degree? And what of the airforce commander’s other loves? As typical with these Hollywood dramas, we only see the lust for one another and the objectification of humanity for the sake of sex and never the other side: the consequences of such extramarital affairs. Were none of this true, we would still have our heartstrings pulled in the horror of Elizabeth choosing the Crown over her vow to her sister.

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And yet… did not her sister Margaret choose her extramarital affair over Elizabeth? With Elizabeth as the point of view character, we never see that side of Margaret, but does that prohibit the Queen from making the argument? It seems, in short, a punch fest on a character who did in fact choose one duty over another which is a better dilemma — the greater of two goods — than that of a princess who chose one betrayal (an extramarital affair and the breaking of her sororal vow) over another (a bad and public breakup) — the lesser of two evils. And, truly, Elizabeth is depicted as choosing the greater good even though the cost is steep, but we never hear about Margaret choosing the greater evil. By the moral compass of Hollywood, it is assumed that she is righteous in her unrighteousness. Put starkly like that, the absurdity is plain and therefore so is the falsehood.

Yet the polarity of the two Elizabeths, even of the two Georges, persists throughout and gives us a broader take on what it means to be a werewolf who holds the highest and most dignified office. Imagine Remus Lupin as the King of England and you’re getting close: being in very conflict with duty. The muted arguments, the unspoken compromises, the unheard lies, the tasteless poisons, the numb tortures, the unseen voyeurism and surveillance — it’s all very British. Like if Downton Abbey built a House of Cards. The keystone, however, is John Lithgow as Sir Winston Churchhill.

Perhaps it’s the part of me that cares for language combined with the deep string of anglophilia that pulls taut my spine, but I have always found the historical person of Churchhill compelling even when he’s dead wrong and tyrannically evil. It’s the same part of me that loves Chesterton: even with a revolver in his vest pocket and a saber in his hand, G.K. seems to have come closer to a realized manhood than many pacifistic saints. It’s the intersection of poetry and courage, I think. The fact that to be a man is to fight: to fight for the sake of those behind you. To live well and to die for a worthy cause in the heart of society, singing the music of the spheres as you pass. A command of the language is insufficient, for many cowards have had that. And having the fight in you also will never suffice, for many fools have had that as well. No, it’s the wisdom of ages articulated through the mouth of a genius in space in time, a genius who sets aside himself for the sake of his people and readies his heart to die that others might live. Even in his old stubbornness, you get something of that same Churchhill in this piece through John Lithgow. It reminds me of that piece of paper found in that old revivalist preacher’s vestpocket after he passed: from six in the morning until nine at night, FIRE. I have tried to live my life with that kind of tenacity and I plan to continue in that regard until I can live no longer.

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Perhaps the greatest moments for John Lithgow’s Churchhill come near the end of the series. He’s a man plagued by a great joy — that of duty and the hope of a saving his country — and a great despair — that of his personal loss that might infect everything else and compound the communal losses of the colonies. Those two come to a head not only in the episode cleverly titled Assassins, but also in his having hid a stroke from the Queen. She, with her tutor’s encouragement, dressed down Churchhill and the other elder men because

“They’re English, they’re men, and they’re upper class: deep down they all want a dressing down from nanny.”

Something in me — the part of me that tries, even in spite of my revolutionary strain, to treat older men as fathers — could barely watch Elizabeth rebuke Sir Winston Churchhill for having lied to her about his health. I mean barely watch. As of this point in my life, I turn away for three things in films: gratuitous sex, gratuitous violence, and gratuitous awkwardness. The first two I don’t watch out of principle. The latter I don’t watch because when I feel awkward, I tend to turn my head and literally shy away from the scene. My first viewing of Napoleon Dynamite and The British version of The Office had me squirming.

But this moment — watching this old fighter, this old sage, this old poet stand and receive a rebuke from a young lady — devastated me. I can watch someone feel guilty all day long. But shame is hard. Especially when the most diginified people I can possibly imagine feel shame. Shame is such a public thing, some societies erect their entire cultures around shame and honor, using it to discipline and so forth. And English shame always hits me harder than the Asian or Middle Eastern varieties.

Perhaps I see it in myself. Knowing, deep down, that I too am unworthy. That even at my best, I still have infinite room for improvement. The imposter syndrome — and I hope to write about this soon — is justifiably felt by everyone. Often shrinks and self-helpers try to talk you out of it: you’re awesome, you’re amazing, you’re fabulous. But we all deny it because we know our own brokenness. We have to live with ourselves and only the true narcissists among us are blind to it — and typically, as with our President elect, society opens our eyes to the cracks in our being. We are in fact imposters: we are not who we were born to become.

That’s why it hurts to watch the regal, the poetic, the courageous Sir Winston Churchhill get rebuked by a twenty-something girl. Because we know he has his faults for all of his triumphs in saving the realm from fascism and decay. And in watching him we know that we too fall short.

Yeah, I’d watch a spinoff of that any day because never — and I mean never — have I felt that while watching a film. Which makes The Crown worth my time, bias be damned.

lancelot tobias mearcstapa schaubert monogram


  1. Joy and I watched it a few weeks ago, after the boys left for college and the house was empty again. We really liked it and I appreciate your commentary. I resonate with so much of it. Thanks for sharing. You helped me see the deeper tension that was going on, the mantle of godhood that was thrust on kings and queens.

    1. Hey thanks for stopping by Matt!

      It’s a good show for transition for sure — we watched it right after my grandpa passed away and it really helped with the grief in a strange way.


      Yeah, it’s a burden only the most humble and stalwart can bear. I think of Frodo and Harry Potter and recently with Dr. Strange.

      Even then it’s more apotheosis than anything…

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