A mourning monarch! A dense, light-sucking killer smog! A treatise on the dreariness of duty! Also: Winston Churchill!
The preceding has been an entirely verb free anouncement that this post is going to be rather light on fabulous costume design or even deeply meaningful costume choices. A mourning queen in black – who is literally likened to a nun – learns a lesson about duty and her role. A preternaturally skillful politician – in black – course-corrects masterfully in the middle of a neglected crisis. A dying, powerless queen in bedclothes coaches the new queen – in black – on her duty to be nothing and to be silent; a dark, bottomless hole into which the country may pour its hopes and fears.
To be honest, all of the above sounds a bit more interesting than the episode we got. This was our least favorite of the series so far. Perhaps that’s to be expected when the ultimate message imposed on the Queen is that she is supposed to be superhumanly neutral in all matters. We imagine it’s hard to render that type of discussion dramatically. We give the writers much credit, however, for not shying away from subtle and gentle critiques of Elizabeth’s personality throughout the season. While this isn’t some scandalously exploitive take on her biography, it’s no hagiography either. Which isn’t to say Elizabeth acted badly or wrongly in this episode; just that the series is taking pains to explain why she’s so duty bound, why she’s had problems with a lot of her familial relationships, and why she’s so mild-mannered as to occasionally come of cold or distant.
But if the costume design was appropriately dreary, dark and not particularly interesting, the story quite helpfully provided a flower growing through the cracks of the pavement:
We admit that part of our frustration with this episode comes from the heavy focus on Churchill in a biography of the Queen (when you can bet you’d never see the flip side of that in a biography of Churchill) and a deeply puzzling (until the last minute) focus on the fictional and seemingly insignificant Venetia Scott. It could be argued that she put a human face on a national disaster that claimed a lot of lives, but even in retrospect, once her part in the story was revealed, it didn’t make her inclusion any more interesting to us. This is, after all, a biography of the Queen, and by extension all of the royal family surrounding the crown. There are plenty of opportunities and ways to view that tale through the eyes of “commoners” and working people of the day, but that wasn’t really Venetia’s role. She was a tool to help Winston Churchill revive his political career, which makes her development as a character and the time spent on her a little bit of frustrating. She wasn’t a person, she was a charming MacGuffin whose role had nothing whatsoever to do with the focus of the story, the Queen herself.
Or did it? Her costuming hints at connections the story might not have made as clear. Put a pin, so to speak, in Venetia’s sky blue (on a clear day, that is) coat.
As you can see, Elizabeth is still in mourning for her father, so she wears the same style of black dress in almost all of her scenes in this episode. But it also serves to heighten the sense of darkness permeating the world around her and to make a bit of a subtle callback to Queen Mary’s nurse’s observations that queens and nuns have some things in common.
If you want to indulge in our Pearls of Power theory, this is the only time in the episode that Elizabeth sports a triple strand. In every other scene, it’s two strands. This is not serving to make her seem powerful in this scene so much as it underlines Queen Mary’s total lack of power. Mary’s frilly and old-fashioned bedclothes, in light-mourning violet, are a stark contrast to Elizabeth’s practical and unfussy style.
In her meeting with Churchill, she’s back to two strands and a position where she’s being railroaded by him once again, both on the question of the smog issue and the question of how much of a life she and her husband are allowed to have without the government intervening.
A snapshot of a scene that illustrates how costume design, art direction, cinematography and historical accuracy can all be utilized to support narrative themes and motifs. Everything about this scene makes sense in terms of how it looks. The costumes, set, props and behavior are all more or less as they should be for the time, place and characters. But you can still look at the meaning and symbolism underneath, and we can’t help but note that we’re looking at a smoke-filled room of men dressed entirely in gray and black largely being ineffectual in the face of killer smog. It just works on every level of the story.
As for Elizabeth…
It is her fate to be surrounded by men in black, supporting her, advising her, questioning her and defying her. Echoes of Churchill in all her male interactions. Double strands in every scene.
The only exception is “Dickie.”
Part of that comes down to the real Mountbatten’s personal style. A stylish man, he favored patterned shirts and double-breasted suits. And part of it comes down to the fact that he’s not required to be in black the way Elizabeth and Philip are and he’s not a politician (in the professional sense, like Churchill) at work. He’s playing all sides so he stands out a bit from everyone.
As for Venetia Scott, she is the only character currently living in a world of light and color. In an episode stocked to the rafters with black costumes, she’s wearing white. If Elizabeth is the nun in this story, than Venetia is the nurse – or she’s attempting to be, anyway.
And just before she dies, her coat speaks of blue skies and her scarf speaks of growing flowers in sunlight. She is clothed in hope. She is also clothed in the only two colors worn by the queens in this story. Queen Mary’s violet is echoed in her scarf, and the hopeful sky-blue of her coat…
Is worn by Elizabeth on the morning the sun breaks through. Venetia was in many ways a frustratingly undeveloped side show whose inclusion in the story seemed a little vaguely articulated, but if we think of her less as a person or character and more as a political tool (which is pretty much how Churchill treated her in the end), she was the intersection where Queen Mary’s do-nothingism and Queen Elizabeth’s burgeoning sense of her interventional responsibilities connect. In the end, Churchill outsmarted them all, but Elizabeth learned a lesson about how and when to wield power and Venetia unwittingly played a part in that.
Stay tuned for more, darlings! With the holiday week and the subsequent lack of red carpetry, we’ll have at least one more installment up before the weekend.
[Photo Credits: Alex Bailey/Netflix – Stills: Netflix/Tom and Lorenzo]