The Crown Style: “Assassins”

Posted on December 17, 2016

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A lion decides it’s time to sleep! A husband decides it’s time to be possessive! A wife decides it’s time to state her terms! A Porchie holds a torchy! Horses! Conversations! Arguments! Paint drying! LITERALLY!

This was not our favorite episode of The Crown. In fact, it’s easily our least favorite of the season. The simmering subplot of the Windsors’ less-than-faithful marriage got shoved awkwardly into the foreground, shedding any of the subtlety that characterized the subplot up till now. And we were abruptly introduced to a character that really should have been introduced by now if the story wants to position him as some sort of deeply meaningful long-term relationship for Betty. Dropping Porchie into the mix nine episodes into the season and informing us that “everyone” wanted Elizabeth to marry him and then confirming that both characters clearly still have some sort of feeling for each other just felt like a last-minute attempt to add some conflict to a marriage we already know has stood the longest test of time possible. Either Porchie should have been introduced long before now and been used as a recurring background character or they should have found a better way to write about the marriage. “Oh, by the way, Liz has a soulmate” just felt clumsy and off-brand for the series.

Worse, we got another “The Life and Times of Winston Churchill” episode, which is eminently frustrating. The smog episode (with Winston’s long-forgotten and ultimately pointless dead secretary) was bad enough, but an entire episode about a painting of Churchill in a series that’s supposed to be about The Queen is just irritating to us. There were better, less indulgent ways to get us to the point where Elizabeth would have to say goodbye to Winston as her Prime Minister. Endless scenes of John Lithgow harrumphing his way though dialogue elucidating Churchill’s views on art were not what we signed on for.

And maybe our dislike of the episode is having an effect on how we view the costume design, but to us, this was the least interesting episode on that front as well. That shouldn’t be too surprising, since the entire point of this series of posts is to show how costume design and storytelling are intertwined. It would stand to reason that an episode we found to be lacking in story we’d also find to be lacking in interesting costuming decisions.

But onward we must go if we want to make it to the finale. And besides, you can always count on us to find something to talk about.

 

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Meh.

It’s a lovely scene in its own way. We never have a problem watching Stephen Dillane do his thing. But the costume design isn’t exactly burdened with multiple layers of meaning. This is how Churchill always dressed. The other two characters in the scene are dressed in opposition to him, so as to underline the dialogue. Mrs. Churchill and the painter (who are largely in agreement in this scene) are in browns, which tend to evoke a more naturalistic sense when placed against Winston’s stark formality. This scene is largely all about natural truth vs. formal artifice and the costumes reflect that nicely.

In addition, the touch of floral in Mrs. Churchill’s outfit situates her nicely as the mistress of this heavily floral domain.

So in the early scenes with Churchill, we have a motif of oppositional costume design; characters dressed in a manner that supports the dialogue, which places them at odds with other characters. With Elizabeth, we got the flip side of that: mirror costume design, in which she’s dressed to show a level of agreement with or affinity toward another character.

 

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The most obvious mirrored costuming was in this scene with Margaret and Elizabeth in nearly identical outfits rendered in different colors. We wouldn’t read too much into that, since Maggie and Betty aren’t exactly the best of friends at the moment. If anything, it’s merely to underline that both sisters have an obsessive love of horseracing. Plus it follows a season-long motif of depicting the sameness and the differences between them by dressing them in mirror outfits rendered in different colors. Elizabeth is flush with color and Margaret is ice cold.

There’s a second motif for the episode established here: purple. It will dominate quite a few of Elizabeth’s looks. It became an important color to her last episode and we could take the continued use of it here, so late in the season, as a way of underlining that she’s come into her own as Queen; so much so that she practically lives in a royal purple now.

We could take it that way, but we’re opting not to. There’s a different reason she wears purple so much – and it has nothing to do with royal power this time. Put a pin in that. Let’s get back to mirrored costumes and the ways in which Elizabeth code-switches in her life. As the above shots show (as well as many, many other scenes in the series), she can be posh when she wants to be or when the situation calls for it.

 

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But we don’t think there’s any question that this is closer to the way she’d prefer to dress all the time. Her tweedy earth tones call to his, but it’s more interesting to note how girlish and almost flirty her clothing is here. We haven’t seen her in many cute pleated skirts and peter pan collars up till now.

It’s not quite stated outright, but it seems fairly clear Elizabeth would have much preferred a life running a country estate and breeding horses rather than one as the Queen. And since the real Porchie would go one to become the Earl of Carnarvon and inherit Highclere Castle, it’s fun to consider an alternate history where the former Elizabeth Windsor lives at Downton Abbey, like a real-world Dowager Countess in 2016.

 

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Anyway, the point here isn’t that she’s dressed to match Porchie so much as she’s dressed to show how much she fits into these surroundings. She’s far more relaxed in posture, affect and style here than she is in any of the scenes where she has to act as Queen – even the private scenes.

And in the scene above, she’s dressed almost identically to her mother, in the one scene depicting her on a horse. This family’s love of the country life runs deep.

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BETTY IN PANTS.

The show doesn’t make a point of it, which is a bit of a shame, since there was an opportunity to really use this moment to make a statement about her. Again, she’s not dressed to match Porchie exactly, but they absolutely look like a couple who belong together.

Note how the dynamic shifts when a jealous Philip decides to pee all over the stables:

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Suddenly, Elizabeth really ramps the cuteness factor up in her clothing. She’s still all tweeded and sweatered up, in an appropriate manner for the setting, but unlike some of her other stable outfits, practicality doesn’t seem to have been the number one goal here. She wanted to look a little cute.

Philip at first seems slightly out of place, since he’s not sporting the multiple layers of tweed and knitwear that Porchie favors, but what’s odd is that Porchie himself is dressed almost identically to Philip this time. So we have a woman, who’s clearly in a flirty mode, between two men jockeying (pun unintended) for position around her while mirroring each other in an attempt to figure out what she wants them to be. The costumes add to the underlying tension in the scene and the dynamic.

Now, about that second dominant motif…

 

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Girlfriend’s living la vie en violet.

Let’s put the Winston scene aside for a second and focus on the purple outfits in the racetrack scene, the phone call scene, and the bedroom scene. The one thing they all have in common is Porchie. In the “tweed” stable scenes, the costumes reflect a comfort and ease with Porchie; a sense that they’re both where they should be. In the “purple” scenes, the undertone is about how difficult it is to have Porchie in her life. How hard it is for them to connect, how other people (Margaret and Philip) notice that bond and are deeply threatened by it (Margaret, because she blames Elizabeth for her dreary romantic life; Philip for obvious reasons).

And then she wears the color again, in her goodbye scene to Winston; a man she found it sometimes difficult to connect with; a man she forged a unique and intimate bond with; a bond other people noticed and were threatened by. And maybe we should note it is the first color we saw her wear, in a scene where she looked on lovingly as her father welcomed her fiance into the family.

For good or for ill, The Crown has largely been a story about Elizabeth’s relationships with men. Her only female relationships are with her mother and sister, and they’re both characterized by somewhat limited and expected jealousy-based storylines. But quite a bit of time this season has been spent on her relationships with her father, her husband, her Private Secretary, her other Private Secretary, the man she wanted for her Private Secretary, the Prime Minister, the man who wants to be Prime Minister, and now, the childhood friend who breeds her horses. That’s not necessarily a terrible idea as the focus of this particular story (“The Men of Elizabeth II”), but we’re not convinced it’s entirely deliberate, especially since all the men follow a fairly strict and limited paternal, romantic, or vaguely threatening template.

This came to a head for us with the Winston scene, which had a practically blushing Elizabeth talk about how he was her first and a practically lovestruck Winston talk about what a goddess she’d become. Don’t get us wrong, we don’t think there’s literal romantic undertone to their relationship. But this episode, like most of the episodes in the series, is about the public and private Elizabeth and how much the two are intertwined. Not only is her relationship with Winston being compared with her relationship with Porchie …

 

 

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It is also being compared to her relationship with her husband.

Both scenes address her sometimes complicated but ultimately devoted relationships with each man and the decision was made both times to have her dressed in her formal Queen attire when doing so; almost like a bride stating her vows. So blatant was the implied connection that her speech about her relationship with the PM was the very thing that prompted an apology from the jealous and possibly unfaithful Philip.

We’re not sure this is the best way to examine Elizabeth’s life; by not only making it largely about the men in it but also by implying that underneath it all, she had the same relationship with all of them. In every male relationship, it’s a push-pull of intimacy vs. authority, from Tommy Lascelles to her father to the Prime Minister to Peter bloody Townsend and all the way up to her husband. As we said, we’re not sure it’s a deliberate choice, but it’s a consistently rendered one – and it makes us wonder what kind of series it could be with more women in charge of its direction. This episode in particular drove home just how male-centric the series has been and just how limited that approach has become over time. It hasn’t been a bad theme to explore, but we kind of hope they’re done with it going forward.

You can always bet when we start off a costume post with “We don’t have much to say about this one,” we’re going to wind up spewing 2000 more words at you.

 

[Photo Credits: Alex Bailey/Netflix – Stills: Netflix/Tom and Lorenzo]

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