Gold Stick

I didn’t listen to recorded music for two full days after the ELO concert.  I didn’t brush my teeth immediately after lemon-blueberry cake and cinnamon hazelnut coffee.  I don’t want Apple playlists or mint-flavored Crest to impinge upon the lingering resonance of near-perfect sensory experiences.

Previous seasons chronicle the Queen’s life from just before her 1953 coronation.  Showrunner Peter Morgan grazes midcentury touchstones with a pro-monarchist sympathy.  He’s attempted to make the Windsor family relevant, an essential component of British identity.  In fact, modern royals are politically inert.  They express no opinions.  They take no action.  They show no favorites.  Oh, sure.  Meghan and Harry have kicked up a little dust.  But it’s family dust.  It makes for good headlines in supermarket tabloids, but has no effect on British government, policy, or culture.

Thus the series tends to be quite insular.  While important things are, indeed, happening in the wide world, the monarchy can’t really be involved in them for fear of taking sides.  Thus the show’s drama often comes from roping in black sheep and firebrands like Princess Alice (Prince Philip’s mother), Edward VII, and Princess Margaret – who each threaten to topple Western Civilization by publicly succumbing to human vices (primarily philandering and drunkenness) and virtues (primarily affection and whimsy).

With its season four opener, The Crown enters the 1980s.  This episode’s introduction of Margaret Thatcher and Diana Spenser are probably enough to justify audience interest.  Viewers want to see if The X-Files‘ Gillian Anderson can out-iron Meryl Streep as the Prime Minister (spoiler: a Golden Globe says she can).  And they’re anxious to see whether pixie-on-roller-skates Emma Corrin looks the part of the tragic princess.  But the tour de force of “Gold Stick” is the intercutting of  idyllic fly-fishing, pheasant shooting, and deerstalking, with the IRA’s assassination of Lord Mountbatten.

On Iceland’s River Hofsá, Charles is interrupted by a phone call from Lord “Dickie” Mountbatten.  Though the two are close, the call gets flinty.  The Earl scolds his honorary nephew.  Dickie hopes to steer Charles from an affair with the married Camilla Parker-Bowles.  Charles fires back with a stern attack on Mountbatten’s own marital failings.  Then follows, cool, pastoral stillness.  Adriano Goldman’s travelogue shots are reminiscent of  A River Runs Through It.  Nothing is hand-held.  Instead the camera glides with elegance and carefully-calibrated focus pulls.  Charles returns to the river.  Anne and Elizabeth track a dear over Balmoral’s rolling heath.  Mountbatten teaches his grandsons to trap lobster.  Phillip shoots pheasant, his gunshots piercing the entwined idylls.  Composer Martin Phipps complements the pace of storytelling with long, sustained notes that shorten to explosive climax.  A bomb destroys the boat in Mullaghmore Harbor – and  with it, most of the Mountbatten family.

Martin Charteris, Private Secretary to the Sovereign, finds the Queen in the field and reads a solemn telegram.  His voice connects footage of Philip, Charles, and Margaret Thatcher, all receiving the same news.  On the plane home from Iceland, Charles receives a note.  It’s a rebuke from the grave, Mountbatten in letter-writing flashbacks, that all but prescribes a girl like Diana as Charles’s duty to the throne.  A funeral montage smashes images of mourners in Westminster Abbey with news footage of the Irish Republican Army, proudly, defiantly claiming responsibility for Mountbatten’s execution.

Yes, writer Peter Morgan is telling multiple stories.  But editor Frances Parker is layering them, weaving dialogue, audio effects, and footage, in ways that allow each to compound the meaning of others.  This very strong sequence anchored an exceptional hour of storytelling, satisfying far beyond its admittedly solid performances.  In short, “Gold Stick” was good enough to make me turn off the television.

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