If you did not see Season 3 of The Crown on Netflix, you are missing some of the best storytelling television has to offer. In the climatic Moondust episode, Prince Philip’s has a midlife crisis. The restless 48-year old prince beholds three young American astronauts with awe, while projecting onto them all his dreams of a career that never was. In a parallel story, he loses his faith and stops attending the Anglican services with his family. Their minister, the Dean of Windsor, gives dry and repetitive sermons that fail to resolve the yearning questions in Philip’s heart. As the queen puts it, the dean has reached “the moment of his own obsolescence.” Philip declares that he will commit his time on Sundays to “something more useful.”
The moon launch becomes Philip’s new idol. He praises the astronauts as great “men of action,” an image that is quickly deflated during a face-to-face conversation when he meets three young men with hacking colds, zero insights into the hidden purpose of existence, and boy-like fascinations with life in a big palace. Philip tells them he feels personally inadequate and asks if moon travel brought any special perspectives about man’s place in the universe. Neil Armstrong responds by commenting on the great views. Michael Collins suggests there “wasn’t much time” for deep introspection, and Buzz Aldrin says they spent the entire time ticking agenda items off a list. Armstrong ends with an anecdote about a broken water heater.
During the actual mission Buzz Aldrin read from his Bible and privately took holy communion – albeit, not consecrated, as Aldrin is not a Catholic. So, it is difficult to believe the astronauts came away with just a few stories about checklists, water heaters, and great views. Surely, they contemplated the spiritual significance of their mission. Still, fictional glosses aside, the deeper truth is hard to miss: Moon travel gave man no reprieve from the apparent emptiness of existence, and thus man still searches for purpose just as he always has. And so too does Philip.
Philip eventually befriends the new, younger Dean of Windsor. The new dean, Robin Woods, starts a fellowship for Anglican clergymen. At first, Philip scoffs at the concept of a group of middle-aged priests sitting around talking, reading, and thinking together. “You raise your game through action,” Philip says, pointing to a newspaper headline about the moon landing. Woods tells Philip: “We see no God behind those rocks and space dust: Simply an unknowable vastness.”
Reading from the Psalms, he goes on: “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?” (Psa 8:3-4).
Woods becomes a lifelong friend and spiritual mentor. He shows Philip that finding the answers amid all this emptiness might at least begin in fellowship with other men. Indeed, because, “Iron sharpeneth iron, so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend” (Prov 27:17).
Philip’s midlife crisis describes more than the fragility of the male ego. It shows us a man without identity, is man of profound sadness.
Quite a few men hit a certain age and begin to wonder who they are, or what they are, or what it is all for. Perhaps it is all the same question. Perhaps we need not even be a “certain age.” So many seem to be asking this question today, far too early for “midlife” to be the culprit of our anxiety.
Now that we have thoroughly asphyxiated on hundreds of decade-end retrospectives telling us what the 2010s were all about, let me offer another. It was a decade of historic male unemployment, of lost boys, of Jordan Peterson telling men to clean their rooms, and of Kanye West poignantly finding Jesus at the very end. It was a decade of crisis – midlife or otherwise – for so many men. Despite technological advances and relative peace, despite a roaring economy, despite the best of times, it was the worst of times.
And I do not believe our male malaise is simply explained by politics or ideological wars.
Man has lost sight of who he is, and a man with no identity is deeply sad. No amount of money, or privilege, or technological breakthroughs, no amount of political stability or world peace will give him true peace about his own existence.
Yes, I know I was supposed to cancel my Netflix subscription in 2019. I was also supposed to take sides on that debate about Catholic working women. Binging Season 3 of the Crown certainly delayed my progress on both counts. But at least I have a head start on my 2020 resolutions.
Speaking of stay-at-home moms, if my wife were literally the queen of a nation, would that be considered work outside the home? While most of the working queens we thought of in 2019 were hanging around libraries, Elizabeth II closed out her seventh decade warming the hearth at Buckingham Palace.
Young Philip was not always content living in his wife’s shadow, and it became the proximate cause of his later crisis.
A commander in the Royal Navy, Philip saw his career end abruptly when his father-in-law, King George VI, died suddenly at age 56. Just four years into marriage, Elizabeth and Philip ascended the throne, perhaps ten or twenty years before they expected. Scratch that—Elizabeth ascended the throne and Philip, like all British subjects, swore allegiance to the new monarch: His 25-year-old wife. Then, as if giving up his naval career was not enough, Philip was denied the most basic privilege of naming his own children. He assumed his children would take his surname, “Mountbatten.” But due to controversy surrounding Philip’s Greek lineage, and suspicion that Philip would exercise too much power over the crown, Elizabeth was advised by her mother and grandmother (both former queens of England), and the Prime Minister (Winston Churchill), to issue a royal proclamation retaining “Windsor” for herself and all her descendants. Philip complained that he was “the only man in the country not allowed to give his name to his children.”
I have lost a few debates with my wife in our years together. I am grateful that those debates were never decided in her favor by royal proclamation; least of all by her own royal proclamation. I also, thankfully, never had to contend with Winston Churchill’s intervention into my marital affairs.
What man would not struggle with identity, just as Philip does, when he is not allowed to make his own choices, or denied his role as head of his own family?
As a matter of fact, that sounds familiar even for those of us who did not marry royalty.
Scripture tells us man is called to be spiritual head of the family (see Eph 5:21-25, 1 Pet 3:1-7, and 1 Cor 11:1-10). Man, as St. Paul insisted, is to love his wife as Christ loves the Church, and woman thus represents the Church. Christ is the head of the Church, and so too is man head of his wife.
But how can a man be the spiritual head of his family, when his wife is literally the queen of a nation?
Before his change of heart, Philip tells Woods that man is defined by “action, not suffering.” In the Four Loves, C.S. Lewis tells us the exact opposite, explaining that the Christian husband – as head of the family – is coronated with the crown of thorns. If man is spiritual head of the family in the way Christ is head of the Church, he also the martyr who forgives without strings, who suffers his wife’s sorrows, sicknesses, and faults. He puts on Christ, and “never despairs.”
In a way, Philip – our everyman in crisis – stands in the shadow of Joseph, possessing none of the bold, ionic courage of this towering prince of saints. Neither man controls his own destiny, or the direction his family must go. Their needs and wants are placed entirely at the service of family and marital duty. Each man is father of a future king, and husband of a royal queen. At once a spiritual head, yet also obedient servant.
Joseph gladly takes a pregnant Mary into his home, then into Egypt. Juxtaposed against Mary’s few and profound words spoken in the Gospel, we hear not one word from Joseph. Alongside her glorious fiat, Joseph answers every call, in silence, without complaint, without ego, without despair, and without any midlife crises.
Philip gets it exactly wrong: Man’s response to suffering very much can define him. And while work is good – some men are astronauts, some princes, other carpenters – work is not all man is made for. Nor is he made for great feats of action. Action can be good too, but a man grows as a husband and father — not by traveling to the moon, but by a hundred modest acts. By choosing patience over anger, and joy over personal regret.
Man must serve, before he can lead, love his wife as Christ loves the Church, turn to his daily beads, and yield in all things to the Queen of Heaven who always commands: “Do whatever he tells you.” That is how man begins to find purpose, meaning, and vocation.