When I was six, I came sobbing into the computer room where my mother was gaming late at night. I couldn’t sleep, I said, and when she asked why I said it was because of the ticking of the Peter Rabbit clock on the wall — a recent gift from British friends who had since returned home.
One of the unending, little losses that pile up after a parent is gone is that fact that you can’t ask them, as an adult, what thoughts they had that never reached your ears, as a child. How they dealt with things; made sense of them. I have no idea how my mother interpreted this particular outburst internally, but outwardly she was extremely practical about it. First she ordered me back to bed, assuming (not without reason for suspicion) that I was likely grandstanding and making an unnecessary fuss about bedtime. Then when she still heard me sniffling down the hall, she came in, removed the clock, and delivered me into blessed silence.
It wasn’t as though I was sitting there contemplating my own mortality as a six year-old, of course — nor am I particularly given to melodrama when I hear clocks now. But I can hear the ticking of a watch on someone’s hand from all the way across a room. Whether it’s in the middle of a conversation or tolling dolorously from the wrist of someone who has fallen asleep in a chair, that infernal ticking drives me up the wall, similarly to the way people who can’t sit still and have to jog their foot constantly drive me up the wall. Just sit still, for fucksake.
It’s surprising to me, then, how staggered I am by the theme for The Crown, which in its best episodes sweeps in at the end over a series of cuts, imperious and inexorable. Rupert Gregson-Williams* does the score, and like Hans Zimmer’s theme for Interstellar (and for that matter Inception too), there is very much the ticking of the clock about its plunge onward, despite the travails, international and deeply personal, it oversees as it marches towards the end credits.
In the episode Dear Mrs. Kennedy, however, the same theme gives, for once, a constancy and a comfort more terrible, maybe, than when it streams forth unfeeling for those over whom it plays. Because what runs beneath the theme are, yes, vignettes, as before, but here they are all strung together by radio and television coverage of the Kennedy assassination. What runs under the theme, then, are words and images we already know very well, so rather than being tasked with the taking-in of new information we can take a step back — the same step back allowed to Elizabeth, who was not, this time, the primary recipient of the blows the fall during the episode — and let it, well, sweep over us. Sweep us, to some extent, away.
And the fact that this is a comfort, in this episode, is ghastly. But there it is. There should be something inexorable about that onward march of time, to be sure, but typically — both in the final minutes of each episode of The Crown, and in life — the inexorability is a thing to be feared. But here, that push onward serves the same purpose, musically, that religious people saying “this too shall pass” does. How horrific that something so damaging brings such comfort. But then, compared to the damage playing out on radios and televisions round the world at that time…compared to the damage Jackie Kennedy carried as stains, insistently and against the wishes of those who tried to clean her up…it is, perhaps, a lesser blow. A lesser evil.
“That’s the thing about unhappiness,” Elizabeth says to the screen, in answer though to her mother, who has just asked about Jackie Kennedy’s marriage. “All it takes is for something worse to come along for you to realize it was happiness after all.”
*Who was nominated, incidentally, specifically for the score for the Hyde Park Corner episode, the first one which had me crying as I watched it, splicing as it does between the ailing king singing with one daughter (and being urged by her to turn and see the people who love him as he sings past his stammer), and trying to look after the other through speaking with her husband with this, the last of his strength and quite literally his breath, and then fading into the mist…