This review originally published on November 4, 2019.
The new chapter of Netflix’s opulent celebration of the monarchy, The Crown, opens in 1964 and concludes with her Silver Jubilee in 1977. It’s a decade-plus of big changes for the royal family, although as the series makes its turn into the ‘70s, fewer have to do with big political moments and instead mark personal upheavals. In an era of binge, Peter Morgan’s historical drama continues to distinguish itself as a series devoted to episodic storytelling, almost acting like an anthology within itself. Some episodes land better than others, but a lot of it comes down to personal preference to the kinds of stories being told. What unites each season are gorgeous aesthetics, an intimate look at an otherwise unknowable famous family, and an acting showcase from some of Britain’s best (like the Harry Potter franchise, eventually every British actor will appear in The Crown).
To that end, Season 3 introduces us to a new cast to reflect the new timeframe: Olivia Colman replaces Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II, Tobias Menzies is now Prince Philip (formerly played by Matt Smith). Margaret transforms from Vanessa Kirby to Helena Bonham Carter, we have a new Queen Mother in Marion Baily, and are introduced to Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor), Princess Anne (Erin Doherty), and new Prime Minister Harold Wilson (Jason Watkins). The first episode begins, rather inelegantly, with a focus on this changing of the guard via an updating of the Queen’s portrait on Britain’s coins. But soon enough we’re once again easily swept up in this fascinating march of England’s recent history through the lens of the Windsors.
For an American like myself who is largely ignorant of many key British moments of the 20th century, The Crown plays out as a consistently surprising collection of stories, beginning with the unveiling of a KGB spy within the royal household (a reveal that is very easily spotted long beforehand) before moving into the horrors of the Aberfan disaster in Wales, the incredibly story of Prince Philip’s mother, a potential coup, and the investiture of Prince Charles. Unlike the monarch it tracks, The Crown is not particularly nuanced in how it wants us to feel or respond to these historical moments and the various royals who get the spotlight during each installment. And yet, it’s incredibly effective. Monarchist vs. Republican feelings may simmer throughout the season, even occasionally within the story itself (particularly when it comes to Charles’ desire to be more independent than his mother would like), but the series is firmly set to make us all loyal to the crown.
It’s a little difficult to get Colman’s recent portrayal as Queen Anne in The Favourite out of one’s mind, but eventually Colman does becomes Elizabeth completely. Despite the Queen’s desire to remain impassive, though, Colman has a face that—when at rest—just naturally looks very sad, whereas Foy’s was much more neutral. But it fits in a season that deals with a difficult stretch of Elizabeth’s reign that concludes with her looking incredibly uncertain when considering her legacy before her Jubilee. “What have I actually achieved?” she asks Margaret, who tells her simply, “you have been calm, stable.” And that, in the face of such upheaval, is what the public wants and needs (according to Margaret): Someone who can make things look steady even when everything else is falling apart (which feels particularly apt to this particular Brexit moment).
The weight of the crown itself is felt throughout, mainly in how unhappy it makes all of these very privileged people who constantly consider “the life unlived.” For Elizabeth it’s a happy month with her friend Porchie studying racehorses, for Philip it’s an obsession with the moon landing that he hopes will spackle over his mid-life crisis, for Margaret it’s a grand American tour with unprecedented success, and for Charles its a romance with Camila before she became Parker-Bowles. Each of these serve as a brief glimpse of possibilities that are never allowed to materialize because of the realities of position and duty, but that sacrifice in the face of something greater becomes increasingly harder to defend as the years go on.
One of the ways it consistently manifests, though, is regarding royal love lives, which is where The Crown wobbles (as has been true, of course, with the crown itself). The show’s most powerful episodes are ones in which the Queen, or other members of the royal family, face down a crisis of significance that plays both in the public and private sector. A great example this season (all 10 episodes of which were made available for review) is an episode where Charles, about to take on the title of Prince of Wales, is sent to actually learn Welsh from a professor who would prefer to overthrow the English. O’Connor is excellent at making us really feel for Charles, who remains awkward but upbeat given the isolation from his family and the coldness of his upbringing. He comes to feel real empathy for the people of Wales, whose position he sees as a mirror of his own (all of which is spelled out very plainly, but again, effectively). Less successful is a subsequent episode that focuses on the shallow bed-hopping antics of Charles, Camilla, her future husband Andrew, and his brief affair with Princess Anne—all of which does set up a complicated romantic future for the crown to deal with, but it’s not particularly compelling on its own. (The same is true of Margaret’s affair with a young baron as her relationship with Ben Daniels’ Tony wanes, a dynamic that played out far more spectacularly in her American tour episode where she meets up with LBJ).
Not every moment of the royals’ lives can be juxtaposed in this way, but Season 3’s best episodes—most of which are in the first half of the season—do mange to incorporate both. Still, The Crown remains entertaining and immersive even in these more emotionally slight hours, and its existence as a compendium of Queen Elizabeth’s reign is a stunning achievement. The series leaves us, for now, at the edge of both the rise of Thatcher and the introduction of Princess Diana, both of which will change England and the crown itself forever. As the Queen enters her gilded carriage to embark on her Jubilee procession, she is haunted with uncertainty. She fears that Charles might be too much like her uncle who abdicated, full of modernist ideas that go against the idea of a steady and unflinching (even unemotional) monarchy. She wonders at her own legacy, and whether she has been too inactive (especially in regards to responding to tragedies like Aberfan). What comes next, as we know, is one of the longest continuous reigns of any monarch on Earth. But in this moment, Elizabeth is at a point where all she knows is that she must simply carry on. And so, indeed—as the series takes great pains to argue—must the crown.
The Crown Season 3 premieres Sunday, November 17th
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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