“Always act like you’re wearing an invisible crown. I do. And it’s always worked for me.”
- Paris Hilton
“That which concerns the mystery of the King’s power is not lawful to be disputed; for that is to wade into the weakness of Princes, and to take away the mystical reverence that belongs unto them that sit in the throne of God.” – James I of England
The American love for British institutions is the tribute the rolling stone pays to the moss. Descriptions of the show will tell you The Crown is a biopic about Elizabeth, Second of Her Name. Don’t believe them: this series is actually not about Liz of Windsor, but, as its name suggests, focuses on an inanimate piece of metal. It’s the silent partner in every single scene, sure as the Ring of Power or the Guns of Roland in the Dark Tower. Claire Foy, perfectly cast as Elizabeth II, is the supporting actor. It’s all about the hat.
The most important scene in the Netflix-produced series happens in Episode Five, when Edward, the Duke of Windsor (Alex Jennings), the man who might have been King, gazes on a tiny television picture of his niece’s coronation. In his fabulous house outside of Paris, the Duke is throwing a party for his guests. “Oils and oaths. Orbs and sceptres,” purrs the delightfully bitchy Edward, “Symbol upon symbol. An unfathomable web of arcane mystery and liturgy. Blurring so many lines no clergyman or historian or lawyer could ever untangle any of it.”
“It’s crazy,” says his American guest, the voice of reason, of modernity, of everything that is not the Empire.
“On the contrary,” says Windsor, as his wife, Wallis Simpson, the woman he abdicated for, looks on. “It’s perfectly sane. Who wants transparency when you can have magic? Who wants prose when you can have poetry? Pull away the veil and what are you left with?” The camera cuts to Elizabeth, all dewy steel and flinty purpose, as the aging Archbishop mumbles the liturgy. “An ordinary young woman of modest ability and little imagination. But wrap her up like this, anoint her with oil, and hey, presto, what do you have?” The Duke pauses.
“A goddess.” And the camera cuts to Westminster Abbey, the onlookers in the coronation place the mock crowns upon their head, and Handel’s “Zadok the Priest” plays, and we get it. The Crown is about that scene, and about what Britain is, and what that means.
On the surface, the series, written by Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon and two movies about Tony Blair, The Deal and The Special Relationship), is an extremely mellow combination of Mad Men (without psychosis), Game of Thrones (without murder), House of Cards (without evil), and Morgan’s backstage-of-history approach.
But this doesn’t do The Crown justice, because although there’s plotting and scheming, the narrative is more a coming-of-age drama and a meditation on symbolic power. Besides Foy as and Matt Smith as Elizabeth’s husband, Prince Philip, the series stars practically everybody else in British drama. What can I say about British acting, except to wish that there was more of it? Representing the Colonies is the excellent John Lithgow as a declining, fatuous, utterly ridiculous, and completely winning Winston Churchill.
The show likes but is not blind about its subjects. The Crown realizes that monarchy is an huge sham, that Britain is a doddering, exploitative empire, that democratic power spends more time on infighting than caring about its citizens, that Philip Mountbatten is a social-climbing bounder, that Elizabeth is a woman of unremarkable intelligence but maximum duty, that the Duke of Windsor was both a martyr for love and a selfish parasite, that fame and power are machines that grind up the loves and hopes of people who fly too close to the sun, and that Churchill was a great man who was also a jingoistic fraud clinging onto the last rungs of influence in a world that had long passed him by.
The show begins with Elizabeth’s wedding day, and bids continue through to the present moment. But even before Liz Mountbatten receives her inheritance, her destiny looms over her, finding every advantage to strike at her.
It manifests in a dozen different ways, whether through the specter of her father’s death, the London fog that makes it impossible to see or touch other people, or the sight of the elderly and powerful forcing themselves to wait upon her. “I thought we’d have more time,” she tells her husband, on a plane back from Africa, on her way to take the veil.
“You haven’t apologized to me,” she later tells her uncle, Edward. “To your papa, I most certainly did,” he protests. “I didn’t mean to them,” she says, level, “I meant to me. You don’t think I would have preferred to grow up out of the spotlight? Away from Court? Away from the scrutiny and the visibility. A simpler life. Happier life. As a wife, a mother. An ordinary English countrywoman.”
The most curious thing about The Crown, however, is not its expensive set design or the pitch-perfect performances. It’s this: How is this show entertaining? At all? Who would gamble on a show about this topic, on these people? The Crown is about a family usually thought of as very wealthy and incredibly dull, set mostly in an overcast country filled with emotionally repressed people, during a period of dwindling power and influence. And yet we watch all the same.
All of which is a way of saying: Why do Americans care about the British upper crust as much? Why are we in love with British culture generally, and 19th and early 20th century British culture specifically?
The English comics writer Alan Moore, as usual, has insight. In his epilogue to his comic series V For Vendetta, he writes about how he and artist David Lloyd came up with the series, a ‘30s mystery tale:
“Mulling over the difficulty, I began to give some consideration as to what it actually was that made Pulp Magazine Adventures work. Obviously, a lot of it was rooted in the exotic and glamorous locations that the stories were set in… seedy waterfront bars, plush penthouses dripping with girls, stuff like that. All the magic of a vanished age… If we handled it right, we could create the same sense of mingled exoticism and familiarity…”
The Crown is Oz, in other words. A world close enough to our own to be tempting, but distant enough to be alien. In the same way, the U.K., or what used to be the United Kingdom, is the self in the twisted mirror. Canada is a bigger, slightly altered version of our own wild Midwest, but Britain is different: the older brother. What would it be like to be that ancient and riven by class and inherited weight? Is it better? Is it worse? Does it make you gentler? Kinder? Wiser? Crueler?
I think we can locate the heart of the matter by looking a little closer. Much of The Crown is concerned with the omnipresent sense of custom which rules official British life, especially at the highest echelons. The leveling aspect of the world, which sometimes makes princes miserable and the terminally ill radiant, shows itself here, as the most powerful persons in a continent-spanning Empire struggle in the middle of cloudy circumstances, in a world which seems guaranteed to stay one step ahead of them, no matter what they do.
Churchill cannot bring himself to sit when in the presence of the Sovereign. Elizabeth cannot take her husband’s last name. Philip, usually depicted in every other form of media as the world’s biggest tool, is surprisingly relatable. Here, he is the Queen’s second-best husband—the State will always come first—stuck in his role as home decorator, unable to fulfill his ambitions; he must score Cabinet approval to take flying lessons, a nice symbolic sleight-of-hand for the role of women in the postwar West. There is someone else at the wheel.
Who? The British had a name for the idea of propriety that determines what is and what is not acceptable in ordinary life; they had a term for the impersonal, abstract force that was suspicious of bearded men in the ‘60s. They called it “Mrs. Grundy.” Mrs. Grundy is a name for the whispering dread of “What will other people say?” Of all the tyrannies we suffer under, wrote Herbert Spencer, the tyranny of Mrs. Grundy is the worst of all. All of these people, even the cold metal circle resting on Mrs. Windsor’s head, are ruled by Mrs. Grundy. They are her serfs.
And that’s part of the American anxiety, as well. For we, too, have a strange drive, one that pushes us toward Downton Abbey and other stories about emotionally fenced-in, wealthy people who are yet the captives of circumstance. In Downton, Lord Grantham tells his daughter:
“You are my darling daughter, and I love you, hard as it is for an Englishman to say the words… If I had made my own fortune and bought Downton for myself, it should be yours without question. But I did not. My fortune is the work of others, who labored to build a great dynasty. Do I have the right to destroy their work, or impoverish that dynasty? I am a custodian, my dear, not an owner. I must strive to be worthy of the task I have been set.”
People in England, as elsewhere, pursue their happiness, sometimes in the open, sometimes masked by other words. And anybody who reads history understands that the talk about obligation, in any regime which retains class differences, is the romanticization of privilege. Nobody can, or should, dispute this. Human beings are equal. Education, birth, money, fame, wealth, and power change none of this. Aristocratic regimes were, are, and will always be inherently disgusting.
Yet under the American anxiety for personal expression and liberty, for wide horizons and making your own way, we wonder about selfishness, and whether it’s good for us. If freedom is good, and the people are good, and the people rule, then goodness and power and choice should always go together. But they don’t; indeed, they keep rare company sometimes.
Unconsciously, we are shocked when the hugely wealthy decide to endow bridges, hospitals, and universities, because they don’t have to. In our culture, it’s so clear that the powerful and wealthy abuse their power, in part because they have no check on them. Having a nobility of any kind—of birth or of money—is a crime, but noblesse oblige is not. And that’s the rub. The notion that our own elites would be bound by any sense of obligation—to their country, government, gods and values—is alien.
The appeal of tradition, then, comes from this: In our bones, we know that we are not independent atoms who are unfettered by any restraint, free to seek whatever we please. In reality, much of what gives our lives meaning and warmth are the same things that limit us: we are born with this family, in this place, at this time, practicing this faith, taught these beliefs. We are contingent creatures. A long time ago, when the world was young, there were kings. We thought we needed them. We don’t, but we might need what they represent.
If the choice is between an order where the mighty rule without any codes, and an order where the privileged are subject to the higher law of tradition, ordered by ancient habit and custom’s heavy hand, who can blame onlookers, even in a Republic, for wondering about a world where something matters more than markets or personal pleasure?
Perhaps this is why symbols matter so much to us. They hold up the world. When we discuss what Dr. Watson’s first name is, or what kind of behavior is appropriate for the President-elect, or when the characters of The Crown debate what exactly the Queen may or may not do, we are not discussing questions of law or science. Nonetheless, we are debating issues as central to us as mathematics; we are playing a kind of game that is kin to the equally complicated games of sports, society, politics, and religion.
By games, I mean something very serious indeed: a set of agreed-upon rituals we follow to regularly connect us to something bigger and more important than ourselves. These rituals are often arbitrary and always important. Their rationality is out of proportion to their meaningfulness. The first is small, the second huge. We understand this, and do it anyway.
I am a leftist, and believe in the logical reordering of society. No mandate of nature or logic demands I remove my hat when entering a house; there is no traceable injury to person or property if it stays. Yet off it goes, every time. There’s no science to support the decision, but the meaning of respect and custom commands in a stronger voice. Much like Mrs. Windsor, I find myself obeying the rules of a hat.
One day, when Jason Rhode is King of England, he will command all the good lads in Eastcheap. Until then, he is on Twitter at @iamthemaster