Sam Brooks reviews the third season of The Crown, a show that can’t decide whether it wants to humanise the monarchy or tear it all down.
This review contains very mild spoilers for world history, 1964-1977.
Three seasons in, there’s no doubt that The Crown is the, well, crown jewel in Netflix’s royal streaming sceptre. It’s their most awarded and acclaimed show, the only one that has managed to confidently round up Emmys and BAFTAs alike during its first two seasons. It’s also the one that has best managed to maintain momentum, even with an entirely new cast and a two year hiatus. That’s partly due to the buzzy new cast (including current Oscar-winner Olivia Colman and human cigarette holder Helena Bonham Carter); partly because The Crown is a remarkably well-made show with high production values; and partly because people will always have a morbid fascination with shows about the royals.
Season three is the same girl in a different gown. As time moves on, even if only by a few months (showcased to us in weirdly meta-fashion using a side-by-side portrait of Claire Foy as Elizabeth and Olivia Colman as Elizabeth), we’ve got a new group of actors playing the royals and with them, a new focus. Whereas the first two seasons centred on Elizabeth II finding herself as a queen and making a crucial ally in Winston Churchill, the third season finds Elizabeth beset on all sides. Her new prime minister Harold Wilson (Jason Watkins) is a royal sceptic, her family is at turns disobedient and disruptive, and her country is slowly turning against her. Each episode focuses on a crucial event in her reign – the death of her uncle, Charles’ speech upon becoming Prince of Wales, Princess Margaret holding court with the US president – and gives us a peek behind the locked gates of Buckingham Palace.
The one curious shift that this season does make is displacing Queen Elizabeth as a focal point, often to great effect. More so than in previous seasons, episodes shift focus to other royals. The way these episodes use Elizabeth as plot device, as a commentator rather than active player, really shouldn’t work. Stories have protagonists for a reason, after all.
Thank goodness, then, for the casting. Olivia Colman has a rare presence that lingers even when she’s not there, and she’s often able to leave a mark that far exceeds her time on screen. She did it in The Favourite, scoring herself a rare best actress Oscar win for a non-protagonist character, and to perhaps even greater effect in Fleabag, a show where she disappears for several episodes at a time but still winds up being a highlight.
In The Crown, it helps that Colman is giving yet another great performance, with a slightly different characterisation of Elizabeth than Claire Foy’s. The younger Elizabeth was remote by necessity; she was a woman who knew not to show her emotions because that wasn’t her job. Colman’s Elizabeth is remote as a defence mechanism. This isn’t a woman who knows not to show her emotion, this is a woman who might have just forgotten how to have them. Even so, Colman manages to find humanity and warmth Elizabeth – there’s a genuine laugh out loud moment halfway through the season that could never have come from Foy – while filling in the blanks of this real life figure.
Likewise, the rest of the cast are more than a match for their season 1-2 predecessors. It’s a double challenge for them: they have to capture not only their real-life counterparts, but also the actors who played them previously. Tobias Menzies as Prince Philip is a much better fit for the role than Matt Smith. He’s able to actually radiate warmth within his arrogance, and his chemistry with Colman makes that relationship believable. Helena Bonham-Carter is just as electrifying as Vanessa Kirby was as Princess Margaret. She’s a character to whom The Crown stumbles tiara-over-heels to give bon mots and zingers, and Bonham-Carter fires them off well. Even better, she manages to underline Margaret’s constant awareness of her tragedy: that her charm and brilliance will only ever be a curio, not a necessity.
The problem with The Crown has never been whether it’s a good show; that’s kind of taken for granted. No, The Crown’s main challenge is that Peter Morgan’s approach as a writer is fundamentally opposed to everything else around the show. Morgan has made a career out of exploring the inner life of very famous people, and especially the specific famous person The Crown revolves around – it’s his third project to interrogate Queen Elizabeth II, after his 2006 film The Queen and his 2014 play The Audience. Both of those projects rode the same tension as The Crown, humanising someone who is by necessity a cipher while also critiquing the system that props that cipher up.
Those two were both decent at best, with a light wit that masqueraded as incisiveness and a stateliness that expressed ‘prestige’ without really achieving it. The Crown succeeds where those falter by going beyond its prestige drama trappings; it’s a more inventive and stylish show than it’s often given credit for. In season 3, the aftermath of the 1966 Aberfan mining disaster is shot like a zombie film, all dark shadows and Dutch angles; another scene of Princess Margaret holding court with US president Lyndon Johnson borders on pure farce. It’s not just handsomely made, it’s excellently made, with great care taken to engage the audience, even if the makers have to stretch and bend genre to do it.
And it’s in that excellence that The Crown finds its most uncomfortable tension. Morgan isn’t making a pro-monarchy show, but he’s definitely making a show that aims to get inside the heads of the people who inhabit the monarchy, and there’s only so much that a piece of art can critique something from the inside. It’s something the show is capable of – most strikingly in the scenes involving the US president Johnson and Irish journalist John Armstrong – but for the most part, we’re entwined with the royal family, and it’s hard not to end up empathising with them.
Even Prince Philip, arguably the most odious top-tier royal family member still alive, becomes a touchingly tragic figure in an episode revolving around his obsession with the Moon landing. When he meets the actual astronauts, Philip’s dawning realisation that these are not heroes, just ordinary men, is as gutting as any moment of The Crown so far. It gives us another side of Philip, and while the argument can be made that nobody ever needs to see any side of Prince Philip ever, it’s still emotional, engaging television.
Nowhere is this tension more present than in the third episode, ‘Aberfan’. We spend most of the episode not with the royal family, but with prime minister Harold Wilson as he deals with the mining disaster, a truly catastrophic event that killed over a hundred children. This is Jason Watkins’ episode; Olivia Colman hardly speaks a line until the final 15 minutes
And it’s those final 15 minutes that are some of the best television that The Crown has given us. The scenes when she finally arrives at Aberfan put Elizabeth outside her comfort zone, and give us an insight into her world that is not just terrifically investing, but tremendously, existentially sad. In those 15 minutes, all of a sudden, the Aberfan disaster becomes about Queen Elizabeth II. And by doing that, The Crown is not just telling an untold story. It’s filling in the gaps of history with fiction.
And that’s dangerous.
Bit by bit, The Crown is slowly filling the gaps where history has left holes. It fills fact with fiction, with images, sounds and performances that feel more vivid than anything news clippings can provide. This is even more true as the show dives into events and situations we can’t possibly know anything about – a bedside conversation between the Queen and Princess Margaret, the early dalliances between Charles and Camilla – giving life and colour to scenes that likely never happened in the first place.
This is the territory of any biopic, to connect the dots of history, but The Crown has proved itself to be more than just your average paint-by-numbers biopic. This is a series that tells the ‘untold story’ of an inherently corrupt and backwards system, rearranging the parts of the story that we actually do know, and layering gorgeously rendered fiction over the top.
The Crown is Netflix’s behemoth. Whether or not it’s the streaming service’s highest rating show is unknown (Netflix, release the numbers!), but it’s undoubtedly the most critically acclaimed. And, season by season, it is reframing the entire monarchy – not just the people within it – into something more palatable. There’s nothing wrong with humanising anybody – god knows the world would be a better place if we all looked at each other like human beings – but when you’re humanising a system that does untold damage, that’s where you get into murky territory. The territory of propaganda, even.
All three seasons of The Crown are streaming on Netflix now.