When you are a queen, are you still yourself, or are you the title you bear?
Even a little power, they say, corrupts — but there’s little of that which can be chalked up to human nature. No, the corrupting nature of power is all on power itself, an invisible force that always needs more, wants more, covets more. It must keep feeding, until you are no longer yourself. Those who can resist its sway are few among us.
Netflix’s new Queen Elizabeth II bio-series The Crown flirts with this idea of power throughout most of its first season, before really driving the idea home as the season reaches its concluding passages.
When you are the queen, one character argues, you are a hybrid — both you and then the ancient volumes of history you represent. The crown makes you a chimera as surely as the introduction of angel wings to your back or devil horns to your head would.
And even if The Crown can never quite make up its mind about whether this quality of power and the monarchy is a good or bad thing, its eagerness to wrestle with that question makes the series fascinating, one of the better Netflix dramas in some time. It has more on its mind than simply getting viewers to consume the next episode, and in its best moments, it’s among the best shows on television.
But those best moments are sprinkled among a lot of others that unnecessarily repeat themselves, gloss over interesting material, and offer languor where momentum would be preferred. It’s an odd beast, this show, a little like the institution it represents.
Spoilers for the entire first season follow.
The Crown defines TV sumptuousness
The Crown is reportedly the most expensive series Netflix has greenlit yet, with a budget north of 100 million British pounds (around $120 million at the current exchange rate). And that money is all up there on screen. The sets, costumes, makeup, and slow, gliding camerawork all invite viewers to become lost in this other world that is not so far from our own (it is, after all, just 1950s England) but also feels like somewhere else entirely.
The money has also gone toward attracting a stunning cast. There’s John Lithgow as Winston Churchill, serving out his twilight years as prime minister. Jared Harris of Mad Men fame turns up as Elizabeth’s father, King George VI, both before his death (which arrives in episode two) and in flashbacks to key moments in Elizabeth’s life. Matt Smith, best known as the 11th Doctor from Doctor Who, is very good as a Prince Phillip who feels himself diminished by his wife’s rule.
But The Crown would not work without a strong center, and it has one in Claire Foy as Elizabeth herself. Foy has been one of the better things about a number of recent British TV series — her work in the Upstairs Downstairs reboot was particularly good — but her Elizabeth is simply tremendous.
Foy plays the queen’s calculations between how much of a person she can be, and how much of a monarchical symbol, almost entirely in her eyes. You can see her thoughts whirring away behind them, the power that hangs over her like a shadow growing ever more omnipresent.
Netflix likely backed this series with such a large monetary commitment because of its pedigree. The episodes are all written by Peter Morgan, whose fascination with the royals has led to projects both terrific — the 2006 film The Queen — and middling — the telefilm The Special Relationship. (You may also know him from the play and film Frost/Nixon.)
Morgan’s fundamental question is how we engage with the humanity of those who have so much power and privilege that they functionally lord over the rest of us — which makes The Crown’s charting of Elizabeth’s slow acclimation to her own power perhaps his ideal subject. Yes, at times it feels like he’s repeating the same handful of ideas over and over (which is common in writers who are new to series television), but the ideas are potent and intriguing enough to power the drama.
And he’s joined by a crew of directors headed by Stephen Daldry, the awards favorite behind movies like Billy Elliot and The Reader. Daldry is usually tasteful to a fault, and his camera has a tendency to hold all of his characters at a literal physical remove that allows less of their humanity to peek through. But when blessed with actors like the ones in The Crown, his approach can work, as it mostly does in this series.
The Crown is part of a welcome trend back toward standalone episodes in streaming TV
In some ways, The Crown functions best as a series of short films about the queen. Rather than telling a massive, sweeping story, each of the first season’s 10 episodes focuses on a royal crisis of the week, in essence. It’s like The West Wing: Monarchy Edition.
There are places where that results in lots of repetition — you’ll likely tire of constant reminders of how the queen and her sister, Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby), have a strained relationship. But it also allows for stories where the characters wrestle with crises that aren’t easily solved — like a deadly smog that envelops London, or the gossip that swirls around the divorcee Margaret falls in love with.
But beneath that "crisis of the week" structure, The Crown builds a relationship-driven structure that centers each and every episode on Elizabeth’s relationship with a different character. It follows her sometimes-contentious working relationship with Churchill, then offers up an episode focused more on the strain her rule places on her marriage. And throughout it all, her relationship with Margaret garners focus.
The show is perhaps a little constrained to truly pull this off. The series will, reportedly, attempt to cover all of Elizabeth’s life over six seasons, recasting the actors as the series passes the point in time where, say, Foy can believably play Elizabeth.
It’s not hard to imagine how later seasons will open things up slightly more, as Morgan can check in on the queen’s relationship with her various children (who are all too young to do much at this point in time), or their spouses, or others in her sphere.
But in some ways, this only needs to work as a proof of concept, as a suggestion that a Netflix series can be just as satisfying with a more episodic structure as it can be with the season-long-story structure the streaming service has favored to this point.
Indeed, the best episodes of the run — particularly the fifth, which centers on Elizabeth’s coronation and the former King Edward VIII’s feelings on his abdication of the throne as spurred by said coronation, and the ninth, which contrasts Elizabeth’s slowly fraying marriage with Churchill’s slowly fraying body — could be largely lifted out of the series proper and shown on their own, as beautiful examples of Morgan at his best.
Like many projects of this ilk, it’s all a little reserved
The best project made from a Morgan work remains The Queen, because director Stephen Frears found the dry, wicked humor and clockwork heart at the center of Morgan’s script.
The queen — there played by Helen Mirren, in an Oscar-winning role — was someone who slowly had to crawl through generations of learned protocol to get back to her core humanity, and Frears (always good at finding the human sides of difficult characters) and Morgan acted as great counterweights for each other.
In some ways, the visuals Daldry has dreamed up for The Crown only amplify Morgan’s worst tendencies, where every character can feel slightly like an automaton checking off a list of proper things to do and not do.
The final shot of the season — an unblinking one-shot of Elizabeth staring directly at the camera — even keeps its remove. It’s a close-up, but not enough of one to crop out the costumes and sets entirely. We wouldn’t want to forget how much money this cost.
But to a degree, that’s going to be factored in by fans of British period pieces like this one. Brits, after all, are stereotypically known for their stiff upper lips and whatnot, and nobody’s upper lip is stiffer than a royal’s. In the hands of Foy and Lithgow, especially, these characters manage the tricky dance between human being and legend, between self and symbol.
The Crown struggles at times, but there’s something within it — a slumbering beast, deep beneath its waves, just waiting to surface. You catch glimpses of it here and there — when Elizabeth betrays someone in the name of the crown, especially — and those glimpses are enough to animate this first season. Here’s hoping season two gives us a better glimpse of that creature’s form.
The Crown is streaming on Netflix.