By Mary Grace Richardson, Co-Editor
No orgies. No beheadings. No battlefield brutality. But wait, stay with me. Don’t let that deter you from watching “The Crown,” the prestige monarch drama that defies expectations of royal biographical television and greatly surpasses them. By adding cinematic quality (and $120 million in production) to a difficult and complicated time for a powerful family, the Netflix original finds its hooks and momentum in small power struggles rather than macabre palace overtaking.
The series largely stands out in how it confronts death—not as a shock value ploy but as a lingering meditation. We first see it with the methodical and slow approach to the death of King George VI (Jared Harris), Elizabeth’s (Claire Foy) father, and then with a similarly staid tempo of the reaction. Not only does it showcase the magnitude of what a royal death means—symbolically to the kingdom, politically for Parliament, and emotionally to his family—but it also highlights the difference in the times. News didn’t move like wildfire as it does now, and the mourning of public figures wasn’t just an Internet trend.
It’s at this point that we begin to understand how George and Elizabeth might differ in their royal duties. While both are at times overly anxious about representing the monarchy well, the father and daughter make slightly different choices in determining appropriate behavior. As George explains to foreign affairs minister Anthony Eden (Jeremy Northam) that he can’t ask Winston Churchill (John Lithgow) to step down as prime minister, he distinguishes that as Albert Windsor, his previous name and self, he could ask that of his old friend. However, there is no Albert anymore. In his place is King George VI who has certain boundaries he can’t cross. It’s a subtle and valuable speech, especially when juxtaposed with Elizabeth’s later debate about keeping her own name as queen. George experienced ascension to the throne as something to be delineated and compartmentalized, but of course, his circumstances were different. The mentality of kingship was thrust upon him by the abdication of his brother and the responsibility more important considering the British people’s need for a voice of comfort and stability during World War II.
Elizabeth remains Elizabeth though for the time being. Perhaps because she’s had more time to prepare, she has less to demarcate, though she must still explore her role as a leader. Her marriage to the stubborn and philandering Prince Philip (Matt Smith) as well as her reaction to her sister’s affair with a divorced man especially spotlight her struggles to juggle tradition and modernity. Predicting the clash between self and service, Elizabeth’s grandmother writes a letter to her advising that Elizabeth Mountbatten (her married name) and Elizabeth Regina (her royal name) will “frequently be in conflict with one another,” and that “the crown … must always win.”
What does deserve to be looked over (and questioned) in the series is Philip and Elizabeth’s trip to Nairobi. As to be expected, it’s a typical colonial, pre-civil rights mindset. Philip is unendingly semi-entertained by the native people as evidenced by when he glibly laughs and belittles one man’s military medals or comments on another’s hat. “It’s not a hat, it’s a crown,” Elizabeth corrects. But even with good intentions, Elizabeth describes in her speeches how well the country is doing since it’s been “civilized.” The show reasonably depicts how a trip to Nairobi taken by exceptionally sheltered and assumptive white people might look like in the 1950s, but by showing such an ethnocentric view from Elizabeth, who is written to be sympathized with, viewers might wonder: when is it re-enactment and when is it condoning? Elizabeth’s view is privileged here, understandably because the story is about her, but just because “The Crown” is set in the mid-20th century doesn’t mean it needs to embrace the mentality of the mid-20th century.
Of course, because of its incredible popularity over the past few months, the series has secured several seasons after this. Series creator and writer Peter Morgan has also hinted at tackling the Charles and Diana’s marriage spectacle sooner than expected, but perhaps with a more royal family-sympathetic perspective.