In the world of “Peak TV,” every outlet is searching for the show that will not only bring them attention but also awards. Since it began producing original shows in earnest in 2013, Netflix has had no lack of attention drawn to its service. With big shows like House of Cards, Stranger Things, and any of the shows it produces with Marvel, they’ve given people plenty of things to watch and talk about. Yet despite the amount of shows produced by Netflix (many of which are of high quality), awards have by and large skipped their shows. Yes, House of Cards received a few Emmy nominations but the critical consensus has mostly passed that show by. With The Crown, Netflix has made a serious bid into the realm of “prestige drama,” one that is sure to bring them the award attention they’ve been seeking.
Created and written by Peter Morgan (director of The Queen and the stage version of Frost/Nixon), The Crown tells the story of the early days of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II (Claire Foy) as she seeks to navigate the challenges of being Queen whilst balancing her personal struggles and the needs of her loved ones. Alongside, Elizabeth are her husband Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh (Matt Smith), her sister Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby), and an elderly Winston Churchill (John Lithgow). Over the course of its 10 hour-long episodes, The Crown examines the lives of the royal family of England and it’s government as they attempt to grapple with the dawning modern era whilst striving to hold onto their traditions.
The first thing I noticed during my viewing of the series was how utterly gorgeous it is. With a production budget of $100 million dollars, no expense was spared in bringing the 1950’s to life. Every costume, car, and location is beautifully presented. It truly serves a show about the life of a Queen to be so wonderfully produced. Naught an episode went by where I didn’t remark in my notes about the beauty being presented to me.
Each episode of The Crown covers a particular period in Elizabeth’s reign (season one begins in 1951 and ends in 1955) and each presents a particular dilemma to be faced in that hour. For example, episode four “An Act of God” depicts the 1952 “Great Smog of London” and the government’s response to it. Unlike many of the series on Netflix, The Crown does not suffer from a sagging middle part of the season due to too many episodes and not enough story to fill them. Many of Netflix’s original shows have 13 episode orders and maybe 8-10 episodes of actual story. The result is that the episodes in the middle of the season tread water with stories that go in circles. The Crown avoids this by treating each episode as a true chapter in the story of Elizabeth. Yes, certain elements, like Margaret’s contentious relationship with former ensign Peter Townsend (Ben Miles), persist over the whole season but enough compelling plots and meaningful insights into these people are shown to give each episode its own weight.
The centerpiece of The Crown is Elizabeth herself. Thrust onto the throne prematurely after the death of her father King George (Jared Harris), Elizabeth must now navigate pressures both political and person while fighting to retain her sense of self. I had not heard of Claire Foy before seeing her here but she does an excellent job portraying The Queen as she learns to navigate the politics of ruling. Elizabeth is equal parts dedicated to her office but also not content in simply being the figurehead some would want her to be.
Much of the focus of The Crown is on how ruling creates a divide in the ruler. “The two Elizabeth’s will frequently be in conflict with one another,” remarks Elizabeth’s grandmother Queen Mary (Eileen Atkins) at the end of the second episode. Much sooner than she had planned Elizabeth must learn to put aside every personal notion she has had about herself and become the symbol of The Crown. Individuality is frowned upon and as Queen Mary says “The Crown must win. Must always win.” Elizabeth is no longer completely in control of her actions, many of them are dictated for her by others. It is the conflict between what Elizabeth Windsor wants and what is expected of Elizabeth Regina (her royal name) that forms the backbone of the series.
Nowhere is the conflict between the two Elizabeth’s better illustrated than in her relationship with her husband Phillip and sister Margaret.
Phillip’s disdain for the pomp of the crown in evident from the very first episode. His desire to live a meaningful life is constantly thwarted by an institution that he considers antiquated in a modern era. His every wish is placed in check by The Crown and he has to put aside everything he wants for his wife’s duty. Matt Smith does an excellent job portraying Phillip’s increasing ambivalence and frustration toward his new life.
The Crown takes great care to remind viewers that Elizabeth is not naturally suited to ruling and that her sister Margaret would make a much more natural queen. Margaret is everything that Elizabeth isn’t: charismatic, charming, and unpredictable. Margaret thrives in the spotlight while Elizabeth would rather it be nowhere near her. In episode eight, Margaret gives a speech on Elizabeth’s behalf and it’s plain that she has a much more natural cadence whereas Elizabeth speaks in a wooden and uninterested fashion. This serves as another avenue for The Crown to discuss the divide between the Monarch and The Monarchy. Margaret shines because of her individuality but the tradition of British Monarchy frowns upon the Monarch bringing any of themselves into the equation. Elizabeth strives to be the queen that she is expected to be but it is repeatedly at the cost of her own identity.
There is also Margaret’s aforementioned relationship with Peter Townsend. The members of the British government have no great love for the Princess’s relationship with the divorced man. Elizabeth, the sister happily support a marriage between the two but Elizabeth, the queen cannot so easily support something that goes against The Church of England. It is here again where Elizabeth must choose between her family and her crown. Elizabeth ultimately sides with her duties as queen and thus betrays her bond as a sister with Margaret. Elizabeth cannot be both queen and sister.
It is heart breaking to watch this woman who so clearly loves her family constantly have to throw it away for the sake of a symbol many would feel is archaic. Time and time again Elizabeth seems to push those in her life further and further from her as she sacrifices more and more of herself to The Crown. It is fitting that the last shot of the season is Elizabeth in her royal regalia standing alone for a picture while the people she cares about head away from her for one reason or another.
Attention must be paid to the work John Lithgow puts in as an elderly Winston Churchill. Churchill is one of the most fascinating and tragic men in history and Lithgow does an excellent job portraying him as he comes to terms with his own mortality. Here is a man who has done great things but at this late stage in his life is desperately clinging to what little power he has left. One of my favorite episodes of the season is episode nine “Assassins,” where Churchill has a portrait made for his 80th birthday. It is through this painting and the artist’s making of it that Churchill is finally forced to confront his limitations. It is sad to watch such a powerful man realize that he is no longer capable of performing the duties that he has such passion for. But despite that realization and subsequent resignation from the office of Prime Minister, he still burns the very painting that brought him to that realization. Signifying both an acceptance and rejection of his limitations.
Lithgow brings equal amounts ferocity and warmth to the role. At one moment he is manipulating public opinion by taking advantage of a coincidental appearance at a hospital, the next he is offering Elizabeth advice as he strives to help complete the education her father did not have time to do himself. It is a tremendous performance and one that I suspect will earn Lithgow much attention at awards season.
The Crown will no doubt be in contention for a variety of awards during the upcoming season. This is clearly a show made to attract that sort of attention and it is just the show Netflix needs to elevate its catalog of original shows. But it transcends being simply awards-bait by creating a complex and moving portrait of a woman’s struggle between who she is and the symbol she is expected to be. Repeatedly Elizabeth must hide who she is and how she feels from a public who expect a perfect queen. The royal lifestyle is one of decadence and privilage but The Crown suggests that it is not a life to be envied but pitied.
All episodes of The Crown are streaming exclusively on Netflix.
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