THE CROWN: The State of the Monarchy (Season 3 – Review)

Roughly halfway into Peter Morgan’s sprawling potted history of Queen Elizabeth II, you realise The Crown has reached a point of security. After two seasons which made a star out of Claire Foy and gave Netflix perhaps it’s most prestige original property, Season 3 has the self-assured confidence we see Elizabeth, now middle-aged, begin to imbue.

The unique central gimmick of Morgan’s drama was announced at the very beginning – that every two seasons of a projected six, the actors portraying Her Majesty and family would age-up alongside the characters themselves, and Season 3 marks the first instance of this change. Foy truly made Elizabeth her own, essaying with grace a young woman thrust into a role unlike any other on the planet while having to balance her own youth and sexuality with the rigours of her position. Olivia Colman, despite freshly minted with a Best Actress Oscar for portraying another British Queen in The Favourite, always had some big shoes to fill. As you might imagine with an actor of Colman’s character, she does just that. Nor does she attempt to simply replicate Foy’s performance.

To do so in the first place would have been a tactical error as Season 3, which takes place over a 13 year span from 1964 through to Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee celebrations in 1977, presents a different Queen. The season premiere is called Olding and that forms part of the central theme in Morgan’s show this year: change. The opening scenes of the season nicely mark the actor transition as Elizabeth sees proposals for a new set of stamps, with her face replacing Foy’s; indeed Morgan bookends this nicely in finale Cri de Coeur when she is presented with a photograph from the late 40’s showing Foy and Matt Smith as Prince Philip. “How young we were” Elizabeth wistfully remarks. How young too, in a sense, was her country.

Season 3 is driven by not just Elizabeth’s and her family’s transition into different ages, roles, responsibilities and desires, but that of her country; a United Kingdom weathering economic downturn, socialist revolution, and the ripples of class war which continues the break down of the colonial Establishment on which her family was built. The Crown, halfway in, questions the state of monarchy itself in the modern age.

In some sense, this is essentially what The Crown is all about deep down. Through the prism of Elizabeth weathering the family through the most radically changing century in the United Kingdom’s long history, and the successive governments that operate under her, Peter Morgan is constantly tussling with the same question – what are the Royal Family *for*?

It is a question which has particular potency right now, in terms of allegory, and The Crown is often very pointed in how clearly its exploration of 60’s and 70’s British political history mirrors our current state of affairs. Philip (excellently characterised by Tobias Menzies) harbours genuine fears in Olding about the rise of the socialist Labour PM Harold Wilson (a delightfully down to earth turn from Jason Watkins), feared by the ailing Winston Churchill (John Lithgow) just before his death, could lead to the abolition of the monarchy itself. “Half his cabinet would be made up of rabid anti-monarchists. They’d want our heads on spikes” Philip opines and he’s not entirely wrong. Wilson ends up serving as a buffer between the republican aspects of his party and the monarchy itself, and one of the best drawn aspects of the season is the initially frosty dynamic between Wilson and Elizabeth that blossoms into true friendship by the end.

The Crown without doubt, nonetheless, draws unspoken parallels between Wilson and Jeremy Corbyn, perhaps the most ardently socialist Labour politician vying for Number 10 since Wilson’s government came to power on the back of promising significant social reform for ordinary people in a country that, edging out of the 1950’s, was still frighteningly unequal. Providence has ensured that Season 3 premiered just weeks before the most unpredictable and perhaps landmark General Election in many years, one which will see the UK enter the 2020’s taking one of two starkly different paths. The similarities to 50+ years ago cannot be lost to the now extremely old Elizabeth and Philip in Buckingham Palace. 

Morgan’s series, however, is keen to point out that socialism is often greeted with fear and suspicion, as Olding reminds us how Wilson was suspected of being a Russian spy long in the pay of the KGB. Philip himself voices conspiracy theories peddled by the ‘old boys network’: “His predecessor, Hugh Gaitskell, was poisoned by the Russians, so that their man might take over”, claiming ‘Olding’ to be Wilson’s KGB codename. The claims turn out to be unfounded, naturally, as indeed almost certainly are the accusations often levelled at Corbyn of anti-semitism or terrorist sympathies, and Olding uses it as an opportunity to cover the dark history of Sir Anthony Blunt, one of the legendary ‘Cambridge spies’ who served as Elizabeth’s personal art historian.

This is one of numerous aspects of a changing Britain that Elizabeth, and her family, struggle across Season 3 to accept. Philip’s uncle, Lord Mountbatten (spectacularly well cast as Charles Dance), becomes embroiled in a plot by media elites and the Bank of England in Coup to try and unseat Wilson’s socialist government. Margaret is deployed and sent to the United States in Margaretology in order to charm President Lyndon Johnson (again, superbly cast in the great Clancy Brown), the far more belligerent and hawkish, unexpected replacement for John F. Kennedy after his assassination, as the British economy faces deep troubles they may need American assistance with. As Elizabeth puts it: “The important thing here, I’m told, is that whatever we offer President Johnson, it must exceed whatever we gave the Kennedys”. Johnson is very deliberately ‘Trumpian’ in his bellicose aversion to aiding Britain in her time of need, only charmed through Margaret’s utter lack of traditional social graces.

What’s striking is that The Crown doesn’t have to particularly stretch its storytelling a long way in order to render these comparisons with the modern political circus – it is all clear as day how history, in its own way, is visibly repeating. At the prospect of Edward Heath’s minority Conservative government needing a pact with the Liberals to defeat Labour and Wilson’s second term in office, Philip delivers a striking précis in Cri de Coeur of the state of the nation: “Can you remember a time when the country was in worse shape? Or one had as little confidence in one’s leaders? How could matters get any worse? What more could possibly go wrong? And then you come down to breakfast, you see the newspapers, and you realize, they’ve done it again. I mean, right now the United Kingdom is the equivalent of a patient dying on the operating table and the surgeons, no, the butchers, no, sorry, the murderers responsible for causing that death are seeking re-election. Instead of throwing them in jail, the people, like lemmings, are queuing up to extend their bloody contracts”. Anyone following political events in 2019 can surely see for themselves the similarities. Philip could be talking about today. Morgan certainly is.

While a strength of The Crown is in how it manages to weave social changes and key aspects of 20th century British history around the fabric of Royal life, allowing for the season’s standout episode Aberfan—which tells the tragic story of a Welsh village decimated by the collapse of a slag heap which cost the lives of over a hundred children—amongst others, Morgan’s series is always clear about how these major societal developments happen in relation to Elizabeth and her family. It is through the prism of privilege, and it just so happens that Season 3 displays the challenges to such privilege more acutely than previous years, as reflective of a nation moving away culturally and socially from an austere era into a freer, more liberal world. While the Royal Family never suffer, as such, the strain of their position becomes clear to see.

Imbroglio sees even Buckingham Palace affected in the mid-1970’s by the miner’s strike, which forces Ted Heath to ration power use across the country; Bubbikins reveals the story behind Philip’s mother, Princess Alice of Battenberg (Jane Lapotaire), who gave up her title and privilege to tend to the poor and needy as a nun in Greece, following the political destruction of her original homeland during the events of World War One; and while perhaps the least effective episode of the season thanks to a touch too much naval gazing, Moondust shows the historic Moon landing of 1969 through the lens of Philip’s own deep seated anxieties about his role as the Queen’s consort, ultimately looking in the wrong place for icons to hold onto as he continues to figure out his place in the world – very much continuing a theme which rippled through Season 2.

That’s where perhaps the flaws in Season 3 become apparent, as it lacks the same kind of powerful unifying construct as Season 2 had with Elizabeth and Philip’s rocky marriage. They have reached a point of acceptance and stability in middle-age where that’s concerned; while not without love or moments of romance, both understand they cannot be who they would have wished due to the roles they have taken on. As Elizabeth tells her son Charles in Tywysog Cymru: “We have all made sacrifices and suppressed who we are. Some portion of our natural selves is always lost. It is not a choice. It is a duty”. As Moondust reminds Philip of his dreams of adventuring, Coup sees Elizabeth once again haunted by her ideal life, breeding and racing horses with her childhood love Porchey. These episodes end up feeling a touch re-heated, revisiting stories and themes the first two seasons conveyed, but lacking the same strong, concurrent through line.

It is possibly a result of The Crown’s expanding set of main characters who need servicing. Charles (played quite perfectly by Josh O’Connor) is particularly spotlighted in the final half of the season, as he is tutored into becoming the Prince of Wales against a tide of anti-monarchist Welsh nationalism, and later finds some kinship (or perhaps KINGship) in the dying, abdicated Edward VIII who reappears in Dangling Man (wonderfully essayed by Sir Derek Jacobi), as Charles meets and romances his future wife Camilla Shand (Emerald Fennell, who also showran Season 2 of Killing Eve incidentally). There is also an older Anne (Erin Doherty), a firebrand with no filter who skirts counter-culture with some cunning, loose sexual morals and a naughty playfulness. If Charles is his mother’s repressed son, Anne is certainly her father’s difficult to contain daughter.

Then you have Princess Margaret, who is sidelined for much more of Season 3 than the previous two seasons. Helena Bonham-Carter can’t quite match Vanessa Kirby in the role, who almost stole the first two seasons from under Foy’s nose, but in what material she gets manages to convey the almost bipolar tragedy of Margaret’s absence of purpose within her tempestuous marriage to her roguish husband Tony (Ben Daniels). Cri de Coeur is a tour-de-force for Bonham-Carter but Morgan struggles to weave Margaret as neatly into the season as in previous years, despite her being a banner character. 

If anything, The Crown leans more heavily this season than in previous years to its standalone structure, defined partly by default of moving swiftly through large time periods, but also here as a means of devoting particular episodes to certain characters. Philip gets Moondust, Charles gets Tywysog Cymru, Margaret gets Cri de Coeur and so on, yet oddly enough you’ll be hard-pressed, ironically, to find the Elizabeth-centric episode. Olding is possibly the closest we come, as are elements of Coup, and she of course threads the very core of the entire season. But she is also, at times, seldom seen in one or two episodes and for a series which arguably sees Elizabeth—the Queen—as its protagonist, Season 3 in its determination to give everyone their moment in the spotlight loses sight of her. Her evolution is slightly less well-defined this year.

This could also be because Season 3 of The Crown is, to a degree, a period of transition, both in terms of the narrative and the show itself. The characters are ageing, the country around them is changing, but Season 3 lacks the kind of powerful moments of loss or challenge to the Royal institution that come later. Churchill passes on, Edward VIII dies, and the monarchy faces economic and social hardship, but yet to come is the difficult marriage of Charles and Diana Spencer, the Falklands War, the ‘annus horribilis’ of 1992 and, of course, the tragic death of Diana that defined their family as the century came to a close. This is all fertile, powerful dramatic ground to cover in Seasons 4 and/or 5, and as we see tabloid intrusion into Margaret’s personal life, seeds of those dark years are sown in Season 3.

The Crown does remain as compelling, beautifully filmed, often superbly acted, as it always has been and certain Season 3 episodes—Aberfan in particular—are excellent, thought provoking television. It simply lacks the seamless thematic structure of previous seasons this time around. One hopes that can be rediscovered as Britain faces the looming spectre of Thatcherism in Season 4…

Author of books: Myth-Building in Modern Media / Star Trek, History and Us | Writer of words on film/TV/culture | Rotten Tomatoes approved critic: Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcast chief: @wmadethis | Occasionally go outside.

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