“And, if I may: never let them see the real Elizabeth Windsor,” Winston Churchill warns his young queen in Netflix's new drama The Crown. “Never let them see that carrying the crown is often a burden. Let them look at you, but let them see only the eternal.”
For those who didn't grow up under the British monarchy (and even for some who did), Queen Elizabeth can be a hard person in whom to find sympathy. She is the cold, distant symbol of an obsolete but fabulously wealthy system and has held a hard line on its antiquated rules, which at various points in her lifetime stood in the way of her uncle, her sister, and her son from marrying the people they loved because the various institutions of church and state did not approve.
Peter Morgan once wrote a wonderful film – The Queen, the middle piece in his trilogy of scripts about British prime minister Tony Blair – casting a spotlight on the way those hidebound traditions and aloof bearing can play so very badly in modern times, as the Elizabeth of the 1990s dealt with the aftermath of Princess Diana's death. The Queen wasn't without some degree of empathy for the position its title character found herself in, but was primarily a portrait of an institution, and the woman asked to be the living embodiment of it, wildly out of step with the times and the national mood.
With The Crown, which Netflix debuts on Friday (I've seen all 10 episodes of the first season), Morgan has gone back to the beginning to show how Elizabeth got that way, and to illustrate the great personal cost that comes from assuming the throne, or even being related to someone who does. It's a smart, beautifully mounted, and at times very moving production. Tales of the rituals and burdens of nobility usually put me to sleep (even during the brief period when I was enjoying Downton Abbey, it was entirely for the servants' stories), but this one worked its magic even on me, so I can only imagine the agony and ecstasy it will elicit from royal believers.
The first season begins in 1947 with the wedding of Elizabeth (Claire Foy) to Philip (Matt Smith) – a marriage that both parties had to fight for, as there were more traditional matches for the eldest daughter and heir to King George VI (Jared Harris) – and goes into the mid-'50s, not long after the retirement of Churchill (John Lithgow), whose second stint as Prime Minister allowed him to mentor the inexperienced queen after the death of her father.
Bit by bit, Morgan and his collaborators show Elizabeth being forced to sacrifice her individuality for the sake of the institution, from something as small as choosing her own personal secretary to something very large like her sister Margaret (Vanessa Kirby) seeking permission to marry the divorced war veteran Peter Townsend (Ben Miles) over the objections of the Church of England. And we see Philip, a proud, tough man (in an early episode, he protects Elizabeth from the threat of a rogue elephant while on a royal visit to the kingdom's territories in Africa), chafe as all his traditional masculine provenances – even down to his family name – are stripped away in service to a woman who must always be the queen first and his wife a very distant second.
“What kind of marriage is this?” he bellows at one point.
Elizabeth's grandmother, Queen Mary (Eileen Atkins) warns her that the less she actually does or says in public, the better it will be received, while Churchill simply articulates the challenge of the job as, “No one wants you to be you. They want you to be it.”
Where Downton Abbey tended to view personal sacrifice to protect tradition as an admirable thing, The Crown takes a more nuanced view. At times, it's a slow-motion tragedy, as we see Elizabeth transformed irrevocably by a job she never much wanted – at times pushed into those changes by her mother (Victoria Hamilton), even as King George's widow will gladly tell anyone who will listen how little her late husband wanted the crown, and how wearing it killed him. But at others, it suggests the power those traditions and the stiff upper lip that comes with them can use to raise the spirits of the queen's subjects in difficult times.
Nowhere is the matter more complicated than in the series' treatment of Elizabeth's uncle, Prince Edward (Alex Jennings), who abdicated the throne in order to marry the twice-divorced Wallis Simpson. For a long stretch, Edward is presented as a catty, shallow villain, interested only in maintaining the allowance left to him by his late brother. But when Elizabeth begins seeking his counsel, his advice comes across as sincere and only slightly self-serving, and as he watches his niece's coronation – the moment at which she becomes head of the Church as well as head of state, and something akin to a goddess, as one character puts it – there's a conflicted, wistful look on his face. Where Elizabeth is so often forced to prioritize being the queen over being a person, Edward opted for humanity over monarchy and godhood, and can't always agree with that decision.
The portrayal of Edward is just one character arc of many that plays especially well in a binge, even as Morgan defies the usual Netflix storytelling ethos by building each episode around a specific event – the coronation, the Great Smog of 1952, the painting of Graham Sutherland's controversial portrait of Churchill on the occasion of his 80th birthday – that explicates a larger theme about the burdens of leadership (whether from Buckingham Palace or 10 Downing Street) while offering a clear structure of its own. It's a much more satisfying way to tell the larger story, and one that lends itself to being watched at almost any pace.
The cast is excellent, with Foy and Lithgow particular standouts. Even before she was trained to repress most of her individuality, Elizabeth was never the most sparkling personality – she and Margaret both agree that the younger sister is better-suited for so public a role (and Kirby lights up the screen to illustrate the charisma gap between the siblings) – yet Morgan and Foy make her feel achingly human without violating what we know of her public and private personae. And Lithgow steps into a role so vividly played in the past by Albert Finney, Bob Hoskins, Richard Burton, and others with the sheer force of will required to lift England in its darkest hours, but also with the vulnerability of a man who's barely hanging on to both power and life because he thinks the country and its new queen so badly need him. It's a very big performance, but one suited to a man who was so often – particularly during this period of his life – performing for the sake of the people.
The Crown is reportedly Netflix's most expensive series to date – this season apparently cost $100 million – and the money is there on the screen, as it needs to be to truly capture the wealth and scope of the monarchy. You can hear the tick of every antique clock, or the shift of weight in every sumptuous piece of furniture as characters are granted an audience with their queen, and it all looks stunning, from very public moments like the coronation to more private ones like Philip taking flying lessons over the British countryside.
There are perhaps times when The Crown falls too in love with its subject, and/or the pageantry of their lives, but it makes a strong and entertaining argument for the ways in which the cost of the throne isn't worth its benefits. The Queen Mother speaks of her husband before and after his coronation as two different people, who helpfully had different names, suggesting that “Albert Windsor was murdered by his older brother” and replaced by someone calling himself George VI. And when it's Elizabeth's turn to take her father's place, Queen Mary writes her a letter warning of a similar dichotomy between Elizabeth Windsor and Queen Elizabeth.
“The two Elizabeths will frequently be in conflict with one another,” the letter promises. “the fact is, the crown must win. Must always win.”
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org