The opening for the third season of THE CROWN is a perfect encapsulation of what’s to come.
Queen Elizabeth is presented with her the new portrait for the British Pound and stamp. On the left is the image of Claire Foy, who brilliantly performed the part the last two seasons, and on the right is Olivia Coleman’s, taking over duties for the next two. Naturally there is nothing out of the ordinary here – we all age and change – but for her, The Queen, the reminder of her youth having passed by is a matter of public knowledge. It’s set in stone for as long as history wills it.
On the soundtrack to the trailer, we hear a cover of Bob Dylan’s beautiful “THE TIMES THEY ARE A-CHANGIN’,” only now sung mournfully by Sonia Solorzano, with a haunting ticking keeping tempo. The triumphant call for a new generation to take charge instead here signaling Elizabeth’s fears of not just losing touch, but her connection entirely to a country that she is supposed to be a mother, but doesn’t understand anymore. In the opening, her pain is tangible, the great many things she possibly wished to have done now gone. Not much one can do, she says. Except to go on as we must.
Written almost entirely once again by Peter Morgan, THE CROWN is a masterful balancing act of fact and fiction, never once straying too far into either realm, which it always comes out better for. When it does steep into fact, it takes every care to get things right. After all, most people featured in the show are still alive, and those that aren’t have estates with itchy litigation fingers. Events like the tragic Aberfan mining collapse are delicately told, and avoid the easy pitfalls of tragedy porn. A heartbreaking scene sees Philip attend the funeral of 87 dead children of the aforementioned collapse. As the camera pans across the endless row of caskets, and the choir begins to sing, the show doesn’t provide easy catharsis or cheap sorrow. Instead it focuses on Phillip, allowing us to project our feelings on him, who for the past two seasons has given new definitions to cold and distant, and actor Tobias Menzies is nothing short of incredible in the difficult part. Wanting to be a part of the people he believes to be superior to, he is utterly lost, broken, and despondent in the face of tragedy born from the neglect harbored by people like himself.
Enough cannot be said about Olivia Coleman in the leading role. Already an acclaimed actress worldwide, Coleman is a powerhouse as Elizabeth, breathing life into a political icon known to the world only as an image of an empire. Where Claire Foy, equally remarkable, navigated the waters of a young woman coming into her own in a brutally patriarchal and misogynistic world, Coleman has to contend with what it means to know the exact limits of your seemingly unlimited power – and with them also the constraints you have in this world. In the first two seasons it was ritual and the delicate pace of the monarchy that kept Britain afloat in a time of war, but it’s now been twenty years since the end of it, and people have begun to push forward again. Between tradition and the future now lies the very institute of monarchy, and Coleman’s performance attempting to navigate it on her own terms might be her career best to date.
Her mirror is the incomparable Helena Bonham-Carter, who can do no wrong. Bonham-Carter takes over from a career defining performance by Vanessa Kirby, and it’s like it she had only been loaning out the part to others while she did something more interesting. So total is Bonham-Carter’s domination of the role that any minute she’s mentioned, the show itself seems to perk up, eagerly awaiting and dreading what drama and calamity might be just around the corner.
The show has always been at its best as a visual re-telling of the history of Britain as a whole, told through a representation of both historic fact and educated speculation, and performed by portraits of people as truthful as any picture taken by an outsider. So too is the third season, now speeding into modern history and the middle-age of our leads, an exploration of not just Elizabeth’s perception of the loss of time, but also how England and the world both move forward into a society that might no longer need outdated ideals like monarchy. It asks can a country, which has since its conception been overseen by an omniscient parental figure like a king or queen, ever move on from a desire to look for ideals in people put into power by nothing more than a powerful PR image?
It also peers into the rise of media, and their power to shape the hearts and minds of a nation. An early scene features a young columnist skewer the monarchy for their perceived gallivanting with money that doesn’t belong to them, and how his words unify the nation in righteous anger when brought to light. Later, another column is born out of misunderstanding and manipulation, and is used to repair and heal even as it remains untruthful. History, the show says, is written not just by the victors, but by that which is emotionally easiest for us to accept.
In one of the funniest and most ironic moments of the show, the royal family is cajoled into an attempt to make themselves more relatable by hiring a BBC crew to film a documentary about their daily lives. The joke being, of course, that just the introduction of a camera into any environment, be it nature documentary or any other, violates whatever is perceived to be natural, and all results will be skewed by whoever holds the camera. Film as a medium is deceptive by its very nature, and as much as we’d want to believe that an image is truthful because it captures light accurately, doesn’t mean that it also doesn’t lie or reveal things we never intended in the first place.
I don’t think that THE CROWN has such lofty ideals as to rewrite history, or to define the British monarchy in a new way. Books have been written about these families for as long as they have existed, Morgan’s show being just one in a very long line of them. But what does set THE CROWN apart is it’s willingness to empathize and humanize it’s subjects, even without idolizing them. Everyone makes grand mistakes over the course of history, yet Morgan refuses to outright judge them in hindsight. Even the complicated relationship between Elizabeth and Philip gets a fair shake; just as we as an audience are ready to hate them for our third party perception, Morgan will slow down to remind us of just what a small piece of the whole we ever get to see, even as we like to think of ourselves as experts.
We are, the show says, outsiders looking in, forming images out of bits and scraps, just as much to blame and praise for our part in this. The world began to change, and kept doing so decade after decade, yet many of the institutions remained. It holds a mirror to a country and asks us what our true ideals are, if we allow people we so despise to represent them and stay in power? In a revelatory moment, Elizabeth is asked to step in to disband the government as the country plummets towards decline. She refuses, saying that The Crown does not intervene. It watches, biding its time, as the people decide for themselves in a true democracy.
Here we are, half a century later, and Elizabeth still reigns. Not just in Britain, but on televisions across the globe.
The people have spoken.