In an era of prestige television, Netflix’s The Crown towers over the competition. One of the most expensive shows on television, it comes right up to the line of being a parody of prestige TV with its lavish production values and serious drama without ever toppling over. The first two seasons explored the beginning of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign as she struggled between her personal desires and the cold, harsh duty of the crown. Season three begins in the mid-1960s with a new cast to play slightly older roles. The older actors add a new dimension as their fixed beliefs become even more of a liability in a rapidly changing world. Although Elizabeth, Phillip, and others still question themselves, the major conflict that continue to permeate the show is between individuality and modernity running up against duty and tradition. With every element of the show remaining as impressive as ever, The Crown continues to shine as a riveting period drama.
Picking up in the mid-1960s and running to the late 1970s, Queen Elizabeth II (Olivia Colman) is now a “settled sovereign” who has finally found her footing with her acerbic and judgmental husband Prince Phillip (Tobias Menzies). However, the old conflicts still remain as Princess Margaret’s (Helena Bonham Carter) marriage to Lord Snowdon (Ben Daniels) inevitably deteriorates and a new conflict begins to arise with the young Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor), who sees his desire for individuality reflected in the abdicated King Edward (Derek Jacobi). These royal conflicts exist along a tumultuous England that’s becoming more modern and its political landscape more fractious. Against this backdrop, Elizabeth resolves that her duty as Queen means the only way forward for the monarchy is to completely ignore personal desire.
The Crown distinguishes itself from other prestige television of the age through its willingness to still be episodic when the narrative calls for it, and in these standalone episodes showrunner Peter Morgan finds some of his strongest material. The third episode of the season, “Aberfan”, is absolutely devastating as it recounts the Aberfan disaster in Wales that left 116 children dead. The show can also surprise as the Phillip-centric episode “Moondust” seems like it will be more of his brooding dissatisfaction and instead becomes an impressive look at how religion and science both provide a role in trying to imbue our lives with meaning and both can come up short in that regard. While some may prefer the relentless serialization of the modern prestige drama, I like that I can just sit with an episode of The Crown and enjoy what each episode has to say. Morgan and his excellent crew of directors feel like they’ve crafted each story to a mirror shine rather than just saying, “It’s one long movie,” as if that’s any indicator of quality.
But for those looking for a little serialization in their stories, they’ll find it with the Prince Charles storyline that promises an intense fourth season (filming is already underway and it’s likely to premiere in about a year’s time). The entire new cast acquits themselves well at their roles, but Josh O’Connor is the standout as the soft-spoken, sensitive young Prince of Wales who only sees the burden of being future king rather than the responsibility. He’s not appreciated for who he is by anyone other than his sister, Anne (Erin Doherty), and sees the monarchy as antithetical to both himself and the future. The tragedy that hangs over him isn’t just his feelings for Camilla Shand (Emerald Fennell), but also our knowledge as viewers of how so much is sacrificed for him to be king even though decades later he still hasn’t achieved that title, and when he does, it will be for a relatively short period.
Morgan’s incisive critique of the monarchy isn’t so much that it shouldn’t exist, but that there exists a central irony at the core of the crown’s behavior. The crown is supposed to act with the long view of history. It outlives everyone, so it must remain steady and firm. But as Season 3 hammers home with both Margaret and Charles, the Crown frequently acts with only a short-term perspective that ends up having long-term negative repercussions. The attempts to maneuver past scandal with Margaret and Peter Townsend and now with Charles and Camilla creates far more wreckage than if the Crown had simply acquiesced to the personal happiness of these figures. The long shadow of the abdication hangs over everything, but it also blinds Elizabeth and her cohorts to the consequences of their actions.
Morgan’s continued emphasis on larger themes makes The Crown a richer experience than a voyeuristic look at the royal family. The show never questions whether or not the monarchy should even exist, but instead takes it as a given and then works from there, which allows Morgan to view these characters as real people rather than tabloid fodder. He is sympathetic, but to a point, and while Season 3 feels more like an ensemble than the Elizabeth-driven first two seasons, the show has lost none of its richness or power. While Netflix encourages its viewers to binge programming, the streaming giant’s best show requires more patience and thoughtfulness. The Crown may put the “prestige” in “prestige television”, but it earns every dazzling moment.
All 10 episodes of Season 3 of The Crown premiere on Netflix on Sunday, November 17th.