If you’re pining for a terrible yet thoroughly enjoyable pastime to replace Downton Abbey, The Crown won’t do. Oh, it does have its juicy bits — Eileen Atkins’ vinegary Queen Mary; Alex Jennings as a très bitchy Duke of Windsor, whose abdication to marry an American divorcée set the wheels in motion for Elizabeth (Claire Foy) to assume the throne at age 25; vivacious royal sibling Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby) taunting her stuffy sister like Lady Mary going for Edith’s jugular. But, as a whole, the first 10-episode season is not here for your meme-making pleasure.
Instead, The Crown is another immaculate and brainy contemporary historical drama written by Peter Morgan, whose Oscar-winning film The Queen stands as one of the great works of Elizabeth-inspired popular culture, right alongside Johnny Rotten braying “God save the queen/She ain’t no human being.” Unlike the Sex Pistols, though, Morgan is concerned (obsessed?) with teasing out the humanity inside one of the most ubiquitous yet remote public figures of our time.
The Crown grew out of Morgan’s stage play The Audience, which imagined the private weekly briefings between Britain’s longest-reigning monarch and her prime ministers, from Churchill to Cameron. (Like The Queen, The Audience starred Helen Mirren.) As he told the Wall Street Journal last year, Morgan favors a respectful but probing artistic license, rather than “forensic accuracy,” to paint a “truthful” portrait of the queen. His latest work continues to mine the rich vein of post-WWII, post-Imperial British history; Netflix plans six 10-episode seasons of The Crown, one for each decade of Elizabeth’s reign. Because this is as much the story of modern England as it is of its now-90-year-old queen, the final season should be wrapped in the poignant irony of Brexit. Elizabeth has outlasted her kingdom.
Meanwhile, the first season marches, sometimes meanders, through the salient points of Elizabeth’s early years: her marriage to Prince Philip (Matt Smith); the death of her stuttering, reluctantly reigning father George VI (Jared Harris); the role the new medium of TV played in her 1953 coronation; the squabbling between doddering Prime Minister Winston Churchill (a superbly raw John Lithgow) and his exasperated cabinet. At times, The Crown plays like The King’s Speech minus Colin Firth’s twinkle, crossed with The Hour but minus the sex. (Not that I’m asking for more sex; the sedate clinches here between the young couple feel weird enough, stuck as my brain is with the image of their elderly future selves doing the royal wave.)
Although biographers agree that the royal couple was generally a love match, Morgan's first season focuses on the long rough patch coinciding with Elizabeth's early years on the throne, as Philip unhappily adjusts to life in his wife's shadow. Morgan's writing slackens into repetition during countless scenes of the couple bickering, at least until Elizabeth finally wakes us up by throwing around some pottery. Smith's role in particular feels underwritten, his character doomed to spend most of the season in a tiresome, charmless sulk.
Between her husband’s spiteful grumbling, her sister’s jealousy and her Buckingham Palace advisers’ gentle but condescending “suggestions” regarding policy and propriety, Elizabeth is under siege from the moment the crown is placed on her head. And that’s Morgan’s point. There’s a reason he's named the series The Crown, and not Elizabeth; Morgan wants us to understand what the monarchy strips from those in it. A monarch is by necessity a symbol, a “strange hybrid creature, like a sphinx,” the Duke of Windsor tells his niece, with sympathy. And Foy does a fine job of quietly conveying, through her quick blue eyes, perfectly clipped speech and determined chin, Elizabeth’s dug-in devotion to duty.
It’s not hard to see how this cautious queen — a woman, wife, mother and monarch struggling to fit together the pieces of herself — could age into Mirren’s redoubtable one. When the scandalous Margaret exclaims that the public loves her better because she gives them “excitement and character,” Elizabeth counters that her own “absence of noise” allows others to shine. “The monarchy should shine!” argues Margaret. “The monarchy, yes,” Elizabeth crisply declares. “Not the monarch.”
Morgan has many stories to tell about the relationship between the monarchy and other British institutions. Some of this gets talky and tedious, like the focus on gray-faced Palace functionaries, with too much explanatory dialogue wedged awkwardly in to help American viewers. But much of The Crown fluidly portrays crucial moments that changed British society forever. For instance, the public-pleasing affair between Princess Margaret and Group Captain Peter Townsend (a divorced member of the Palace staff) weaves through the first season, illustrating how the British press’ coverage of the royals changed from deferential to sensational and foreshadowed the queen’s Diana-shaped problems to come.
Sometimes, when Morgan goes veering down one of these side roads, I wish we could just stay a little longer with the comfortingly solid Elizabeth and her corgis and private fretting. On the other hand, in the series’ ninth and best episode, “Assassins,” Morgan’s side road leads to something wonderful. As he did in Frost/Nixon and The Queen, Morgan tosses two adversarial figures into intimate circumstances — in this case, Churchill and artist Graham Sutherland (Stephen Dillane), who has been commissioned by Parliament to paint an 80th-birthday portrait of the prime minister. The sittings (more like standoffs) between Churchill, basking in past glories and insisting that the painter hew to “accuracy,” and the modernist artist, who champions a more nebulous “truth” (he’s Morgan’s mouthpiece), could have been a feature film on their own.
This episode also gives Foy’s Elizabeth her first truly commanding moment — and it’s unforgettable — with the ascendant young queen finally confident not just of her royal stature but of how to use it. Adorned in her majestic regalia (she’s preparing for an official photograph), she stands before her wayward husband with unbowed dignity and assertively reminds him that he is the only man she has ever loved. At a personal cost that will become clearer as the series unspools, the woman and the monarch have blended into one. God save the Queen.