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Long Live the Queen

Thank God for The Crown and its fantasy of the benevolent authoritarian.

Queen Elizabeth II (Claire Foy) and Prince Philip (Matt Smith) in Season 2 of Netflix’s The Crown.
Queen Elizabeth II (Claire Foy) and Prince Philip (Matt Smith) in Season 2 of Netflix’s The Crown.
Robert Viglasky/Netflix

Do you need an escape? A break from the miserable news delivered every time you thumb your phone? If zeitgeist counterprogramming is what you’re after, look no further than Friday’s Netflix premiere of Season 2 of The Crown, the $100 million period drama pushing the now priceless fantasy of the benevolent authoritarian: the figurehead above the rule of law who chooses not chaos, corruption, and tweetstorms, but doggedness, dullness, and good behavior. All hail Queen Elizabeth II (Claire Foy), who rules with the Commonwealth’s best interest at heart, in confident and stifling calm, with a deeply un-American faith in personality suppression.

In The Crown’s first season, Queen Elizabeth’s self-effacement was a dramatic defect. We watched as she tamped down her already obedient spirit in order to become a figurehead, learning to do nothing, to express nothing, to reveal nothing. Each episode was a hard-won but inert lesson in gilded hardship. In The Crown’s telling, Elizabeth was the calm at the center of postwar British politics, with more energetic and charismatic figures flying around her, often making off with history and her television show.

In the second season, this defect has become succor. Cautiousness, propriety, and dowdiness have never seemed more soothing. Elizabeth remains the commonsense counterpoint to the flibbertigibbets around her, but she is now comfortable in her authority. Each episode is not a lesson in personal abnegation; instead, the new season mixes episodes about contained political events—an encounter with the Kennedys, a crisis caused by a vocal critic, the Duke of Windsor’s Nazi affiliations—with the really good gossip. Peter Morgan, the creator of The Crown (and, before this, The Queen), is a royalist, and thus unwilling to spill the high tea completely, but the royals’ love lives—the bumpy marriage of Elizabeth and Prince Philip (Matthew Smith) and the tabloid travails of Windsor wild child Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby)—are the backbone of the season. This means watching The Crown is almost as good, distraction-wise, as swan-diving into a sea of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle content.

The new season begins in media res, with Elizabeth and Philip arguing about whether they can save their marriage. The Crown does an excellent job making both partners irritating (arrogant Philip perpetually bridles at his wife’s status; Elizabeth is passive-aggressive and boring) while making their partnership fascinating. Their marriage is sporadically sweet, occasionally sexy, and displays a topsy-turvy power dynamic. Elizabeth and Philip seem like they belong to another time, not only because the royals are old-fashioned and unprepared for the more egalitarian postwar age, but because they cannot get divorced. The plot mechanics of 19th-century novels thrum through their partnership, in which they are sometimes close and sometimes distant, physically and emotionally, but always, always stuck with each other.

Decidedly more 20th century is Princess Margaret, still recovering from the queen’s scuttling of her love match with Peter Townsend. Longing to be around people who don’t breed horses, own property, or know her mother, Margaret alights to a dinner party with regular people, where she encounters the photographer and commoner Antony Armstrong-Jones (Matthew Goode). This kicks off a Bohemian romance that is tawdry, combative, romantic, perverse—basically everything one could hope for in a period drama based on actual historical events. (Except for the unhappy ending that seems to be looming in future seasons. I didn’t even Wikipedia that!) Foy does subtle work throughout The Crown as Elizabeth, conveying emotions with only the slightest changes in expression, and so the most memorable acting in The Crown is the grand, sloppy, nearly campy scene in which Kirby’s Margaret, drunk and alone, kicks and flails and nearly tosses the furniture around her room. It’s an awards-show moment that teeters so close to being overwrought that you have to commend it for being, instead, mostly heartbreaking.

Before meeting Tony, Margaret has a short-lived engagement to a doofus friend, who rudely botches their pairing. A furious Margaret sneers at him, “People like you don’t get to insult people like me,” describing—mostly—the relative aristocracy of their spirits, not making a class dig. The Crown loves royalty, and it loves it so much that it can’t help but make the case for it by giving a modern empowerment splash to Margaret’s kicky self-determination and Elizabeth’s stalwart sense of duty. As the season nears its end, Elizabeth has occasion to do some sneering of her own, noting that in the decade she has been queen, the three prime ministers she has worked with have been too weak, too sick, too old to stick it out in the job, calling them “a confederacy of elected quitters.” Never mind, of course, that “quitting” is what mere mortal politicians are supposed to do when they are weak, sick, or unpopular. The Crown isn’t here to sing the praises of the orderly turnover of a parliamentary democracy, but only of the lasting fortitude of Her Majesty, long may she rule.

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