I have previously confessed to having a soft spot for British period dramas: Talk posh to me, television! Ever since Downton Abbey finished its second season, I have longed to watch icily well-mannered aristocrats burdened by duty crack parched witticisms in elegant drawing rooms. I was, understandably then, beside myself with excitement for Netflix’s The Crown, a reported $100 million operation about the life of Queen Elizabeth II, created by Peter Morgan, the man responsible for The Queen, and as reliable a source of intelligent royals content as currently exists. Morgan supports the institution of the monarchy with unflagging passion—his work effectively doubles as monarchist agitprop—without ever making one feel, as British and American tabloids squeeing about Kate and Wills can, that the royal family properly belongs in the pages of Tiger Beat.
The Crown begins auspiciously, just before Princess Elizabeth’s (Claire Foy) marriage to the soon-to-be Prince Philip (Matt Smith) in 1947. All the elements of peak period drama are present and accounted for: a young female protagonist underestimated by everyone but an arch old lady, an aging king surreptitiously coughing up blood in ways that do not bode well for his longevity, a flirtatious new romance that is full of swoony negging, pomp and circumstance, ornate sets and elaborate costumes, and a bedrock belief in the inarguable virtues of the class system and the righteousness of the monarchy.
And yet as The Crown unfolds, one sumptuous, polished, appropriate step after another, a question begins to loom over the proceedings, perhaps a question only an uncouth American would be classless enough to ask. Does Queen Elizabeth really warrant 20 to 60 hours of television? (The Crown raises other questions, but they almost all have to do with describing Matt Smith’s strange, handsome looks, which are both so smooth and so unfinished that he has the aspect of a frolicking embryo.) Morgan has imagined the series as six seasons and has already sold the first two, with 10 episodes each, to Netflix. But as each episode went by, I began to suspect that Morgan had mistaken setting for story. While it is certainly true that it is far more interesting to watch a young woman arduously strive to stifle her every emotion against the palatial backdrop of Buckingham Palace (which all the royals hate, FYI) than it would be to watch her do the same in a cold-water flat, it is still a young woman doing nothing.
I am not sure I have ever seen a show deliver exactly what it promises and yet be so fundamentally motionless. The Crown has gorgeous settings, hunting parties, London weather, Winston Churchill (John Lithgow), Brits stiffening their upper lips, illicit love affairs, and lines like “He believed the phrase ‘never trust a Cecil’ to be deeply unfair” operating as the sickest of burns. It will scratch your period drama itch—and leave you itchy for action. The series argues that the crown is noble and essential because the crown is unchanging. The queen must suppress her own desires in the name of duty, a duty that often commands that she do nothing, say nothing, and be seen to feel nothing about the earthly political matters of the day. It is a drama that passionately and elegantly makes the case for the virtues of stasis, dullness, and being behind the times, an intellectually provocative line that does not quite lend itself to a 20-hour television series. Six might have been perfect.
The story The Crown tells is of the death of Elizabeth the Woman at the hands of Elizabeth the Queen. But this is far less dramatic than it sounds. Queendom suits Elizabeth. It plays to her strengths. The knock on Elizabeth, from her snooty uncle, the abdicated King Edward (Alex Jennings), is that she’s obedient, smart enough, and unimaginative. Nothing we see calls his judgment into question. She has a huge responsibility, and she unerringly lives up to it, with both pain and strain, but far less than most people would experience. Edward’s abdication hangs over Elizabeth’s reign like an admonishment. Elizabeth is constantly warned, by all her advisers, from the prime minister to the Cabinet, her mother, her secretary, and the archbishops, that any show of character, of personality, of want such as Edward exhibited, is a slippery slope to disrepute. (This total suppression of character is what, decades later, would help make the irrepressible Princess Diana such a popular figure, but I suppose that’s a subject for Season 5.) Elizabeth, unlike nearly everyone around her, is exactly the woman to take these warnings to heart.
The episodes have an anti-dramatic structure. In nearly every one we see Elizabeth expressing a wish—for her children to keep her husband’s name, to have Philip run her coronation, to allow her sister Margaret to marry a commoner, to pick a private secretary—that is duly pooh-poohed by her many advisers or the strictures of history until she gives in, having come to see the logic of the other side. Elizabeth is so reliably circumspect that in one episode, about the deadly London Fog of 1952 and Churchill’s political survival, her storyline consists solely of her considering doing something and then doing nothing. Elizabeth’s progress as a monarch is reflected in how little she conveys in public, a skill that contravenes nearly everything you want in a performance: Her face is meant to tell you nothing.
In The Crown’s telling, personal charisma is a flaw in a monarch. Elizabeth does not possess this flaw. The cumulative effect of the series is to inspire a great respect for Elizabeth and her considered ways while convincing us that everyone around her would make better company. (As if to indemnify itself, the series has Elizabeth make a similar observation, late in the season.) Whereas Elizabeth accepts the burdens of her position, Philip turns resentful, bridling at his wife’s power and his lesser status by becoming a surly party boy. Churchill, the series co-lead, is a roaring lion in winter, unwilling to recognize the limitations of his age. King George VI (Jared Harris), alive only in the first two episodes, wears the burden of kingship more heavily, and, in his concern for his daughters, puts Elizabeth’s negligible parenting skills to shame. Elizabeth’s sister Princess Margaret is passionate and rebellious and charming and, unlike Elizabeth, who speaks in public only from prepared cards, knows how to deliver a speech. Edward, from semi-exile, is vile and witty, self-pitying and piteous. Even Elizabeth’s personal secretary, the rigid Tommy Lascelles (Pip Torrens), seems to more clearly relish his position as a scold for duty. This leaves Elizabeth, sensible, responsible, reliable Elizabeth, to perpetually do as she’s told, like a kind of elevated chambermaid, but for the gigantic fortune, enormous staff, multiple castles, and the hunk of metal on her head.
Perhaps this is why the series, unlike Downton, features no actual chambermaids. Elizabeth has a huge staff, and while we see much of her personal secretary, essentially her chief of staff, the servants who help her with her clothes and her shoes, who attend to her in her bedroom and her bath, who care for her husband and her children are barely seen. They are hands and shadows, registering as little on screen as they do with the royal family. Downton explicitly made the argument that the class system as practiced on great estates served both the upper and lower classes; everyone knew their place, the lower classes took pride in performing their duties, the upper classes took pride in providing those duties. Elizabeth may be one of the most famous, richest, and genuflected-to women in the world, but she contains within her these dueling class identities: She is the ruler of Britain, and she is also its servant. She is doubly burdened, by her day-to-day obligations and maintaining the glory of Britannia. This is what makes The Crown such an odd period drama: It suggests ruling the world is no fun at all.