Power Vacuum

The Crown’s third season replaces Claire Foy with Olivia Colman, but can’t fill the black hole that is Elizabeth.

Olivia Colman in The Crown.
Olivia Colman in The Crown. Sophie Mutevelian/Netflix

Soap operas, the dying workhorse of television, air five days a week. They can’t stop filming just because an actor has a stomach bug, a minor operation, or an unrenewed contract. On the days when the show must go on but an actor cannot, he is replaced in a bit of artless magic. When the substitute appears on screen for the first time, an announcer’s voice pipes in with, say, “The part of Vesuvius Cassadine will now be played by Melissa Cutler.” There are no further explanations. Get with the program.

Netflix’s The Crown returns for its third season with an upscale version of this same gambit. Claire Foy, the actress who played Queen Elizabeth in the first two seasons, has been replaced by Olivia Colman, not because of a stomach bug, but for the sake of verisimilitude. The Crown has decorously plodded its way into the mid-1960s and the sovereign’s middle age.
The scepter must be passed. This glamorous royal soap opera must go on. Colman makes for an exceptionally regal replacement. A prolific British actress as adept at comedy as she was at trauma, Colman’s the kind of performer whose luck in projects you marvel at until you realize—she is the luck. In fortuitous timing for The Crown, Colman recently capped off decades of stupendous work (Peep Show, Broadchurch, Fleabag) by finally breaking through in the States, with a Best Actress Oscar for her performance in last year’s The Favourite.

Colman slips right into the show, a high diver of such talent she barely makes a splash. The new Crown, which arrives Sunday, is like the old Crown: polished, elegant, and sumptuous. It makes gossip feel genteel, turns recent history into a drawing-room drama, and generously provides a visual tour of the royal family’s extensive properties. If you have previously enjoyed curling up on a cold winter weekend with this series, it will, again, keep you warm. It is, however, almost a complete waste of Olivia Colman.

The Crown has always been built around a nullity. As the first two seasons expounded upon in great detail, Elizabeth is a constitutionally unadventurous, unshowy, and reliable young woman thrust into the spotlight. Though she had some hiccups acclimating to the role, growing into its power and authority, she had even more difficulty with the part of the job for which she was oddly well-suited: sacrificing herself to the needs of the Crown. The sovereign is not permitted to be a human being. She is a symbol, an institution, a mysterious and soothing entity. Any show of personality—to say nothing of opinion, desire, bias—is potentially detrimental to her role as figurehead, and so to the performance of her sacred duty. As Elizabeth was told in the first season, and repeats to her son in this one, the hardest thing to do is to do nothing, but doing nothing is what the monarchy often demands.

That Elizabeth might be at a time in her life when she can pass this advice along is part of the problem. The earlier seasons dealt with the vacuum that is Elizabeth, both as a person and as a ruler, by making the tension between the understated Elizabeth and her overstated job the central drama of the show. Elizabeth was not the protagonist in every episode, often ceding the stage to her husband, Prince Philip; her sister, Princess Margaret; various prime ministers; and other historical events in episodes that would wind up orbiting around the monarch  in one way or another, much to everyone’s chagrin. All of this, plus Foy’s performance—which had just enough prickliness to insinuate the queen was judging everyone and everything and tamping it all down—kept things tense enough for a show that is, basically, a long bubble bath.

But now Elizabeth is a monarch in middle age, secure in position and her power, a Zen master of doing nothing. The show compounds matters by placing her in a relatively dull patch of royal history. The immediate postwar period is over, but Diana is not yet on the horizon, and the sexiest thing going on is a relentless economic crisis. (If a show is going to pick up and recast an actress smack in the middle of the series, might it have considered skipping a few years, too?) Colman intuits that Elizabeth, at the height of her powers and in the middle of a calm stretch, is content. The performance is both believable and emotionally astute: Elizabeth would be settled and comfortable. But this, along with the equilibrium in her marriage, snuffs out some of the little tension there used to be.

The acting highlight of the early episodes comes in one about Aberfan, a small Welsh town, where, in 1966, an avalanche of coal waste killed 144 people, 116 of them children. Elizabeth infamously took nine days to visit the site of the catastrophe, because, as she haltingly reveals to the prime minister, she believes herself to be “deficient” of feeling in such moments. This is the quintessential—and very British—conundrum of The Crown: having to wring drama from a person who believes God has made it her duty to have a stiff upper lip. There’s another episode, a relatively fast-paced one about an almost coup against the prime minster, in which Elizabeth is out of the country, learning modern horse training techniques. The show makes something of this—Elizabeth makes a melancholy confession that the rich, equestrian lifestyle is the one that makes her truly happy, just as she’s interrupted with her duties, which in this instance involve smacking down would-be threats to her parliamentary democracy—but there’s only so much hay you can make a of a woman who dreams of talking about hay all day.

That the show remains appealing through this relatively slow going is largely thanks to the more high-strung characters surrounding Elizabeth. An episode about Margaret (now played by Helena Bonham Carter, scenery-chomping as expected) again explores the tension between the naturally showboating younger sister, a born drama queen, and her stoic big sister, born the actual queen—this time it involves Bonham Carter shouting dirty limericks at LBJ at a diplomatically sensitive White House party. A slow-going episode about Philip’s (Tobias Menzies) obsession with the moon landing blossoms into a moving episode about his midlife crisis, in which he must really grapple with his own—sorry there’s no other word—assholishness. And then, toward the end of the season, there’s finally Charles (Josh O’Connor), as dowdy as his mother, but unlike her still champing at the bit of his own individuality. Elizabeth is at her most interesting when she’s playing off these more interesting people, when she’s Margaret’s and Charles’ foil and antagonist, when she’s drawing a connection between herself and the dutiful but uninspired astronauts. It’s all the more reason to wish next season—with Diana and Margaret Thatcher (who will be played by Gillian Anderson)!—had come sooner.

The whole season is set in a moment, unlike our own, when anti-royalist sentiment was at a fever pitch. Britain’s economy had still not recovered from the war, and many of its citizens wondered: Why are we paying the richest woman in the world more money to keep up her palaces even as we’re having to devalue our currency? To answer this question, as The Crown would have it, Prince Philip dreamed up a PR play: a 1969 BBC documentary that would convey to the public how approachable, likable and normal the royal family was, so Britons would not resent giving them a raise (literally). According to The Crown, it was a colossal failure. The family comes across as incredibly boring, the dullest people in the land, distinctly unspecial, and is razzed for it. (Elizabeth apparently forbids it from being re-aired.)

Years and years later, the royals now have, in The Crown, the correction to that documentary, a show that bends over backward to make them seem fascinating and is so good at it that it only falters, a little, on a woman—albeit the main character—who professionally aspires to have no personality at all. The show is of a piece with these royal family–loving times, not exactly propaganda but exceptionally good PR, flashing just enough humanizing flaws to make it seem clear-eyed, when it is, as ever, in the bag for the Windsors. At the end of the Aberfan episode, a line of complimentary text explains that after Elizabeth’s delay in visiting the town, the greatest regret of her reign, “She has visited more than any other member of the royal family.” She has been to Aberfan four times in 53 years.