Netflix’s superb drama The Crown may appear on the surface to be merely another lush historical soap opera for the sort of person who cried while watching Princess Diana’s wedding. But in fact, the series, which promises to retell the story of Queen Elizabeth II from her girlhood to today, is a stirring and deeply considered apologia for Burkean conservatism.
Throughout the ten episodes of the brilliant first season, the young Queen Elizabeth II (played with beautiful understatement by Claire Foy in a true star-making role), just 25 when called to the throne by the death of her father George VI (Jared Harris), is still finding her way as a frustrated, flustered sovereign. Caught off guard by the unexpected chores and rigors of duty and at times abashed by her own lack of preparation and education, she is circumscribed by circumstance, a leader who isn’t allowed to do anything.
Then, in the seventh episode, it occurs to her with a certain breezy satisfaction that if nothing else she can at least choose her own private secretary upon the retirement of the long-serving Buckingham Palace majordomo, Tommy Lascelles, played with stern authority by the excellent Pip Torrens. Tommy’s deputies are two: a senior and a junior. Even palace flunkies have their own lines of succession, and it is the senior deputy, Michael Adeane, who is expected to take over as Her Majesty’s next secretary. Yet the sovereign has a special fondness for the junior deputy, Martin Charteris, who served her ably when she was duchess of Edinburgh. She asks Tommy what he would think if she invited Charteris to succeed him. “That is your right, Ma’am,” he replies, with the proper deference, before adding, with an unexpected firmness, “but it would be a mistake.”
What comes next is one of the most riveting instances of table-turning ever presented on television.
Like Elizabeth, we in the audience have simply assumed the stakes are minuscule, hardly worth a fuss. The reality, Tommy explains, is otherwise. There has been, he says, “An order developed over time, generations. And individuality in the House of Windsor, any departure from that way of doing things, is not to be encouraged. It results in catastrophes like the abdication.” The queen scoffs at this comparison of her secretarial preference to the decision made by her uncle, the former Edward VIII (played as a roguish foil by Alex Jennings) to trade the throne for the hand of the American divorcée Wallis Simpson. Violating protocol in a small household-hiring decision wouldn’t be nearly as egregious as Edward’s total abandonment of duty, she notes.
“I disagree,” says Tommy, crystallizing, in an instant, the business of the crown, and of The Crown:
I served your uncle, as you know. And it’s in the small things that the rot starts. Do the wrong thing once, it’s easier to do it again. Do the individualistic thing once, it is easy to do it again. Now, in the case of your uncle, it started with wanting to use Buckingham Palace simply as the office and York House as his home. Then he stopped attending church, decided he wanted to sell Sandringham. He dismissed courtiers who’d served under his father in favor of younger, sycophantic supplicants. Of course, no one saw the abdication coming then, but the ego, the willfulness, the individualism, the rot had set in.
Torrens delivers these lines with such urgency and passion that the scene is transfixing. By this point in the series, we’re deeply invested in Elizabeth’s point of view: Not born to rule, not remotely ready for the job when her father dies at 56, not even able to understand the various feuds and factions that surround her, she comes across as the world’s most glamorous underdog. We want her to win and thrive, or at least to enjoy the ride. Now, through Tommy, we learn what she must learn: She is no longer a person but the face of an institution, a soldier drafted into service, in some ways a prisoner.
Making the case to put duty to country first in 2017, The Crown is a gobsmacking enterprise.
Making the case to put duty to country first in 2017, The Crown is a gobsmacking enterprise, one with a surprising backstory. Series creator Peter Morgan, who has written every episode so far, first visited this territory with The Queen (2006), which won Helen Mirren an Oscar for her portrayal of the Elizabeth of 1997, dealing with the aftermath of her daughter-in-law Diana’s death. That led to an ambitious stage piece, The Audience, which dramatized the sovereign’s weekly meetings with prime ministers, jumping around in time to afford Mirren the opportunity to play Elizabeth again, at every stage of her reign, as various actors played the nine premiers who (as of the play’s debut in 2013) had led Her Majesty’s government. That latter effort was a late-breaking example of Bush Derangement Syndrome by proxy; it branded Tony Blair as a deluded partner of George W. Bush whose decision to join in the invasion of Iraq was merely a heedless reprise of Eden’s Suez adventure. (Both mistakes could have been avoided, at least according to the play, if the politicians involved had only heeded Her Majesty’s friendly counsel.)
Bush obsession caused otherwise talented artists to try to cram their loathing into places where it didn’t fit, but fading memories of the Dubya years have proved a tonic to the arts. The Crown is not only devoid of the kind of fatuous reductionism seen in The Audience, but amounts to a sustained, sometimes ingenious rebuke of today’s shallow dismissiveness, or even ignorance, of the ways of our forebears. The entire first season (the second season is currently being filmed) is a serial demolition of many of today’s least-questioned shibboleths: “Be yourself,” “Follow your heart,” “We’re all the same underneath it all,” “The newer the better.” The Crown, with a rumored budget of $130 million for its first two seasons, is one of the most expensive television series ever to be produced. Yet those sumptuous sets, the fixation on minute questions of protocol, the splendidly imagined balls and royal weddings and coronations, are mere window dressing designed to lure in throne-sniffers. What The Crown is really up to is instructing the masses, perhaps more adroitly than any other current television series, in the intermingled values of duty, honor, discipline, self-control, patriotism, and tradition. Long may it reign.
— Kyle Smith is National Review’s critic-at-large.