I’m a republican (in the not-so-keen-on-monarchies-as-a-form-of-government sense). Coming from Spain, a country with a royal family to endure, I’ve never been one for romanticizing the institution. So I first approached The Crown, the Netflix drama about the British Queen Elizabeth II and her family, with a lot of hesitation. But I quickly became a loyal subject.
It’s been two long years since season 2 of this historical soap opera was released. And with season 3, a few things have changed. Instead of opting for aging technology or prosthetics, The Crown’s main stars have been brilliantly recast to look older. Olivia Colman, co-star of Fleabag and winner of an Oscar for The Favourite, replaces Claire Foy as an older version of Queen Elizabeth II. Tobias Menzies (Outlander) takes over from Matt Smith as her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh. And Helena Bonham Carter sets her inner diva free as Princess Margaret.
Season 3 is available on Netflix on Nov. 17 and won’t disappoint The Crown’s enthusiasts (though we could’ve had more of Bonham Carter).
The year is 1964 and Queen Elizabeth, toting the purse she’s inseparable from, is looking at two portraits of herself. In the younger version, she looks like Foy in the first two seasons of the show. In the older version, Colman is the one represented. “Age is rarely kind to anyone,” she says while contemplating both pieces.
Age isn’t the only concern that plagues the queen this season. Harold Wilson has been elected as the next prime minister and she’s heard rumors he might be a KGB agent and a communist.
Meanwhile, the queen’s husband is bored — and uncultured. He tries to weigh in about pieces to select for a portraiture exhibit from the Royal Collection, but he has no clue who Carracci or Gentileschi are. The Duke doesn’t even realize Gentileschi isn’t a he, but a she. Then there’s Margaret. Her last maid left claiming “nervous exhaustion.” The queen’s sharp-tongued sister lies in bed smoking and wondering where her photographer husband went. Next to her, there’s a pillow that reads: “It’s not easy being a princess.”
That’s one of the themes the season is intent on showing: how exhausting life can be for royals, even if sometimes all they’re supposed to do is exactly nothing. “Having no role, having nothing to do is soul-destroying,” Margaret says to her sister, pleading with her to share part of the royal load. Margaret’s not the only one complaining about the job.
“Mummy, I have a voice,” Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor) tells his mother after disappointing her. She makes clear no one wants to hear that voice. Not the country, not his family. Being the heir of the Crown comes with consequences and takes a personal toll.
One of my only complaints about this season is the underuse of Bonham Carter. I understand this is The Crown and not Princess Margaret or Margaretology (the title of one of my favorite episodes this season) but there are full episodes where she’s barely seen or only gets to show up divinely dressed for dinner or tea. Her husband describes Margaret as “a natural No. 1 whose tragedy is having been born a No. 2.” It’s hard not to imagine what this show (and history) would look like if Margaret was indeed the queen instead of her sister.
Colman fans can rejoice, however. If Queen Anne in The Favourite won Colman an Oscar, Queen Elizabeth should win her an Emmy. The gifted actress has played two queens in a relatively short period and made them look, sound and react in completely distinctive ways. For this queen, Colman opts for doing less, looking stern and showing little to no emotion. “The Crown doesn’t put on a show,” the character says.
As with previous seasons, The Crown satisfies all my soap opera yearnings while leaving me feeling that I learned something. Each of the 10 episodes in season 3 contains a little piece of UK history, like the uncovering of a mole at the top of the British establishment, the investiture of the Prince of Wales, the killing of 116 children and 28 adults during the Aberfan disaster, the production of a controversial documentary about the Royal Family, the trip the Queen took to Kentucky to learn more about horse breeding or the US tour in which Princess Margaret danced with Lyndon B. Johnson.
I understand I shouldn’t take The Crown as a documentary. I highly doubt the queen’s weekly one-on-ones with Prime Minister Wilson looked as much like therapy sessions as they do in the show. But this fiction is a great starting point for additional historical research, even if it’s just one or two Wikipedia articles.
The drama also holds a mirror up to British society, especially when portraying events like the accession of the UK to the European Economic Community. “We’re joined together in this European enterprise, a great new adventure lies ahead,” Queen Elizabeth II declares. She ends her speech with an ominous “L’union fait la force (unity makes strength),” which is hard to digest in the days of Brexit.
The show, which will have a fourth season with Gillian Anderson playing Margaret Thatcher, spotlights much of what’s happened during Elizabeth’s reign. But it lets the viewers draw their conclusions about the type of monarch she is. Which is why you can either be a royalist or a republican and still be equally subjugated to The Crown.