Netflix's 'The Crown' Gives Us Insight Into Our 20th Century Sins
For reasons as much aesthetic as intellectual, The Crown can proudly take its place among the highlights of TV's current golden age.
To say that coverage of the British royal family has reached multiple saturation points since King Edward VIII abdicated the crown in 1936 is an understatement. One only has to see the words "royal family" in print for a parade of historical sensations to begin marching from the shadows of history into the current day: Queen Elizabeth, Prince Philip, Princess Margaret, Prince Charles, Princess Diana, Prince William, Kate Middleton, Pippa Middleton, Prince George, Princess Charlotte, Prince Harry and of course, the most recent character to join the troupe, Meghan Markle. From all sides, we are besieged by magazine covers, films, spoofs, parodies, interviews, TV shows, songs, and books that take the royal family as their subject.
Is it true that people's thirst for the inherent glamour of royal photos, babies, relationships, weddings, divorces, and drama can never be slaked? Or is it that the royal family is a self-aggrandizing and self-propagating machine of hype and privilege that, in subtle and unsubtle ways, imposes itself upon the mental stage of the masses and demands their attention?
As we know, the British monarchy is a relic of a bygone age. Its political power is symbolic at best, and its relevance has been called into question since the '50s. The only reason it still retains so much centrality in global pop culture and on the international political stage is because the institutions it spearheaded in the past and still represent today—wealth, whiteness, elitism, patriarchy, conservatism, anglocentrism, imperialism, colonialism—also remain at the center of our lives. Thus, to watch any kind of media coverage of the royal family is to accompany the trajectory of the human embodiments of these institutions. More importantly, to incessantly produce TV shows, films, news articles, books, think pieces, and works of art about the British royal family is to consecrate the aforementioned institutions as both the fundament and the firmament of Western society—eternally above and below us, inescapable and omnipresent.
If you cannot escape white supremacy or economic inequality, for example, or if you cannot prevent these systemic forces from cursing you or benefitting you (depending on who you are), then why not make a theater out of the lives of white supremacy's royal sons and daughters? If white supremacy benefits the light-skinned citizens of the world, then they too have a stake in the royal family's happiness and public grandeur—they'll want to tune in to Kate Middleton's wedding. Or perhaps, if the masses feel disgruntled with their meagre lot in life, their long work hours, their constantly deferred dreams, the media will pick up on that dissatisfaction and project it onto its coverage of the family. Hence, the fanatic popularity of Lady Diana in the '80s, whose vitality, glamorous style, and love of public service spoke directly to the hearts of those who had grown tired of seeing the same old stuffy Windsors, with their insularity and their dowdiness and their inability to perceive the social changes that occur beyond the gates of Buckingham Palace.
The producers of Netflix's 2016 series The Crown know all this, it seems, as evidenced by the surgical precision with which they juxtapose dramatizations of historical events with intra-family interactions and conflicts. In a scene in episode two of Season One, Elizabeth and Philip have just arrived in Nairobi (which Elizabeth describes in her speech as a "savage place" before the arrival of the British). A parade of natives and indigenous tribesmen are lined up to greet them. Philip boorishly points out a European military medal that hangs from the garb of a tribal leader and sarcastically accuses the man—who does not seem to understand why a member of the royal family is laughing at him—of stealing it. Though at the time no one would accuse Prince Philip of being culturally insensitive or even just plain rude, to most modern viewers his actions (and his wife's words) are appalling, a crystalline example of how the British insisted on their delusions of racial and cultural superiority at the expense of the communities they tore apart.
Then, as if to remind viewers that villainy in one sphere of life tends to show up in others, Philip acts heinously towards Elizabeth throughout both the first and second seasons, moaning about his new role as consort and lusting for other women while on tour with his mates from the Royal Navy. In the second episode of Season Two, during this same tour, however, Philip answers a distress call from a shipwrecked island sailor and, defying his handlers' orders, provides the lost sailor with medical help and at considerable inconvenience to his crewmates, takes the wounded man back to his island. In this case, Philip's devotion to his role as captain of a ship allows him to see in the foreign sailor a reflection of himself, triggering the empathy and the respect that he had not shown towards the tribesman earlier in Season One.
Human beings are, of course, a mass of complexities and contradictions, and the Royals are no different. The actors—specifically Claire Foy, Matt Smith, and Vanessa Kirby—know exactly how to rip emotions out of specific portions of viewers' hearts. Matt Smith as Prince Philip, for example, evokes in the viewer a dance of different emotions in any given scene: disgust, pity, sympathy, amusement, anger. Claire Foy dazzles in her preternaturally composed interpretation of the elusive Queen Elizabeth II. While many brilliant actresses (Helen Mirren comes to mind) have memorably portrayed the monarch, Foy's interpretation lends a magnetism to the character of Queen Elizabeth and imbues it with an undercurrent of ferocity that the real-life Queen's sedate, behaved public persona appears to lack. Vanessa Kirby is stunning as the eternally unhappy Princess Margaret, who smokes and drinks away the pain of an unrealized marriage to her first love, the constant tensions arising from having to defer to her sister the Queen -- and everyone's duties to the Crown -- and the trust issues that plague her marriage to noted photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones.
Through stellar acting, crisp cinematography, and impeccable costume and set design, the trials and tribulations of the royal family play out sumptuously on our screens. The producers seemingly know their audience's expectations better than the audience itself. Whether we empathize with Princess Margaret's romantic humiliations or laugh at the comeuppances she receives for her haughtiness, we have still made of her life an object to be displayed and then consumed for our enjoyment and analysis.
And therein lies the spectacular worth of The Crown as a series: it's not really a show about Queen Elizabeth and company, because no one knows what exactly went on between her and Philip, or her and Jackie Kennedy, or her and Churchill. It's a series about what we 21st century spectators, want to make "known". We want it to be known that Queen Elizabeth's poise and respectability do not mitigate the destruction wrought by British imperialism and colonialism. We want it to be known that the government over which she presided was racist, classist, sexist, and simply suffused with every prejudice imaginable. We want it to be known that the 20th century—for all the currents of change that produced in it exciting new ideologies, lifestyles, musical genres, and works of art—should not be held up as an object of nostalgia. Indeed, The Crown is a series through which we demand accountability from the historical figures who, be it through their arrogance or through their savvy, shaped the world we have today. That The Crown's producers, directors, and actors have succeeded in leading its viewers towards a collective reckoning and re-evaluation of their history is, like the Royal pageantry itself, magnificent.