In his collections of writing on the early days of television, the great film critic Andre Bazin kept coming back to the same event over and over again – the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Partly because this was the first time an event of such magnitude had been made available to such a wide and demotic audience, the coronation turned out to be one of the pivotal moments in the early efforts to define television, not least because, in its scope and scale, it seemed to defy so much of what had been assumed about the kinds of modest, chamber-styled productions suitable to this new medium. Over half a century later, the Netflix series The Crown attempts to build a similar televisual event around the coronation, whose televisation plays a major role in one of the episodes in this epic recreation of the reign of Elizabeth II.
At first glance, that may seem like a bit of a belated gesture, since Netflix, which was founded in 1997, has now been around for two decades, while the reboot of House of Cards that signalled the arrival of the new “Netflix model” is now half a decade old as well. Yet it’s precisely because Netflix has finally achieved this critical mass that The Crown feels so apposite. Over the last twelve months or so, I’ve noticed a shift – at least in Australia – whereby Netflix has gone from being one innovative platform amongst many to being the platform that all others try to emulate. While the early days of House of Cards and Orange is the New Black were an exciting and experimental novelty, it suddenly feels as if we have entered a bona fide Netflix era, in which Netflix is no longer a platform but a medium, a convergence of cinema and television that has left most other channels in its wake. If I had to pin that transition down to a single series it would probably be Making a Murderer, just because of how astutely creators Moira Demos and Laura Riccardi managed to place their story – and Netflix – as the centre of social media more generally, bypassing traditional documentary and journalistic outfits in the process, as well as remediating and extending what was originally intended as a more traditional film to realise that they had been making a Netflix artefact all along. Whatever the tipping point, however, it’s clear that the moment has arrived for Netflix to add a flagship series to cement its mark, and that The Crown is the best contender we have.
To some extent, that’s because of the sheer scale of The Crown, a study of the life of Queen Elizabeth I that is projected to span six seasons and move from the 1950s up until the present day, a period that is also roughly coterminous with the evolution of television itself. Of course, six seasons is not especially extravagant for a series, especially a Netflix series, but the fact that the first season has cost a massive one hundred million pounds to produce makes this a particularly intense spectacle to contemplate. At the same time, that production budget is one of the most emphatic reminders yet that the Netflix medium is a combination of film and television – both in terms of aesthetic and financial expectations – making The Crown one of the first series to be budgeted as extravagantly as a projected cinematic blockbuster. Yet the fact that Netflix is not as beholden to ratings as regular television channels – a flagship series apparently has brand value even if it doesn’t premiere to massive audiences – means that this massive budget is also paired with an artistic freedom that is quite unprecedented in regular cinema and television as well, at least when the financial investment is as astronomically high as it is here.
Perhaps that’s why The Crown has turned out to be one of the deftest and most compelling period dramas I have ever seen, not least because of how it tacitly suggests that the monarchy is a largely historical institution and so best treated as history. For that reason, Peter Morgan’s screenplay is largely devoid of the sentimental and anachronistic humanism of most period dramas, instead progressively dissociating the monarchy from any humanist agenda as we cycle through the events of the late 1940s and early 1950s as seen through the key players of Queen Elizabeth (Claire Foy), Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby), Prince Philip (Matt Smith), King George VI (Jared Harris), the Queen Mother (Victoria Hamilton), the former Edward VIII (Alex Jennings) and, last but not least, Winston Churchill, played by John Lithgow in one of the most compelling performances in his wide career. In the process, Morgan emphasises the inhumanity, austerity – and yes, sublimity – of the crown as institution and ideology, as well as all the ways in which Elizabeth is trapped by it even as she privileges from it, a situation made considerably more acute by the fact that she only received her title in the first place due to the shock of Edward VIII’s abdication in order to marriage Wallis Simpson.
That abdication hangs heavy over the narrative, and makes the crown weigh equally heavy on Elizabeth’s head, just as the contentious nature of divorce shapes many of the major events throughout the narrative, and provides Elizabeth with the most acute challenge in distinguishing herself as individual from herself as institution. As anyone with knowledge of the Royal Family might predict, that all culminates with Elizabeth’s inability to grand Margaret permission to marry Group Captain Peter Townsend (Ben Miles) on the grounds that he is a divorcee whose spouse is still alive. Despite the fact that she wants Margaret to be happy – and that the public want Margaret to be happy – Elizabeth is compelled to obey the dictates of Cabinet, several of whom are themselves divorced, and none of whom makes the slightest bit of effort to prevent her being successively duped by both Churchill and Anthony Eden (Jeremy Northam) into forcing Margaret and Peter to build unreasonable hopes and draw out their expectations over what turn out to be several futile years.
Given that arc, it’s hard to see how anyone could come away from the series with any great admiration for the monarchy, as Morgan refuses to naturalise or smooth away the peculiarities and proscriptions of the crown. Several outlets, most notably The AV Club, have described the magnificent final episode – in which Elizabeth breaks the news to Margaret – as being too cold, or too clinical, but I thought that was the series’ strength as a whole, since it’s that cool approach that allows Morgan to trace the ways in which the ideology of the crown – most of which appears to be set and monitored by the whims of Cabinet with regards to the constitution – constantly mitigates precisely the ahistorical or transhistorical affirmations of “character” that we tend to expect from period dramas. If anything, Elizabeth is continually prohibited from providing any of her character to posterity, and informed, time and again, that her greatest duty is to be blank, empty, silent – inscrutable. To that end, Morgan also creates a limit beyond which we can’t pass at key moments, even as he humanises Elizabeth just enough for us to realise what a violent act of self-abnegation these moments must actually be for her and for those close to her.
That conflict between self-abnegation and abdication is another of the rhythms that drives the series, since the lingering and haunting spectacle of Edward’s shame means that any gesture of individualism from Elizabeth, no matter how trivial, tends to be greeted with a catastrophic invocation of abdication. Nowhere is that clearer, of course, than in the case of how she handles Margaret, if only because that crisis finally reveals to her that she is never going to fully paper over the fissures revealed by Edward’s departure. On the one hand, she wants to avoid abandoning her family (as Edward did) but she also wants to avoid compromising the Royal Marriages Act (as Edward also did). It’s no surprise, then, that Edward’s more unpleasant historical attributes are streamlined into a fairly sympathetic and compelling counterpoint to the Windsors, nor that Elizabeth phones him in Paris during the situation with Margaret, where he advises here that “We are but half-people, ripped from the pages of some bizarre mythology…engaged in a civil war that never ends. I understand the agony you feel and I am here to tell you, it will never end.”
That description is, in some ways, The Crown in a nutshell, although the series is also considerably less insular and self-pitying than Edward at this particular moment. For one thing, Morgan never loses sight of the immense privilege that all these characters enjoy, even as he captures just how much it smothers and alienates them from the populus they are designed to serve. At the same time, the series has one eye firmly on the present, with the shattering final scenes between Elizabeth, Margaret and Peter playing as something of a marriage equality gesture, as Elizabeth finds herself questioning – or preventing herself from questioning – why it is that a collection of old men in parliament have the authority to prevent rights that she wishes to grant and that the people at large wish to receive. Although it may sound somewhat odd from a contemporary perspective, the series really does present divorcees – or people seeking divorces – as some of the earliest marriage rights advocates, and part of the urgency of the final episodes stems from how eloquently they speak to the present.
At the same time, Edward’s morbid utterances suggest a more monotonous and dreary tone to the show than what actually ensues. Not only is The Crown frequently quite amusing, but Morgan has a knack for introducing the kinds of utterances, images and tableaux that you wouldn’t expect to find in a period drama at all. Often these revolve around images of media and mediation – the magnificent final sequence juxtaposes a burning film reel and a developing photograph to capture the gradual fixing of Elizabeth’s state image – as if to undo all the staid and stock footage that has come down to use through the years. In that sense, it often feels as if the series is trying to return to the original moment of televised coronation when the public was offered a new kind of access to and perception of what the monarch could be. At the same time, however, the continual threat of abdication, and the forced choice between abnegation and abdication, leaves no doubt, really, that Edward was the beginning of the end, and that Elizabeth is, in some sense, the last monarch. Taken in combination, that makes for a series anxious to capture the way in which the monarchy once offered a certain promise of futurity without patronising its audience by assuming that that future still exists either, which is why the gradual progression towards the present will be such a fascinating televisual spectacle to contemplate over the next six years.
At the same time, and for all the elegant trajectory on display, it’s worth mentioning the dexterity with which Morgan manages to weave the different strands of the story into a wider historical milieu, genuinely making this feel like a nexus between film and television – a series of interwoven films – in a way that sets it apart from House of Cards, Orange is the New Black or Bloodline. In a particularly wonderful progression, four episodes successively deal with the abdication (“Windsor”), the Great Smog of 1952 (“Act of God”), the death of Queen Mary and the coronation of Elizabeth (“Smoke and Mirrors”) and Princess Margaret’s announcement that she intends to marry Peter Townsend (“Gelignite”). All of these episodes deal with quite discrete episodes from the period, and all function partly as semi-independent films, but there is a beautiful ebb and flow amongst them, partly because Morgan doesn’t strain too hard to connect them. Instead, he draws on the residual episodic imperatives of the Netflix model to capture the ways in which Elizabeth herself is forced to continually move between her individual and institutional identity depending on the particular episode confronting her.
While all the episodes are powerful, in that sense, I have a particular fondness for the one detailing the London Smog. In part, that’s because it’s an especially emphatic vehicle for Lithgow’s Churchill, which is one of the real delights of the show. While it seems like Churchill was an enormously charismatic and compelling character, worship of Churchilliana can also get a bit tiresome, and the series – and Lithgow – seem prescient of that, not least because this is an older and more curmudgeonly version of Churchill than we tend to see in popular culture. Sitting his second and final term as Prime Minister – against most of the party’s wishes – and just a little too splenetic and irrasible to be fully loveable, it’s the perfect role for Lithgow’s awry avuncular persona, and he plays it with aplomb.
Even without Lithgow, however, this episode would shine for the dexterity with which Morgan captures the gradual sense of panic and terror that escalates around the fog, as well as the utter impotence of Elizabeth herself to do anything about it. In the process, the fog itself becomes an uneasy and amorphous tissue that, seeping in under doors and through windows, connects her more indubitably than at any other point to the people outside her palace, but also renders them more mutually opaque at the same time. Connected imperceptibly to her subjects but unable to touch, see, feel or access any of them directly, these ghostly tableaux perfectly capture everything that makes her a compelling character, even as they seem to set and preserve her in the queenly postures that would become so typical throughout the rest of her reign. On its own terms, then, this episode would be a fantastic film, but the way in which Morgan manages to slide it back into the narrative makes its import even more subtly traumatic, shaping Elizabeth, as so many other events do, into attitudes and poses that she never even realised that she had within her. It’s at these moments that The Crown really feels as if it is performing some kind of historiographical gesture peculiar to the specifications of the Netflix model rather than period drama in any kind of discernibly televisual or cinematic mode, and it will be fascinating to see how that approach develops and evolves over the next six years.