The Crown, for two seasons, has given us the royals as impulsive young people, caught between duty and drama in the twilight of the British Empire—a romantic, kind of mythical lens, enhanced by the good looks and sparkling performances of young Elizabeth (Claire Foy) and her arrogant husband Philip (Matt Smith). The third season, though, chucks much of the atmosphere of the early seasons of The Crown out the window. In a restrained and far less flattering portrait of the middle years of the queen’s reign, showrunner Peter Morgan presents a hesitant, weak Queen Elizabeth II, portrayed by recent Oscar-winner Olivia Colman. The entire cast is aged up: Tobias Menzies plays Prince Philip, Helena Bonham-Carter plays Princess Margaret, and Erin Doherty and Josh O’Connor play royal teenagers Anne and Charles.
It’s an awkward time for everyone. Elizabeth, in her 40s, dresses with the flair and panache of a woman twice her age; Philip, who was an old man at 20, has settled nicely into his role as embittered curmudgeon. But they’re both bossed around by their elders—the queen mother (Marion Bailey) and Lord Mountbatten (Charles Dance), especially when it comes to matters pertaining to the comportment of younger, flightier royals, be they Elizabeth’s sister Margaret or her son Charles. Politically, the queen seems out of step with the world around her—a mining disaster in Wales leaves her cold, a coal miners’ strike leads to power blackouts in Buckingham palace, and while the country questions the cost of maintaining the royal family, her husband goes on television to suggest that giving up the royal yacht counts as belt-tightening. Elizabeth and Philip are only in their 40s, but live like relics. Charles and Anne share a suite in the palace, in an odd cross between having a flat in the city and living with your parents. In one scene, Anne—played with fantastic snobby, spitfire energy by Doherty—drives home through modern, cosmopolitan London, listening to David Bowie’s “Starman,” before pulling up in front of Buckingham Palace, giving her car over to a waiting footman, and entering a dim council room to answer invasive questions about her love life. The gulf between the world within and the world without is astonishing—and apparently, it only keeps widening.
The season makes for a less sexy, more studied viewing experience. The first half of the season, which focuses on political skirmishes in the late ‘60s, is especially slow going. The transition between casts is hampered further by some of The Crown’s most boring episodes, all of which lean too far into sentiment. (A little alarmingly, the season uses a devastating mining disaster in Wales to construct an episode that hinges on whether or not the queen cries.) Director and executive producer Benjamin Caron makes much use of profiles and silhouettes, especially in the first few episodes, as if to beat the viewer over the head with the idea that these characters are not just royals but also people, a theme we are by now quite familiar with.
It feels as if we are waiting for Colman to become Elizabeth somehow, to give the speech or wield the look that will reveal her in her true, divine, queenly form. But in a bit of delayed gratification that is both maddening and brilliant, it never quite happens. Colman’s Elizabeth is a little disappointing, because the queen is a little disappointing. Foy dazzled; Colman trembles. Her performance is characterized by repressed, powerful resentment against her role—a quivering frustration held just beneath the surface, somewhere beneath that helmet of sculpted hair. It seems to stop her voice and still her empathy. The moments in the season where she is the most compelling, as a character, are the moments in which she does the opposite—when she briefly, quietly, expresses doubt or inadequacy, when she longs for a more normal life. The fifth episode, “Coup,” marks the biggest shift in her behavior, and “Cri de Coeur,” the tearjerking season finale, brings together her journey with Margaret’s arc in the strongest episode of the season.
Morgan’s themes are always the same: Being the monarch is very special and very hard—and while this particular queen might seem passive or weak, but she is in fact very good at what she does. It’s always difficult to explain exactly what she does, or why it’s hard, given that who she is so bound up in how a nation with a thousand years of history thinks of itself, but that’s what the show is for—a love letter to Britain, as much as it is to the monarch. Even in this season, where the queen’s hesitance, timidity, and distance from her subjects are more on display than ever before, Morgan is rapt by her. The viewer might see a cold mother, a jealous sister, a hopelessly conservative leader. But the show seems determined to see the queen as good, which makes the season feel narrower and starved for meaning—especially as this season sets the stage for Charles’ tortured relationship with Camilla (Emerald Fennell), a relationship heavily opposed by the royal family. (You’ve never heard the word “imbroglio” unless you’ve heard it from the queen mother, with the “g” so barely pronounced it glides by unnoticed as she meddles, unsparingly, in her grandson’s love life.)
The new cast is impressive, but The Crown has lost a bit of its verve. It’s one thing to watch hot-blooded young royals ducking in and out of expensive weddings; it’s another to watch depressing, stuck-in-a-rut patricians who play polo and pooh-pooh divorce. Oddly, Anne’s 1973 wedding is not part of the season’s drama, even though the season ends in 1977. Frankly, a season of The Crown without a royal wedding is hardly a season at all.
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