This review contains spoilers for the series finale of “The Crown.”
Because there’s a hoary old rule, dating back centuries, that says comedies end with a wedding, I noted with interest that “The Crown” — that sentimental series about a monarch’s stiff upper lip — concluded its six-season run with Prince Charles’ long-awaited marriage to Camilla Parker-Bowles. And with the Queen, in her final speech, joking!
Was this a comedy all along? I wondered. There is, now that I think about it, a sitcommy quality to the premise: A woman tasked with keeping her every emotion in check must minutely calibrate her affect so as to seem equally pleased while visiting sewage plants or waving at adoring crowds — while everyone around her tantrums, rages, cheats, tattles and weeps.
“The Crown” isn’t a comedy. Of course it isn’t. But now that it’s over, there’s a discernible decline in moral and philosophical seriousness, and not just on the part of the lesser royals. The show’s final episode — the plot of which is that the Queen considers abdicating but doesn’t (after consulting with the ghosts of two of her past selves but before mournfully contemplating her own coffin) — is so farcical an anticlimax after the tragedy of the Diana seasons that it starts to wrap around again to being a little bit funny.
Charles’ wedding is too underpowered to make the series a comedy, but the fact that the Queen unintentionally raises and dashes his hopes that she’ll step down in his favor at his own wedding reception does feel like a punchline. The rumor that she might vacate the throne strips the wedding of what little significance it had, and her decision not to abdicate after all effectively transforms her kind toast to her son, which includes her longed-for public statement finally accepting his wife, into something like a consolation prize.
Plus, she kills! Instead of an announcement that he’ll be King, he gets a few bits on horse races. It’s all kind of mordantly hilarious.
Using Charles’ second marriage to conclude the series struck me as odd, but the occasion does distill many of the paradoxes the Queen has been asked to navigate. From the crown’s point of view, the wedding was both necessary and impossible. The future King should probably marry so as not to be “living in sin” during his coronation, but it’s a little unseemly for the future head of the Church of England to so blatantly violate his own church’s strictures.
It’s hard to take this Queenly dilemma too seriously given how that church got started (as a workaround for Henry VIII, who wished to remarry). But that might be precisely what makes Charles’ second marriage a worthy bookend to this series. It’s a ridiculous problem with no good solution. Forcing people to conform ends badly; one could argue that Diana died because the Firm wouldn’t let Charles and Camilla marry. Leniency doesn’t work, either; the misery of Princess Margaret’s final days only enhances the force of her argument that Elizabeth unfairly allowed Anne to marry a lower-status man while making her sister go without. Charles’s wedding knits together loads of costly decisions made for the sake of appearances. Haunting them all is King Edward VIII’s abdication from the throne so that he could marry a divorced woman — the move that made Elizabeth queen.
This problem doesn’t so much resolve as blur into meaningless compromises: the Queen (who did not attend the ceremony, only the reception) wore white, the bride didn’t, and the signals sent by the whole affair were largely bureaucratic, rubber-stamping that the Queen was basically okay with it and so were Prince William and Prince Harry, so let’s all move on.
But assenting to Charles’s marriage comes perilously close to admitting that her uncle should never have stepped down (meaning that she, perhaps, should not have stepped up). The Queen has traveled a long road, and since the wedding doubles as an occasion for her to “consult” with her former selves (played by Claire Foy and Olivia Colman), the spirits of Elizabeths past and present congregate to remind us that the show’s protagonist used to be more continent, more rigorous, more brittle and more interesting.
“The Crown” is a flawed but fascinating experiment in historical television that I value for (among other things) the joyful, even reckless, inconsistency of its characterizations. No one watching Jonathan Pryce’s Prince Philip — a soft-spoken sage who skillfully sees and mends the rift between his son and grandson — would intuitively link him to the sneering bully Matt Smith played in earlier years. Josh O’Connor’s Prince Charles was tormented and stooped, awkward and sad and sometimes cruel, whereas Dominick West’s, a far less complex creature, was warm and urbane. Confident. Emma Corrin’s Diana, similarly, came across as tightly wound, naive, and incredibly fragile, whereas Debicki’s was insightful, composed, knowing.
That’s not necessarily bad. People contain multitudes. The series worked hard to psychologize its “difficult” people, Charles and Philip especially, while also (in the early years) showing them being difficult. I appreciated that, and have been confused by the show’s perplexingly positive portrayal of Charles and Philip in the years since. I appreciate, too, how often “The Crown” framed an issue as an argument between two people who make perfectly decent points. The show refused to declare a winner or code one argument as clearly superior. That’s a rare thing in television.
None of this helps me understand what the show has done with Elizabeth, however. The first four seasons portrayed the difficulties posed by the institution and the sacrifices it demanded of the young queen as she grew but also shrank into the role, pruning her own impulses, idiosyncrasies and desires so as to become a decorous cipher. At its best, “The Crown” elegantly theorized the difficulty of being merely but also powerfully ceremonial. It argued that there is an art to being regally uninteresting and a science to generating unremarkable but appropriate small talk that the people you meet will remember forever. It convinced me that delivering anodyne speeches with just enough gravitas to suggest they almost mean something is disciplined, slightly soul-killing work.
But the show’s commitment to that portrayal wavers in later seasons. While the series has generally felt pro-Queen but anti-monarchy, the conclusion reflects a chaotic mix of reverence and scorn that can’t quite extricate the Queen from the larger mess. She ends the series diminished, the camera panning up and away from her as she exits the building, getting smaller and smaller as she goes. Peter Morgan has described his project as a love letter to the Queen, and so it has been, in many ways. She’s certainly the most “blameless” character. There are homages aplenty to her restraint, her sense of duty and her willingness to sacrifice the comforts of private personhood for the sake of “the realm.” The obscenely rich queen of an empire is depicted as scrupulous, inoffensive and well-meaning. Wide-eyed and a little stuffy, she’s fond of horses, fond of dogs. A typical little old lady, in fact, almost miraculously unspoiled (except when she’s calmly demanding that the public pay for repairs to her yacht).
And yet the series, which spent six seasons covering six decades of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign with sympathy and intelligence, is sporadically disloyal to its chief subject for reasons I’d hoped the ending would clarify.
Take the nosiness of the endeavor as a whole: Trying to humanize a sovereign who saw it as her duty to fade into the office is (in context) more than intrusive; the effort to render her psychologically legible doubles as an effort to destroy her life’s work. I don’t particularly care about that, but because the show seems to, it can be tricky to gauge how well the series understands its own project.
To their credit, the writers had enough of a sense of humor about the show’s pro-Queen proclivities to include a scene — in the fifth season — in which the chairman of the board of governors of the BBC suggests to John Birt, the BBC’s director general, that the network make a nice little program to make her feel good about herself. (Birt greenlights the infamous Martin Bashir interview instead.) “The Crown” could, especially in the early seasons, have been just such a program.
But the Queen whose probity, rigor and restraint “The Crown” taught viewers to admire succumbs to something like solipsism toward the end of the series. Imelda Staunton’s Elizabeth — the monarch’s least compelling iteration by a mile — simply isn’t the self-abnegating public servant the series lauds. She spares nary a thought in the last season for the country or its problems. Claire Foy and Olivia Colman excelled at showing Elizabeth at war with herself, struggling to suppress her personal reactions. Staunton’s Elizabeth is by comparison an open book, and its contents are disappointing. Paranoid about her unpopularity, prone to self-pity, the latter-day Queen is (as written) strikingly uninvolved in affairs of state. Her conversations with prime ministers focus on unseemly personal favors (culminating in her request to John Major that he mediate between Charles and Diana). And in the course of her diplomatic work, she makes demands that seem inappropriately personal — like making a royal visit to the Russian Federation contingent on Boris Yeltsin correcting a historical wrong done to her relatives, without any apparent coordination with the prime minister over the delicate goal of finally bringing the two countries together.
Here’s what puzzles me: These unflattering moments are mostly made up. You’d think therefore that they were invented for a reason — to further some larger narrative goal or point. But the show, far from mounting any sustained or coherent critique of the Queen, at other times capitulates so completely to her perspective that it starts to feel as wildly out of touch with the public as she is.
The show works hard, for example, to sell viewers on the tragedy of the Queen having to watch the Royal Britannia (“a floating, seagoing version of me” as she puts it) get decommissioned because she refused to personally pay for repairs. This is “The Crown” at its schlockiest. Another example is “Ipatiev House,” in which the execution of the Romanovs is invoked only to provide a little background texture for a mild rough spot in Elizabeth and Philip’s marriage.
In its final moments, “The Crown” features the Firm riffing poetically on its own demise. “The system makes no sense anymore to those outside it nor to those of us inside it,” Prince Philip says to Elizabeth II as they stand in St. George’s Chapel now that the bride and groom have left. What he says next is more interesting still, and legible, perhaps, as the series commenting on its own lack of seriousness: “All human things are subject to decay, and when fate summons, even monarchs must obey.”
It’s a noble sentiment, but John Dryden fans will recognize that those are actually the opening lines of “Mac Flecknoe,” his mock-heroic satire in which the reigning worst poet in the world crowns his son as his successor. Like Elizabeth, the reigning poet “young was call’d to empire, and had govern’d long.” Like Elizabeth, he is tired. Like Elizabeth, “blest with issue of a large increase, worn out with business, [he] did at length debate to settle the succession of the State.” And, like Elizabeth, he is succeeded by his son, “mature in dullness from his tender years.”
These aren’t accidental parallels, and they aren’t flattering ones. There is one key difference, though, between the Queen and the very bad poet: Mac Flecknoe abdicated.
“The Crown,” Season 6, Volume 2, episodes 5-10, will be available for streaming Thursday on Netflix.