The late lamentable exercise known as the 2016 Presidential election left a number of Americans wondering if there wasn’t a better way to run a country. And right on cue, Netflix delivered “The Crown,” a new series that both depicts the life of Queen Elizabeth II and provides an alternative examination of governance from the Mother Country itself.
You might have noticed that as Great Britain’s nominal head of state, the Queen is a person of the female gender. Back here in the U.S., confident that a similarly gendered person would become president, Netflix produced a four-page advertising supplement to serve as a wrap-around ad to the New York Times on the morning after the election. “Her reign begins,” proclaimed the cover. The inside copy made this more explicit: “We have a new leader. A woman. Let us give her a celebration that is befitting of the wind of change she represents: modern and forward-looking.”
Well, that didn’t work out as well at Netflix planned, but the series does provide a post-election respite of escapism for those interested in a more genteel form of politics.
The first season of “The Crown” begins in 1947, during the waning years of the life of the queen’s father, King George VI, and ends in 1955 with the retirement of Winston Churchill, her 80-year-old prime minister. You can tell we are in the past because people faint at the thought of divorce and everyone except the Queen herself smokes and drinks as if they’re on “Mad Men.”
The series is a very high-end family soap opera polished with the glossy patina of high-mindedness since everything that happens to that family is a matter of state. Thus, the discussion about whether a young wife should take her new husband’s last name is not something to be decided by the young couple, it’s an issue for the government to debate. To soothe the wounded ego of her consort Prince Philip, Elizabeth declares that she will take his last name – Mountbatten – but the cabinet will not have it.
From there on we learn how little power the monarch actually has. She can’t even select her own private secretary — and when her sister, Princess Margaret, wants to marry a divorced man, the queen is forced by the government and church to forbid it.
“The Crown” does a pretty good job of making us care about these mundane matters by enmeshing them in the majesty and mystery of the throne, where the monarch is the literal nexus between God and the British people. Every time Elizabeth tries to push back against some ridiculous tradition or requirement, there’s a prime minister, dowager queen, or prelate to lecture her on the divine right of kings.
From the perspective of 2016, where we know how diminished Great Britain itself has become and how scandal has eroded the Royal Family’s stature, all of this seems faintly absurd. But it’s important to remember that the people of the early 1950s were closer in time to the reign of Queen Victoria than they are to us today. Churchill himself had served that previous queen in 1899 in the Boer War and always remained under the spell of “Rule Britannia” and other vestiges of the empire. He and many other royalists believed that the monarchy was the nation’s most unifying force.
And watching “The Crown” in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. election makes you think they might have a point. Over here, the president is both the head of state and the head of government. He or she has to be both a grubby politician and the symbolic representation of the country’s ideals, dreams, and soul. That’s a tall order for any one person, especially when the president is usually loathed by half the population even on a good day.
As the literal embodiment of the British people, Elizabeth grapples with how much mystery to surround herself with. Too much mystery and she might become irrelevant to her subjects; too little mystery and she might become commonplace. To that end, she puts Prince Philip in charge of her Westminster Abbey coronation and he makes the fateful decision to televise this ancient and sacred ceremony, which catapults her to a level of international celebrity that is usually only achieved by popes and pop stars.
But the massive popularity derived from the coronation also exposed her to the popular press, who came to feel that since she had opened the kimono a little bit, they had the right to pry into the rest of royal family’s personal business. The dance between the Windsors and the press is sure to be a theme that will be developed in future seasons until it culminates in the twisted wreckage of Princess Diana’s car crash.
In the end “The Crown” is propaganda for a constitutional monarchy. But it becomes clear that it only works when the monarch herself is willing to sacrifice everything — including her own happiness and the happiness of her husband and sister — to her people. As portrayed by Claire Foy, Elizabeth is a near-saint, a crafty politician, and an articulate defender of her prerogatives. I find it hard to believe that the real Elizabeth II, as sweet as she is, is as savvy, self-aware or intelligent as she appears in “The Crown.”
While the series idealizes Elizabeth, it pulls no punches for anyone else. Prince Philip is a jerk; Princess Margaret is boozy and flighty; the Queen Mother is snobby and manipulative; Churchill still has a few tricks up his sleeve as he clings to power in his dotage.
Finally, “The Crown” delivers what “Downton Abbey” promised: an intelligent soap opera set in the most glorious locations in the U.K. And it leaves those of us in the U.S. yearning for a head of state who is dignified, sacrificial, and unifying. Is that too much to ask?