In many ways, The Crown is a programme of false equivalencies.
It purports to be a serious drama, tackling the difficulties and pressures of the monarchy. As a series, it’s deeply concerned with ideas of duty and responsibility, often going to great pains to convey (what it perceives as) the struggles and strain of royalty, and the toll that this lifestyle takes.
But by the same token, The Crown is unwilling to ever criticise the monarchy; there is no meaningful commentary offered on its flaws and failings. It is, fundamentally, a programme quite firmly on the side of ‘the crown’, as you’d expect from the title; while it’s not quite fetishistic, it undoubtedly glorifies the institution, painting it in an unfailingly positive light.
On the whole, there’s not exactly anything wrong with that; after all, you’re never going to see a programme that’s resolutely dedicated to the critique and dismissal of its lead characters. But what this does mean is that The Crown is a fundamentally toothless programme – and any attempt they make at conveying the difficulty of life as a monarch when they’re unwilling to criticise the monarchy will ultimately always fall flat.
Yes, it’s easy to see how a life of public service might be difficult – but, for example, the fact that Elizabeth’s face hurts because she smiles so much is hardly the most impactful way to convey it. A more interesting angle for the series to explore might have been how Elizabeth was raised for a life a public service, and solely for that purpose; indeed, the seventh episode Scientia Potentia Est highlights this, looking at how Elizabeth’s training left her development lacking in several other key areas. And yet The Crown is unwilling to hold the monarchy to account for how it rears, rather than raises, its children, instead choosing ultimately to validate how Elizabeth was raised and dismiss her (well founded) grievances.
Instead The Crown focuses on other, simpler struggles that its characters face – such as the fact that parliament wouldn’t let Prince Philip fly, in case he hurt himself. This, rather than the archaic traditions or legacy of colonialism, is the sort of angle The Crown routinely takes in terms of its critiques of the monarchy – never particularly cutting, certainly never damning, always trivial and largely superfluous.
At times this is in fact quite detrimental to the series; while Philip is sulking about not being allowed to fly, he’s entirely unconcerned with the deaths of various people throughout London – it’s difficult to present the character as sympathetic when he instead appears so self-involved and conceited. At other times, it’s frankly historically negligent – one of the most damning failings of the series is that it presents an Actual Literal Historical Nazi as a tragic and sympathetic figure, with no mention whatsoever of his bigotry and prejudice, simply because he was a member of the royal family.
More than that, though, it ultimately hobbles any of the thematic resonance that the drama is supposed to hold; questions of duty and the cost of being Queen are all well and good, but if the greatest criticism you’re willing to make is “having to smile a lot is hard”, then the supposed cost of this duty isn’t conveyed particularly effectively – or at all, frankly. It’s often difficult to see our characters as anything other than beneficiaries of the privilege they enjoy, rather than flawed people suffocating under the weight of it.
Wouldn’t the series be, ultimately, more effective if it could prove the worth of the monarchy in spite of its shortcomings? If it could critically engage with the flaws in the institution, while still finding something to celebrate?
As it is, The Crown is unable to follow through on the themes it advances, with much of the series reduced to little more than an empty gesture as a result.
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