Someone’s eye is watching this show. It just isn’t mine.
It’s easy for Mel Brooks to say, “It’s good to be the king.” He isn’t one.
Sure, the gig has its perks: palaces, servants, galas galore. But peek into Netflix’s lavish series The Crown—which focuses on the life, times and reign of England’s Queen Elizabeth II—and you get a sense that royalty isn’t all just fairy-tale days and happily-ever-after endings. And sometimes, it’s not good to be the queen at all.
There’s little real suspense in The Crown. Most of the events that take place on the show took place during Elizabeth’s life: her father’s unexpected coronation in 1937 (George VI was crowned after his elder brother, Edward VIII, abdicated so he could marry the twice divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson); her wedding to Philip Mountbatten, who renounced his title as the prince of Greece and Denmark in order to marry Elizabeth, in 1947; Elizabeth’s own coronation after her father’s death in 1953; the election of Margaret Thatcher as the United Kingdom’s first female prime minister in 1979; the famous wedding of Prince Charles (Elizabeth’s firstborn son and heir to the throne) to Diana Spencer in 1981; and the tragic death of Princess Diana in 1997.
But Elizabeth’s history wasn’t set at the time of her 1953 coronation. And as the world moves from the relatively staid 1950s through the wild, tumultuous decades to come, Elizabeth weathers more than her fair share of challenges: wars, national disasters, international crises, a bevy of rotating and resigning prime ministers and, of course, personal scandals within her own family (three of her four children divorced their spouses amid accusations of extramarital affairs).
And everywhere Elizabeth goes, there are plenty of folks—both inside and outside the family—ready to nitpick her every move.
But throughout the show, we see hints of the quiet strength that powers the queen through her troubled times. In these exchanges, we see Elizabeth’s paradoxes: her velvet grace and steel resolve, her commitment to tradition in a rapidly changing age.
The Crown is, above all, a spectacle. The first season reportedly cost Netflix $130 million to produce, making it the most expensive television show ever when its first season released. Much of that cost was spent on the series’ extraordinary costumes. While the real Queen Elizabeth reportedly saved ration coupons to pay for her wedding dress, the Netflix duplicate took six embroiderers six weeks to create.
It’s an ambitious production, too. Netflix reportedly hopes to run six seasons of the show, each spanning roughly a decade of Elizabeth’s reign. It features a cast of illustrious actors and promising newcomers, and the whole affair has an unmistakable prestige-TV sheen to it. Claire Foy and Olivia Colman, who play Elizabeth at different stages of her life, have both snagged some important awards (including an Emmy for Foy during the second season and for Colman in the fourth), just to prove the point.
But in terms of its ethical quality, The Crown falls a bit short of being a jewel.
Granted, it’s better than many prestige television shows. It’s great to see people who take their jobs so seriously, ceremonial though they may be. Elizabeth, especially as Season Five begins, takes her role as the Head of the Church of England as a charge from God Himself. She actively prays for the reconciliation of her children’s failing marriages and thanks God for the stability of her own through the years.
And in keeping with the royal family’s decorous image, Netflix exercises a degree of restraint. Unlike the very different monarchical struggle in Game of Thrones and its currently running prequel, House of the Dragon, The Crown does not bombard its viewers with unremitting content.
But the show is rated TV-MA for a reason: When there is content, it can be fairly extreme. Cameras burst into bedrooms and stream the unrobed, uncensored and sometimes utterly shocking activities therein. Unclothed princely and princessly bodies flash on screen. Language can be, even in this age of license, shocking. And even when the content isn’t explicit, there’s always an implicit unseemliness at work behind the palace doors.
Netflix knows that royal watchers love a good scandal—and in the wake of Queen Elizabeth’s and Prince Philip’s recent deaths, Season 5 has been heavily anticipated by viewers—and it gives them as much as it can dig out of the tabloid headlines.
A new poll reveals a preference for the younger Prince Charles (and his enigmatic wife, Diana) over the “out-of-touch” Queen Elizabeth.
Camilla, Prince Charles’ mistress, blows him a kiss as she leaves his estate. Charles and Diana try to sell the idea that they are a happy couple by going on a “second honeymoon.” (They smile and pose together, even kissing each other on the cheeks.) Behind the scenes, the couple is miserable and complains to their family and friends. When Diana reveals the poor state of several royal marriages to the prime minister, he worries about the stability of the country and privately rebukes Charles’ disregard for Diana. Princess Anne states she is only “technically married” and ogles a new staff member from afar.
Two parents yell at each other when a family vacation is cut short. (And it’s clear their two young sons are aware of the state of discontent since the boys go out of their way to comfort and support their mother.) Several of Elizabeth’s attendants lie to her about the poll showing Charles’ popularity. Charles goes behind his mother’s back to push for her early abdication. Elizabeth is criticized for spending government money on a private venture (though she points out she’s rarely asked the government for anything in her many years of service).
People smoke and drink throughout the episode. We hear a young girl’s cancer is in remission. During a medical examination, Elizabeth learns she is gaining weight.
A woman jokes about strangling her mother. We hear a misuse of God’s name.
Elizabeth kneels to pray before bed. Philip repeatedly shows support for his wife.
Diana contributes to a book disparaging the royal family for their poor treatment of the princess. Philip helps a grieving mother to heal.
Diana talks about how her bulimia diagnosis and her suicide attempts were covered up by the royal family. (She says she threw herself down the stairs when she was pregnant.) She laments that instead of getting her the help and support she needed, the family insisted she remain silent. We hear about an assassination attempt on the radio.
Diana expresses how Charles and Elizabeth dismissed her every time she confronted them about Charles’ ongoing affair. She also fears that if she tries to leave Charles, his rank will allow him to take custody of her two young sons (who are heirs to the throne) since that’s what her father did when her own parents divorced.
Diana tells many people about her marital discontent. She realizes that palace staff have been listening in on her phone calls. When a reporter begins writing a book about her mistreatment by the royal family, Diana secretly records interviews for him to put in the book. After the palace gets wind of this, the reporter’s house is broken into and the courier delivering her tapes is run off the road by a van while biking (though he’s OK). Diana is then encouraged to keep quiet about her marriage and to instead “make arrangements” for her own private happiness. (Essentially, she is told that she can have an affair of her own so long as nobody knows and she continues to parade a picture-perfect marriage in public.)
A woman mentions having an astrologist (and multiple homeopathic healers).
People drink throughout the episode. We hear two misuses of God’s name and one use of “bloody h—.”
Philip helps a mother who recently lost her young daughter to cancer. He shares how he lost his own sister when she was young in a plane crash. And when she expresses the struggles in her marriage, he helps her work through the problems (which is in stark contrast to how he approached Diana).
A man kisses his wife on the forehead. A royal couple sleeps in separate rooms (though this is for propriety, not because of discord in the marriage). A couple expresses gratitude for each other.
Elizabeth says that couples shouldn’t keep secrets or make accommodations in marriage since God knows what is truly going on and marriage is a spiritual commitment. People sing “Amazing Grace” at a funeral service inside a church.
An Egyptian man tries to work his way into British royal society by employing the former valet of King Edward VIII.
An older man ogles a younger woman at a party. (Later on, they marry and have a child together.) Belly dancers perform at a wedding. We see a shirtless man.
A man is criticized for his business practices, which have given him a bad reputation in the professional world. He asks for a Black man to be removed from a party (the man was working as a catering server) because he could “ruin” the reputation of the venue. He also makes some disparaging comments about women and Jewish people.
However, the man does grow in some small ways. When he learns the Black man was the former valet of a king, he employs him to teach him about British high society. And over the course of many years, the two men become good friends. The man also puts the desires of his son first, giving him the money to open a film studio instead of spending the money on a string of department stores (which would have raised his standing in British society).
Elizabeth is rude several times, refusing to visit her deceased uncle’s restored home and neglecting to sit next to the host of a horse-racing event (which he had paid a lot of money for).
People smoke and drink throughout the episode. We see and hear about a woman’s rapidly decaying health (and eventually see her corpse).
A man says that if people look up to Britain’s royals as gods, it’s because they are. Later, the same man says his son is a gift from God. There are crosses on headstones in a cemetery.
Queen Elizabeth is forced to reckon with her family’s failure to set a good example for the British people.
Flashbacks show Princess Margaret’s affair with Peter Townsend (he was married at the time). In the present, Margaret and Peter dance and exchange a kiss (again, he is married, just to another woman now). Peter expresses regret that he didn’t marry Margaret now that he’s in his final days. We see a woman’s back and shoulders as she bathes. We hear that Prince Andrew’s wife has had multiple affairs (and a picture shows her and her beau in an intimate act, though there’s no explicit nudity). Another couple kisses.
Margaret gets angry with Elizabeth when the queen fails to recognize her role in Margaret’s sad love life (or in the love lives of her own children). Elizabeth states that she and Philip have always emphasized the importance of marriage to their children, and she considers it a great failure that both her sister and her daughter are divorced with two of her sons headed in the same direction. She refuses to let her daughter get remarried or to let her sons get divorces, stating religious reasons.
Elizabeth tells Charles that as the future king, he will take an oath to maintain the laws of God—one of which is being married for life, she says. She consults a priest, who tells her to pray for the reconciliation of her children’s marriages (and she states she already does). A woman says a hymn is significant because it represents her faith.
People drink and smoke throughout the episode. Elizabeth and Margaret laugh that their dogs all share names with different types of alcohol. Charles tells Elizabeth that if they weren’t a royal family, social services would have put her in jail and put him and his siblings into care. A castle burns to the ground, and we see first responders trying to stop the blaze and save priceless artifacts.
God’s name is abused twice. Someone exclaims, “for heaven’s sake.”
Elizabeth is advised not to apologize to the British people since her role as their monarch has an “element of the divine,” and apologizing sullies not only her own dignity but God’s as well. However, Elizabeth rebuffs that no institution (or member of it) is beyond reproach. She goes ahead with her apology and extends gratitude to her family for supporting her and making sacrifices for the crown.
After Prince Charles and Princess Diana announce their separation, details of Charles’ affair with Camilla Parker Bowles breaks the news in what becomes known as “Tampongate.”
We hear an intimate conversation between Charles and Camilla (and the details are later printed in several newspapers). I won’t repeat anything said here, but perhaps the show’s Princess Anne put it best: “It was a bit too gynecological for my taste.”
Charles and Camilla’s affair becomes the focus of this episode with some people in support of and some people against the couple. Camilla’s husband, Andrew, and Princess Diana are obviously humiliated and hurt by their spouses’ affair, and this is reflected in their actions.
There are several discussions about Charles’ future as the head of the Church of England due to his marital misconduct. Charles says he sees himself more as a defender of all faiths (including Muslims, Jews, Sikhs and more), not just the Christian faith.
A priest asks the British people to pray for Charles and Diana. Diana shows signs of depression. There are conversations about Britain’s welfare system and equality for women in the royal family. Philip says that Charles’ military honors are undeserved. A woman wears a revealing dress. Another woman’s looks are insulted. People go hunting, and we see the dead bodies of animals. We hear an emergency call about a drunk driver and people hurt in a car accident. People drink wine and smoke. People complain the world is against them. There are several misuses of God’s name and one use of “t-t.”
Queen Elizabeth and the Prime Minister forge new alliances with Russia.
In a flashback to 1917, the Romanov family is brutally murdered by the Bolsheviks. (They are ushered into a room where many of them are shot multiple times while the others look on and scream. The tsar’s four young daughters huddle in a corner, hoping for mercy, but they are stabbed repeatedly with bayonets.) Several of the Romanovs cross themselves before dying. Afterward, their bodies are loaded onto the back of a truck and buried in a mass grave (and we hear their bodies were doused in acid to prevent identification).
In the 1990s, we hear graphic details about these murders. We learn that the Queen’s grandparents declined to send a ship to save the Romanovs (their relatives) because of their German ties during World War I. But they regretted that decision after learning of the Romanovs’ deaths.
People compete in pheasant-hunting, and we see the birds’ carcasses. We see footage of a civil war in the Soviet Union. A man is annoyed that a war is affecting ink color supplies.
Elizabeth asks Prince Philip if he is having an affair with his godson’s wife. (He isn’t.) They both express discontentment with how they’ve grown apart over the years. Philip is upset by Elizabeth’s accusations since he gave up everything—including his religion (he was born into the Orthodox church)—to be with her.
The British Prime Minister says that Russia’s new president was perpetually drunk during a visit. Then he admits he was drunk too, and we see footage of the men drinking heavily. People drink wine.
A woman wonders if our choices are preordained by the science of our DNA. People lie. A Russian politician insults and threatens Queen Elizabeth in Russian so she won’t understand what he’s saying. We see a Russian church service.
God’s name is misused. Someone says the s-word and “a—” in Russian and we see the translation written in English. Someone exclaims “good heavens.”
Princess Diana begins dating a new man shortly after her sons return to boarding school.
Even though Diana and Prince Charles are still married, we see them both carrying on affairs. (Charles seems to be living with his mistress, Camilla, now.) Diana kisses her new beau, a doctor. We see Diana’s bare back as she receives acupuncture. We also see her in a swimsuit several times. Diana laments that she had to vow she was a virgin before she could marry Charles. A doctor touches a woman’s chest to show her where the heart is located.
We see a headline that Diana tried to take her own life. She cries multiple times when alone. She and Charles argue while dropping Prince William off at school. William tells the Queen that he worries about his mother.
We see a surgery taking place. Diana swerves through traffic and nearly crashes after her brakes fail (and she wonders if someone tampered with her car).
When Prince William begins attending a new school, he asks his parents which religion to list, and his father tells him to put the Church of England since he’ll be head of the church someday. Diana expresses interests in all faiths.
Journalists conspire to trick Diana into believing that members of her security team and staff are selling private details of her life to the press. Diana, hearing clicks on her phone line, fears that the royal family is indeed keeping tabs on her and trying to oust her.
People drink wine. God’s name is abused a few times. We hear some talk about religious and racial prejudice.
Diana visits sick patients in a hospital to bolster their spirits.
Princess Diana gives an interview to the BBC about her mistreatment within the royal family.
Diana and Prince Charles, who are still married, both kiss their respective paramours. Prince William, Diana’s son, gets upset when she tells him she has a new boyfriend. (He also leaves the room when her interview airs.) Diana removes her engagement ring while giving her interview.
In the interview, Diana opens up about her post-natal depression and the lack of support she received from the royal family. She states there are three people in her marriage, referring to her husband’s affair.
There’s a joke about sex. We see a shirtless man getting ready for bed with his wife, whose nightgown shows some cleavage.
We hear about the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, wherein Guy Fawkes and 12 other men committed high treason, planning to bomb Parliament while the King, Queen and Princes of Wales were visiting. They failed and the traitors were executed. British people celebrate Bonfire Night, setting effigies of Fawkes on fire.
There’s a lot of discussion about journalistic integrity since the BBC isn’t sure if it’s ethical to use a public platform to air someone’s personal agenda. (The reporters who conducted Diana’s interview lied to Diana, telling her she was being followed. And when her brother warns her they might be lying, the reporters convince her that the royal family must have paid off or threatened him.)
The Queen watches a church program on television with Prince William after Diana’s interview airs. The Queen also tells Diana that she’s always defended the princess and that nobody is conspiring against her as Diana keeps telling people.
Some people are condescending. People drink and smoke. We hear a man’s leg was amputated in a prisoner-of-war camp. God’s name is abused a few times. We hear several uses of “bloody h—.”
Prince Charles and Princess Diana finalize their divorce. Camilla Parker Bowles wonders how to pursue a public life with Charles.
A judge presides over several divorce hearings.
The queen expresses great sadness over the states of Charles and Diana’s marriage. She says divorce goes against her convictions as a wife, mother, sovereign and head of the Church of England. However, given the pain and anguish it is causing not only Charles and Diana but the entire royal family, she requests that they find a way to amicably end their marriage as swiftly as possible.
Divorce proves to be more complicated than Charles and Diana anticipated. Besides their disputes over the terms of the divorce settlement (Diana requested a payment of 35 million pounds), neither feels relief when it’s finalized. They are saddened things ended this way. They discuss the reasons their relationship failed and agree that they were both to blame.
Charles and Camilla hint at sex in a phone call. We see the back of Diana’s shoulders while she’s bathing. A couple kisses each other on the cheek.
A woman says she attends a wine-tasting group. People drink champagne.
Paparazzi hound both Diana and Camilla. The prime minister’s wife expresses discontent that he hasn’t spent much time with his family due to his busy job. A woman’s looks are criticized by the press.
God’s name is abused twice. We hear the British expletive “bloody.”
A woman says she regularly attends church. Someone acting as mediator between Charles and Diana helps them each to understand the other’s point of view.
The future of the monarchy comes into question as the Labour Party (with progressive ideals regarding the monarchy’s place in government) wins the election for prime minister.
A couple kisses and has sex (he is shirtless and she wears a man’s shirt). A father encourages his son to just have sex with a woman instead of marrying her since he doesn’t approve of her. (He also says his son’s only talent is dating women.) A married man makes a crass comment about meeting new women. Some women wear dresses baring cleavage.
The queen gets upset with Charles since he uses her yacht to conduct his “affair” with Camilla Parker Bowles. When Charles argues that he is single now, she reminds him that the Church of England still considers it to be adultery since his ex-wife is still alive.
A man uses cocaine. People drink alcohol. Someone smokes.
A television program indicates that the British people question the relevancy of the monarchy and disapprove of Prince Charles and Camilla becoming the future king and queen. While watching, Princess Diana repeatedly calls a number to vote against the monarchy in a poll being conducted.
People rehearse lines for a movie about a bank robbery. Two people purposely speak in another language so nobody will know what they are discussing. There are some disparaging comments about models. A father calls his son a failure at his chosen career.
The f-word is said in Arabic (and we see the English subtitle). God’s name is abused twice. There’s a slightly racial comment.
The queen reaffirms her former prime minister when he is voted out of office. Charles sympathizes with his mother after realizing that many people no longer want her to be queen. The queen says she’s proud that her values were established by Queen Mary and Queen Victoria before her.
Queen Elizabeth II welcomes the United Kingdom’s first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, amid riots in Ireland and a personal attack against her family by the Irish Republican Army.
A boat is blown up by the IRA, killing a man and his grandson and injuring several others. We see videos depicting past riots in Ireland while a man’s voiceover threatens England and the royal family with more violence. People go hunting and fishing, killing several animals.
Elizabeth and her family gossip about her son Charles’ love life (expressing disappointment that he is still seeing Camilla Shand, who is now married). Charles gets angry when he is advised to leave Camilla alone since the person suggesting it had an affair of his own. We also hear about Anne’s (Elizabeth’s daughter) unhappy marriage.
Several characters speak ill of women in leadership and women going through menopause. A woman mocks her younger sister to Charles. Someone says a girl was offended to receive the role of “Bottom” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A man expresses jealousy at a father-son relationship between his own son and another man.
We see several crosses in a cemetery. A funeral takes place in an abbey.
We hear a use of “d–n.”
It’s 1956, and the Queen sends husband Philip off on a five-month jaunt around the British Commonwealth. But she’s thrown a bit when she finds a picture of a prominent ballerina in Philip’s briefcase before his departure. And later she hears that Philip’s personal secretary, Mike, has “something of a reputation” for organizing wild, hedonistic shindigs.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Anthony Eden makes a secret pact with France and Israel to retake the Suez Canal, which has recently been “nationalized” by Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. History tells us that the Suez Crisis becomes a great embarrassment for Britain, whose behind-the-scenes machinations soon become known to all. But for now, the attack has just begun: Guns are fired. We see explosions and victims flying through the air. (Elizabeth is displeased with Eden’s impetuous attack, one that he nearly didn’t even tell her about. But she’s still required to support her prime minister.)
Philip’s rumored wanderings are more problematic for our purposes. The episode includes something of a flash-forward, with Philip engaged in a chilly 1957 conversation with the Queen. She talks about the “humiliation” she’s felt over the last several weeks and about the “rumors” that have been swirling (without specifying what those rumors are). Divorce, she adds, is “not an option for us. Ever.” She asks Philip, “What would make [the marriage] easier for you? To be in, not out.”
Elizabeth has lunch with Philip’s father, Mountbatten, who tells her that she married a wild spirit, just as he did with his own wife. “Trying to tame them is no use,” he says, adding, “When you really adore someone as fully and as hopelessly as I think you and I do, you put up with anything.” (In another scene, Mountbatten has a venomous exchange with his own wife, one that suggests mutual infidelity; in it, we also hear a cutting remark about what Mountbatten’s extravagant naval uniforms may be “compensating” for.)
The Queen attends a ballet where the ballerina in Philip’s picture is performing. In happier times, Philip kisses Elizabeth’s back. The next morning, Elizabeth wakes up in Philip’s bed, apparently naked (we see her bare shoulders), and invites Philip to come back for a little hanky-panky. (They shoo servants away.)
We see Elizabeth pray beside her bedside.
Folks pour glasses of scotch and brandy. Eden takes prescription medication for an unspecified condition. Elizabeth, while dining with sister Margaret, asks Margaret if she might still be a little drunk: Margaret, lighting a cigarette, admits she might be. (Another woman smokes elsewhere, too.)
Mike quips to Philip, “Marriage is a wonderful institution, but let’s face it: No one wants to live in an institution.”
Princess Elizabeth marries Philip Mountbatten and starts a family, thinking she has many years left before being forced to take on the responsibilities of being queen.
She’s not aware that her father, George VI, is suffering from terminal lung cancer and likely has just months to live. That cancer was likely a product of George’s cigarette use. Not aware of the dangers, he and others smoke regularly (most puffing away on cigarettes, Winston Churchill his trademark cigar), with George even lighting up after receiving his grim diagnosis. Elizabeth doesn’t smoke, and tells Philip that she hates the habit. “Pity, because I love it so very much,” he says.
George’s cancer forces doctors to remove a lung. We see the disembodied organ twice during and after the operation (once while being wrapped in newspaper for disposal), as well as doctors mucking about in George’s innards. George coughs up blood—often into handkerchiefs (he keeps used ones in a box by his bed), but once into a toilet.
George rips the covers off Philip’s bed, where Philip lies naked underneath. (We see his bare backside.) Philip also competes in a rowing event where he and other contestants are shirtless. He plants a big, daring kiss on Elizabeth’s lips before the wedding. Margaret eyes married Captain Peter Townsend, suggesting at the very least a strong interest in the man and, more likely, an ongoing affair. (Elizabeth calls her sister out on it.) Peter recites a nasty limerick (referencing a well-endowed man), to George.
And George tells him an even nastier one in return—one that includes the c-word. Characters also say the British profanity “bloody” once and abuse Jesus’ name.
Rats are seen scurrying around royal kitchens. Wine and whiskey are consumed.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.
Emily studied film and writing when she was in college. And when she isn’t being way too competitive while playing board games, she enjoys food, sleep, and geeking out with her husband indulging in their “nerdoms,” which is the collective fan cultures of everything they love, such as Star Wars, Star Trek, Stargate and Lord of the Rings.
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