The Crown

Credits

Cast

Network

Reviewer

Paul Asay
Emily Clark

TV Series Review

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 new 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.

Heavy Is The Head …

There’s little real suspense in The Crown. Elizabeth may look younger in these earlier stages of her reign (the fourth season of a planned six, according to Netflix), but we know the real Queen Elizabeth is still puttering around Buckingham Palace with her hats and her corgis. Now in her 90s, she’s staggeringly popular these days, and more than 75% of Brits say the monarchy has an important role for the kingdom’s future.

But her 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.

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.

A Crowning Achievement?

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. 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), 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—a nice telegenic pick-me-up after the United States’ own difficult political season. 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 ThronesThe 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 it gives them as much as it can dig out of the tabloid headlines.

Episode Reviews

Nov. 15, 2020: “Gold Stick”

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.”

The Crown: Dec. 8, 2017 “Misadventure”

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.”

The Crown: Nov. 4, 2016 “Wolferton Splash”

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.

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Paul Asay

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 Clark
Emily Clark

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 indulging in her “nerdom,” which is the collective fan cultures of everything she loves, such as Star Wars and Lord of the Rings.

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