I changed my mind last weekend about writing my final summary of The Crown’s third season because I wanted to re-watch certain episodes and let it all gel a little more. I’ve done so, and with all ten episodes recapped, I think it’s finally time to take a look at them as a complete package. At the close of the first and second seasons, I focused primarily on the question of whether or not the series was focused too much on side characters to the detriment of its lead. This season, I think they did a good job of shading Elizabeth in, but I’m surprised by the direction they took. To be blunt, their portrait of the monarch isn’t very flattering.
The first two seasons did a decent job of depicting the line between Elizabeth’s public persona and her personality behind closed doors. We saw what her marriage looked like – for better or worse – when she and Philip weren’t “on.” We saw glimpses of her insecurity as she prepared for certain engagements, most notably meeting Jackie Kennedy. And we saw the cost of doing her job at the expense of raising her children – while not explicitly discussed, the show regularly depicted the monarch looking at her children from afar.
In the third season, Elizabeth’s marriage is on more solid ground, two of her four children are young adults, and frankly she’s less daunted by her job. This last point is made clear – she slaps Earl Mountbatten back in place, she’s not intimidated by her prime ministers, and the balance of power is notably different throughout her family. But the show takes it a step further and lays out an argument that Elizabeth has not only grown accustomed to her putting her personhood second, it’s in fact the mode in which she is most comfortable.
There are two scenes that stand out in my mind as as particularly damning. The first comes in “Aberfan” when Elizabeth confesses to Harold Wilson that she didn’t cry when she visited the disaster site. Even more, she couldn’t have cried, because she is emotionally deficient, a dynamic expressed like a personal confession. The second comes in “Tywysog Cymru” when Charles confronts her after his investiture as Prince of Wales and she goes for the jugular, making it clear that neither she as the Queen, nor she as Elizabeth, cares much for what he has to say.
I think both were unfair and inaccurate portrayals of the real Queen. Even more, I think it’s also taking the easy way out with the show’s narrative. In reality, we know that the Queen and Charles have had a complicated relationship. And we know too that the Queen very much lives up to the “stiff upper lip” stereotype. But instead of exploring either of those, The Crown instead paints Elizabeth as a near villain – or more to the point, as part of the very machinery that insists on pounding down humanity within the monarchy. In fact, putting duty before desire is not quite the same thing.
All of this ladders up to a larger point about this season: it was incredibly inaccurate. Some of that comes with a territory in storytelling through this medium. It’s 10 episodes and the brushstrokes are simply too large for as much nuance as is necessary. And while the first two seasons certainly deviated from the record on more than one occasion, the only episode that really jumps out at me as being ambitiously fictitious was the storyline in which Philip is blamed for his sister’s death. This season, nearly every episode was a conflation of events.
This means quite a bit was left out. The season made no mention of what was going on with the Commonwealth, including the independence of African nations that was certainly a hot topic in the 1960s. Princess Anne was brought forth only as an accessory to Charles’s character development. The Queen Mother is a caricature. And Tony is just a jerk without the context the show gave us in the second season.
The issue, I think, comes down to the fact that this season attempted to cover a greater chunk of time. Thirteen years is a lot to distill down, and the given the show’s pace and the occasional subtlety of its writing, I think it was too much. It felt rushed and overly episodic. Or, to fall back on the stereotype, we were told a lot, without being shown much at all by way of character development. In other words, this was my least favorite season of The Crown so far, understanding that it’s still a very good show.
What I will say is that this season left me very curious for what they’re going to do next season, which perhaps points to these ten episodes being “filler” in the series’ narrative. We’ll see, but I’m a little nervous about how they’re going to set up Diana.