Review: ‘The Crown’ and the Burdens of a No-Drama Queen

In the third season of Netflix’s “The Crown,” Queen Elizabeth II (Olivia Colman) meets with the British prime minister, Harold Wilson (Jason Watkins), after a mining disaster in Aberfan, Wales, that killed more than a hundred schoolchildren. Wilson urges her to visit the grieving town. She insists that her presence would create a paralyzing distraction and impede rescue efforts. Besides, she asks, “What precisely would you have me do?”

“Comfort people,” he says.

“Put on a show?” It is as if he had asked her to don sequins and ride a unicycle, juggling, down a tightrope. “The Crown doesn’t do that.”

Ah, but the Crown does now, in 1966, or at least it is expected to. And when it refuses, people notice. This should not surprise Elizabeth: “Smoke and Mirrors,” a standout episode of Season 1, was about the epochal decision to put her coronation on television, which both magnified the event and made it smaller.

And “The Crown” — the scintillating Netflix drama, improving with age — is not at all shy about putting on a show, doling out all the pageantry and suds necessary. Season 3, arriving Sunday, delivers 10 entertaining episodes of personal history that are equal parts political, poignant and juicy.

But the creator and writer Peter Morgan has also set an unusual challenge for a TV series: How do you make compelling drama out of a stolid, purposely restrained protagonist? Is there fascination, power — virtue, even — in dullness? This is the koan that fuels this season: It is the sound of one hand stoically waving.

This season marks a changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, introducing a new cast to bring the royals into midlife. Elizabeth’s husband, Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies, taking over from Matt Smith), is shifting from sullen resentment to grumpy middle age. Succeeding Vanessa Kirby, Helena Bonham Carter lustily pops the cork on the tragic, flamboyant Princess Margaret.

And then there’s Her Majesty. For the first two seasons of “The Crown,” Claire Foy played the queen as a reticent new ruler, learning that her job leaves little room for individual humanity. Foy showed us a vibrant young woman being transformed, and flattened, into a national symbol.

Colman’s Elizabeth opens the season witnessing the result: the unveiling of a new portrait of the monarch as an “old bat.” (Her words.) “The Crown” lets us see Elizabeth age as she does — one new face at a time, within the four corners of a frame.

Colman, who just won an Oscar as the rather more expressive Queen Anne in “The Favourite,” is more restrained than Foy, but no less spectacular. She’s like a haiku poet, wringing meaning from the least gesture, able to summon heartbreak or dry humor from the same clipped “Thenkyou.”

Her Elizabeth has conquered her emotions, at great cost and in the name of duty — and now here come the expressive ’60s and ’70s, in which she and her family are suddenly seen as the faces of stuffy hauteur. She took a job she didn’t want, killed a part of herself to do it, and now finds that self-injury held against her.

Morgan is empathetic, but not slavishly so. Colman’s queen can be cold, as when her heir, Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor), more in tune with the emotive times, insists that he be allowed to have a public “voice.” Her answer falls like the executioner’s ax: “No one wants to hear it.”

Elected leaders, if they’re lucky, leave office before they fall out of step with the times. But though the world changes, one remains queen for decades. Only a series on the scale of “The Crown” can show how that feels.

“The Crown” does this pointillistically, structuring each episode around an incident in world or Windsor history. (This season spans the longest stretch of time yet, 1964 to 1977.) Though it is arguably the most serial story on TV — a single life, evolving over decades — it has a strong sense of episodic structure, avoiding the blobby, binge-y sprawl of many of Netflix dramas.

An early episode dispatches Margaret — Elizabeth’s antithesister, a jet-setter who craves the spotlight — on a diplomatic mission to charm the boorish new American president, Lyndon B. Johnson (Clancy Brown, whose impression does not spare the hot sauce). The 1969 moon landing precipitates a midlife crisis for Philip. Elizabeth’s reactionary uncle, Lord Mountbatten (Charles Dance), emerges as a schemer to rival Dance’s Tywin Lannister from “Game of Thrones.”

Elizabeth tends to recede in these stories, especially in the back half of the season, in which Charles’s growing alienation from his family plays as a long-game setup for the Chuck-and-Di story we’re promised in Season 4. (I only wish this season did more with his sister, Erin Doherty’s lockjawed, sharp-tongued Princess Anne, who’s a tonic and a delight.)

But each episode returns to the queen thematically, many of them ending with a conversation about the virtue of a dull, inactive monarchy. “Doing nothing,” she says with conviction, “is what we do.” These scenes can get heavy-handed; “The Crown” has a weakness for having its characters spell out its themes, like a proclamation on a gilded scroll.

The very broadness and sweep that keep “The Crown” lively can also hold it back. It’s a portmanteau of many different kinds of drama: domestic, romantic, military, political, even espionage. It does all of them well, but none surprisingly. Its control precludes the wildness at the heart of many of the greatest series. This show can be, like a distant monarch, easier to revere than to feel passion for.

But the series’s time-lapse version of history — a sort of royal “7 Up” — remains a refreshing way of approaching a much-told story. In a way, the real subject of “The Crown” not so much the monarchy as it is time, as comes clear when Elizabeth matter-of-factly appraises the woman in the royal portrait, the way you or I might accidentally catch ourselves in the mirror.

“Age is rarely kind to anyone,” she says. “Nothing one can do about it. One just has to get on with it.” One has to respect that attitude. One might even call that respect a kind of love.

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