Hypable reviews the first four episodes of Netflix’s The Crown.
Netflix is quickly proving that it can handle any genre, from superheroes to gritty real-life drama, to sci-fi epic and now historical fiction, and you’re in for a treat when The Crown debuts this November 4.
Starring Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II and Matt Smith as Prince Philip, the first of what could be a multiple-season series chronicles Elizabeth’s early days as Queen of Britain, taking us through 1947 to 1956.
Reportedly a £100 million investment for the streaming service, Netflix is likely hoping to attract a new demographic with The Crown, promising an intimate look into the lives of the British royal family aided by stunning costumes and set pieces that make it all feel blindingly real.
But underneath the splendor of production lay the true heart of the show: The Windsors, who prove a particularly interesting subject for an in-depth character study like The Crown, the family’s lives always hovering in the odd space between public and private as they try to cling onto a semblance of a personal life while being constantly reminded that their lives are not their own.
We’ve had many depictions, often humorous or exaggerated, of Queen Elizabeth and her family in pop culture, but never has a dramatization of these people’s lives felt quite so authentic.
Even if the series is obviously a work of fiction, not a documentary, the portraits drawn of every single character in The Crown are so subtle and intricate, viewers are allowed to connect with these people on a human level, in a way that (despite their reported worry about this series) I don’t believe the royal family should consider a bad thing.
In a way, The Crown offers what the real Windsor family never can: A raw, authentic insight into their human — as opposed to their royal — experience.
Queen Elizabeth in particular benefits from the vulnerability and subtle strength the series gives her; the real woman may have smiled and waved at adoring crowds for decades; she may have been lauded and criticized, poked and prodded by the public since her birth, but rarely has she felt so real.
Of course, a deep-dive into the psychology of who she is as a person is both thrilling and a little bit daunting: What will be revealed? What can be revealed? To what extent should we allow this series to lull us into thinking this is the true story of the Windsor family?
And perhaps it is in this ambiguity where the true brilliance of The Crown lay. Because, regardless of how much is fact and how much is fiction, the genuine expertise and attention to detail of the creative team involved makes it all feel like it could be real: The Crown was co-created by Peter Morgan, who previously brought us The Queen with Helen Mirren, a similarly groundbreaking study in an older and more hardened Elizabeth II.
Morgan’s decades-long dedication to telling Elizabeth’s story, as well as his love for her as a full, complicated human, is obvious from the very first episode. This is a loving, gentle take on what is at times a conflicting portrait of a still-living piece of history, but it never feels sycophantic; in fact, I was taken aback by how nuanced, layered and real Morgan and his co-creator Stephen Daldry allow these characters to be.
Everyone from Elizabeth herself to Winston Churchill (brilliantly portrayed by John Lithgow) is allowed to have flaws, even to be unlikable at times, the story so closely aligning with their actual history that you can’t help but sympathize with their plights, without the series feeling too complimentary. On one hand, these royals are clearly songbirds in glass cages for the public to gawk at — on another, they are still people who sometimes make terrible decisions, and must suffer the consequences.
Like the best drama series, sometimes The Crown forces the audience to empathize with a perspective you would not otherwise be able to understand, and presents their protagonists as complicated humans rather than symbolic representations of certain values or ideals.
‘The Crown’ episodes 1-4: Taking flight
True to its name, this series is about the crown, and whomever happens to wear it. Therefore, it is perhaps fitting that the first episode of the series is not about Elizabeth as much as it is about her slowly dying father, King George.
Played to perfection by Jared Harris, King George easily emerges as the series’ most sympathetic figure. At the top of the show we see just how trapped the state figurehead is in all his royal splendor, and although it is somewhat jarring to enter the show largely from his point of view (I was expecting Elizabeth to be the central focus straight away), getting to see how bound by tradition he is also frames Elizabeth’s story better.
As much as can be said about the role of the monarchy in modern society, The Crown strips all the politics away, and forces us to contend with these people as human beings. And, plain and simple, George is a dying man whose puppet-masters don’t even allow him to know about it.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth is marrying Philip (Matt Smith), and her biggest achievement in the pilot episode is being allowed to adjust her vows to add in a promise that she will “obey” him.
The complexity of Elizabeth is thus instantly made clear: Her birth may have destined her to be queen while her husband will be her inferior, but she fights to remain a traditional woman. In her own words, her deepest desire is for, “A simpler life; a happier life. As a wife, a mother. An ordinary English countrywoman.”
‘The crown must always win’
What the first four episodes of The Crown so elegantly accomplish is the balance of the ‘two Elizabeths’ that the series presents: Even in the 1950s, the symbolic power of the monarch won out over the traditional belief that a wife must be subservient to her husband, and it is the people around Elizabeth and Philip that try to force Elizabeth into accepting her superior position in this marriage.
Initially, Elizabeth resists the power that comes with her position; even at a time when the British monarchy is largely symbolic, the role of the royal family is significant enough that she can — if she chooses — influence both the government and the public, but she is clearly hesitant to do so.
The circumstances under which she does exert her power extend, tellingly, to trying to preserve her husband’s dignity. Even as the country faces unexpected hardships, Elizabeth’s gaze in the early episodes is turned strictly inwards, as she slowly begins to understand the full impact the crown will have on her personal life.
As she explains early on in the show, “Yes, I am queen. But I am also a woman, and a wife to a man whose pride and whose strength are in part what attracted me to him.”
This serves as a sharp reminder that this Elizabeth is not a mythic queen who has been romanticized to convey a more modern girl power message — not that there’d be anything wrong with that, but The Crown aims to show Elizabeth as she truly was: A 20th century conservative woman whose primary interests (initially, anyway) are her husband’s interests, for better or worse. Philip wants to her to obey him, and she wants to obey.
But as Elizabeth becomes more comfortable in her role as queen, the second Elizabeth (or, dare I say it, Elizabeth II) begins to take precedent over the first. After losing the fight for her husband’s last name, she must inform Philip that she and her children will remain Windsors, and that the royal family must stay at Buckingham Palace.
Philip, frustrated with his loss of agency, bites out, “Says who?” Tellingly, Elizabeth looks at him very calmly and says simply, “Me.” Because Elizabeth is the crown, and the crown wins, as it must always win — in this case a very thinly veiled metaphor for female empowerment that the series handles with subtle grace.
Meet the Windsors
The series brilliantly builds up the world around Elizabeth and Philip with a captivating secondary cast, not least Elizabeth’s sister Margaret (Vanessa Kirby), who takes ownership of her personhood in a very different way from Elizabeth.
John Lithgow’s Winston Churchill emerges as one of the series’ most fascinating figures: This is not the Churchill we remember from the World War II pics or history books; this is a Churchill who is falling from grace, and his attempts to hold on to his wartime glory crumble through a series of surprisingly dramatic events.
As Philip, Matt Smith shows new depths as an actor, as he brings out a surprisingly vulnerable side of the Queen consort. History may not remember Philip kindly, and while The Crown does not shy away from portraying his negative sides, the viewer cannot help but empathize with his increasing frustration as his freedoms are slowly stripped away.
But it is Claire Foy who truly carries the show, emulating the mannerisms of the real Queen Elizabeth to eerie perfection while still opening up the ‘character’ of Elizabeth in a way that never feels designed to manipulate the audience. Elizabeth is simply allowed to be a full person, for better and worse.
Ultimately, The Crown is a beautifully produced series about a family whose private lives, beneath the expensive gowns and within their luxurious homes, are painfully ordinary.
And therein lay the true beauty of the series: An enchanting fairytale at first glance, The Crown is a compelling character study of a powerful family, whose biggest tragedy is that they have no power at all.
As Elizabeth herself laments in the fourth episode, “Surely doing nothing is no job at all.” Her grandmother, Queen Mary, responds, “To do nothing is the hardest job of all.”