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The Crown’s Case for the Monarchy

The Netflix show portrays the awkward dance between ceremony and democracy.

Des Willie / Netflix

It would be easy to see The Crown as a show about Elizabeth II, the monarch whose nearly 70-year reign has seen the decline of Britain as a world power. It is, after all, structured around her life, each season featuring about a decade’s worth of interwoven stories, things the queen and her family have done, people they have encountered. But that wouldn’t be quite right. The Crown is about monarchy itself—the toll of it, the grandeur, the absurdity, and, as the show presents it, the desirability of an institution that can seem painfully archaic.

Now entering its third season, complete with a new cast, The Crown is making even more explicit the idea that the monarchy is not merely a showpiece but an essential component of modern British democracy. Elizabeth is confronted by a new prime minister, Harold Wilson, the first Labour leader of her reign after more than a decade of Conservatives. She also faces figures within her own family who think the new, left-wing government poses a grave threat to the country’s future. And she does what a constitutional monarch ought to do: nothing, more or less.

In the show, created and mostly written by Peter Morgan, the inherent absurdity of monarchy is part of its usefulness, part of its function as a tool that democratic societies may use to stay democratic. The military medals, the dresses, the sashes and scepters and crowns—they are all part of a sleight of hand to make the monarchy seem glorious, and in that glory, to create a sense of national stability. It’s a part of what the English essayist Walter Bagehot called the “dignified” part of government, something that exists to humble the “efficient” elected part, to force ministers to remember that they serve the country, not simply their own parties and interests. In The Crown, the inherently undemocratic monarchy is a tool used to protect democracy.

In the new season, Olivia Colman has taken over from Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth, Tobias Menzies from Matt Smith as Prince Philip, and Helena Bonham-Carter from Vanessa Kirby as Princess Margaret. The new cast is middle-aged where the old one was young; they have a stolid, almost morose air that fits their roles (Margaret excluded) as redoubtable figures in a dying empire, the symbols of a glory that their country—going through tumult after turmoil, currency on the fritz, politically divided—no longer possesses.

It is in the “The Coup,” halfway through the new season, that the show makes its case most vividly. Lord Mountbatten, Prince Philip’s uncle and mentor (Charles Dance), is dismissed from his post as chief of the defense staff by Wilson. Approached by an anti-Wilson newspaperman, he begins to organize a coup d’état. (The Crown shows Mountbatten as an enthusiastic participant in the plot; in reality, his role is less clear, with some historians putting forward a narrative similar to the show’s, while others have argued that he dismissed the idea when first approached about it.) What follows is a series of meetings in fancy rooms conducted by middle-aged men in three-piece suits, all against a backdrop of immaculate gray clouds. Mountbatten argues that a coup “doesn’t stand a chance” unless it has the backing of “our Caesar,” Elizabeth. Without the monarch’s support—and the legitimacy lent by her voice—it would be impossible to execute. Elizabeth promptly dumps cold water on the plotters, telling Mountbatten that her role is to protect the country’s unwritten constitution, the prime minister, and democracy. Her plan is to do nothing: “We bide our time and wait for the people who voted him in to vote him out again, if indeed that is what they decide to do.”

The episode also brings to mind better-known cases of monarchs interfering to protect democracy, like that of Spain’s Juan Carlos, who blocked a military coup in 1981, and Norway’s Haakon VII, who threatened to abdicate when faced with a fascist takeover. Monarchs, The Crown suggests, can be an important force against democratic backsliding in a modern world. But history suggests they can also be a force against democracy—and not just by controlling massive reserves of wealth and privilege, as the British royal family does. There have also been allegedly constitutional monarchs—those without real power—who backed coups, like Greece’s Constantine II, or accepted fascist rule, like Belgium’s Leopold III.

The Crown does not ignore that danger. For every Elizabeth, there is an Edward VIII. Alex Jennings, the actor who portrayed a marvelously bitchy Duke of Windsor—as Edward was called, following his abdication after an 11-month reign in 1936—for the show’s first two seasons, is gone. In his place is Derek Jacobi, playing the erstwhile king in his dotage. Edward was the worst sort of monarch—creative and impulsive. He was famously selfish, self-involved, and uninterested in the traditions and conventions that underpin the institution. And, as depicted in the second-season episode “Vergangenheit,” he was a Nazi sympathizer who performed the Hitler salute during a 1937 visit to Germany, was accused of leaking Allied battle plans to the Nazis, and was supposedly set to be reinstated as king had a German invasion of Britain been successful. He would later tell a friend that he “never thought Hitler was such a bad chap.”

The dichotomy between Edward and Elizabeth has been an ongoing motif for The Crown from its first season. Her husband’s explanation is that there are two sorts of Windsors, one “dazzling,” the other “dull.” What makes an interesting person, a unique person, is not what makes a good monarch. When the Duke of Windsor, in the first season, dismisses his brother, George VI, as “weak,” what he really means is “boring,” and George may have been that—a quiet family man famed for frugality and not especially admired for his way with words. In his dullness, Britain found a monarch to lead it through World War II. In Edward, it found one who favored appeasement and Nazism. With, perhaps, a touch of historical license, Morgan shows the Duke of Windsor realizing this as he approaches death: “The crown always finds its way to the right head,” he tells his niece Queen Elizabeth II, “my father, my brother, you, and one day, God willing, your son.”

And Elizabeth herself is far from perfect. Often, The Crown shows the monarchy more by what it cannot do, or chooses not to do, than what it can. Antony Armstrong-Jones, Earl of Snowdon and Princess Margaret’s husband (Ben Daniels, replacing Matthew Goode), a photographer, is shown in the season’s first episode taking pictures of people on election day in 1964. In his darkroom, as he hangs photos to dry, there is a shot of a glass bridge between low-lying apartment buildings with the words “Eat the Rich” emblazoned on it in graffiti. For much of the season, Snowdon is a conduit between the royals and regular people. In the season’s moving third episode, “Aberfan,” he and Philip separately tour the Welsh mining town where a landslide has killed 144 people. Snowdon’s utter devastation serves as a proxy for the audience’s, while Elizabeth delays visiting the town, citing royal protocol. Her initial absence is deeply felt: It shows what a figurehead could have done and should have done. It’s an argument for the presence of a nonpolitical leader when elected governments, tied to the gusts of public opinion and the needs of the political class, can only symbolize so much.

The Crown, of course, is a British show, about British people, governing Britain. Limited monarchy may work in a country that has spent over eight centuries finding the right balance between crown, parliament, and people. Even then, Britain’s monarchy is not beyond reproach—as Prince Andrew has recently made clear. And it is beyond the scope of the show to consider the virtues of a republic. The Crown’s monarchism is not a work of political theory—Peter Morgan is not Walter Bagehot—but of emotion. It presents a nostalgic case for a queen, with all of her flaws.

As The Crown’s third season closes, the two sisters—dutiful queen and mercurial princess—talk, one rigid and upright, the other reclined, luxuriating on a wide canopy bed. A pained Elizabeth asks what she has accomplished in all her years on the throne. “This country was still great when I came to the throne,” she says, barely able to look at Margaret. “All that’s happened on my watch is the place is falling apart.”

“It’s only fallen apart if we say it has,” Margaret answers. “That’s the thing about the monarchy: We paper over the cracks, and if what we do is loud and grand and confident enough, no one will notice that all around us it’s fallen apart.” Scenes of the queen’s Silver Jubilee, marking the 25th year of her reign, are intercut with shots of dignitaries, soldiers, and grand staterooms. “That’s the point of us—not us, of you,” Margaret says in voiceover. “If you show a single crack, we’ll see it isn’t a crack, but a chasm, and we’ll all fall in.”

As the queen’s art adviser remarks to Prince Philip in one scene early in the new season, “We all tell ourselves all sorts of things to make sense of the past. So much so that our fabrications, if we tell them to ourselves often enough, become the truth.” Monarchy, to Morgan and The Crown, is a fabrication, an illusion that covers up the flaws in a democratic society. For the messy business of democratic rule to function, the plaster has to go on, along with the makeup, and the pomp and circumstance.