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The Dramatic Detachment of The Crown

The Netflix show’s third season is a wonder of restraint.

Ded Willie/Courtesy of Netflix

About halfway through the new season of The Crown, Peter Morgan’s sweeping drama about the interior lives of the royal family, Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies) makes a drastic publicity move. It is the late 1960s, almost two decades into Queen Elizabeth’s reign, and public opinion has begun to curdle. After Philip whines on American television that his wife isn’t paid enough, the British press attacks him mercilessly. If they only knew, he thought, what the royals actually do—how much effort goes into hosting ambassadors and representing the United Kingdom throughout the world, not to mention all the tedious paperwork. So he invites the BBC into Buckingham Palace for an exclusive, behind-the-scenes look. But this venture does not have the effect he intended, and only generates more criticism of the family’s profligacy and blitheness.

The documentary is a meta-moment in the series, in which the royals try to craft a compelling narrative about their lives—the same task that The Crown itself takes on. But whereas Philip’s film fails, Morgan’s drama has been phenomenally successful. There is a scrupulousness in his depiction of the queen’s inner sanctum, attention down to the last dessert fork. The Robert Caro approach to life writing—choose a subject that symbolizes power in all its heady contradictions, and then flood the story with so much detail that every sandwich they eat becomes important—haunts Morgan’s scripts. Very little falls beneath his notice: There are several scenes this season in which the queen (now played by Olivia Colman, taking over from Claire Foy) simply walks through rooms. One of the most pleasing tensions of Morgan’s creation is the contrast between the lavish set dressings and the understated action; sometimes so little will happen in a gilded room that you have to blink to make sure that the screen did not freeze.

The characters rarely make major political decisions, serving only as figureheads. They are mostly consumed by their personal relationships, even during a period of mounting unrest and crisis: This season stretches from 1966 to the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, a tumultuous time for Britain. The third episode centers on the collapse of a coal mining operation in Aberfan, South Wales, which killed 116 children and 28 adults, a brutal tragedy that leaves the queen silent and incapable of comforting the victims. It is her husband who travels to the memorial service, where he is shocked that instead of expressing rage at the lack of labor regulations and safety measures, the community has come together to sing. This poignant report prompts the queen to visit at last, surveying the wreckage in an oversize fur hat and prim coat. And although she is greeted warmly, she recognizes her own inability to feel for people in their most harrowing moments. “I dabbed a bone-dry eye,” she admits to the prime minister, and divulges that during the Blitz, while her parents wept, “I couldn’t.” She had felt nothing when her beloved grandmother died. Colman is opaque during this confession, but almost vibrating with the act of saying something unspeakable. A queen so emotionally guarded that she cannot muster empathy is not exactly doing her job.

In a later episode, when the coal miners strike in 1974 and electricity shortages put the country on a three-day week, the queen is primarily occupied with reading Prince Charles’s secret letters and sending him away on a sea expedition so that he will not marry Camilla Shand. Through all the external turmoil, Elizabeth is relatively untouched, focused on family affairs, surrounded by her corgis, walking through rooms in the drafty palace. The appeal of The Crown is this drama of stability and detachment—the story of a woman’s 67 years on the throne, of how she passed every day of those decades. Reigns are short, but hours are long. The Crown is most interested in what happens in the space between fanfares.

The season opens with the faintest noise: A single French horn bleats a plaintive melody while a platoon of hoary men from the Royal Mail service, all wearing dark suits, shuffles into a stateroom in Buckingham Palace. A duo of purebred Pembroke corgis enters next, pulling on a leash held by a manservant in a red tailcoat. They wriggle their furry backsides on plush carpeting and sit perfectly in front of a display of oversize postage stamps, like a tableau vivant. Elizabeth stares at the stamps, which have been updated to include her wrinkles and altered profile. A courtier tries to insist to her that there is barely any difference between the old stamp (Foy’s profile) and the new (Colman’s). “A great many changes,” she snaps. “But there we are. Age is rarely kind to anyone. Nothing one can do about it. One just has to get on with it.”

It is clever to begin with this transition, reminding the audience that as the show moves through decades, roles will need to be recast from time to time. As well as the additions of Colman and Menzies this season, Helena Bonham-Carter takes over as the wickedly mischievous Princess Margaret, and the queen’s children come of age (with Josh O’Connor as Charles, and Erin Doherty as the twentysomething Princess Anne, complete with 1960s bouffant and plaid miniskirts). Colman approaches Elizabeth with the same clipped cadence and restrained flatness that Foy brought to the part, even though viewers have recently seen her play another British monarch with so much bombast and melodrama that it won her the Oscar: If anything proves that Colman is a versatile actress, it is seeing her swerve from The Favourite’s petulant, barking Queen Anne into the staid and solid Queen Elizabeth. One might see the role as a waste of Colman’s innate spark and sly charm (a skill she also deploys as the villainous stepmother in Fleabag), but it is also a testament to her ability to hold back and do a lot with a little.

When the queen pays a visit to her dying uncle, for instance, Colman is intricately, quietly conflicted. If he had not abdicated his role as King Edward VIII in 1936, in order to marry the American divorcée Wallis Simpson, Elizabeth wouldn’t now be a monarch. But she also would have enjoyed a semblance of a normal life. She could have grown up further from public scrutiny; she could maybe even have misbehaved, as her younger sister did. Because others wanted to live life on their own terms, she could not. After Edward apologizes to her for shifting the course of her life, Colman stands up to leave, but her feet are heavy and her breath slows. “What you did, your abdication of the throne did change my life, forever,” she tells Edward, as he sinks into his wheelchair. “But I want you to know, it’s not always a curse, and I haven’t always been cross with you.”

Stability sometimes requires a capacity for cruelty. And it is in the subtle turn toward viciousness, however mannered, that Colman really shines. She has a knack for flashing an acid smile, making a kiss feel like a slap. In The Favourite, she entraps Emma Stone’s character in a lifetime of joyless servitude under the guise of devoted companionship; here, she plays a less sadistic but no less harmful game with her son, whom she sends away in order to prevent a marriage she does not desire, and in doing so breaks his heart and his spirit. At the end of the ninth episode, the queen delivers a speech in which she extols the values of commitment (intercut with scenes of Camilla marrying Andrew Parker-Bowles while Charles weeps somewhere at sea). Colman delivers the speech with an almost robotic coldness: “Marriage is a proposition some in the modern world would question, but it is a proposition about which, when asked, I can reply plainly, and unequivocally, I am for it.” For her, marriage is a tool with which to maintain the status quo, a way to keep the Windsor family steady and sailing forward. Love has little to do with it.

Amid all the stateliness and grandeur, there’s a sense of fatedness in The Crown. We already know what awaits each of the characters. Princess Diana will soon arrive to shake up and, in ways, undermine the impenetrable image of the royal family forever. In just a few decades, in 1992, the queen will experience her annus horribilis, a year in which Windsor Castle will catch fire, three of her children’s marriages will implode, Andrew Morton will publish a tell-all blood-and-guts book about Charles’s continuing affair with Camilla, her nephew will die suddenly, and the duchess of York will be photographed sunbathing topless.

It is possible to view this season of The Crown as an interval, a held breath, a pause between the high drama of Elizabeth’s coronation and the rise of Lady Di, and that would not be an inaccurate reading. But the lack of a major event doesn’t make it less intriguing. It is in their fallow periods that monarchs flail the most, given the free time to ask themselves the big, searching questions about the heavy burden of holding court. “What’s the answer?” Colman snarls as Elizabeth, after Philip’s BBC documentary airs to criticism. “The best we’ve come up with so far is ritual and mystery. Because it keeps us hidden while still in plain sight. The smoke and the mirrors, the mystery and the protocol, isn’t there to keep us apart, it is there to keep us alive.” Morgan clears the smoke around the family, which should, by the queen’s logic, destroy their mystique. But in showing the silent tectonics beneath all the finery and fog, he makes us want to keep looking.