Elizabeth, like her father King George VI, is reluctant to take the crown. Unlike an elected official who has ambitions for power and therefore seeks it out, the monarch is a position chosen for you by birth. The show does a fantastic job of demonstrating why that isn’t as lucky a twist of fate as you might think. As the younger brother, George (Jared Harris) never expected to become king, but when his brother King Edward (Alex Jennings) abdicates in order to marry a divorced woman, the crown falls to George. “Heavy lies the crown,” as Shakespeare once wrote, and the early episodes of The Crown demonstrate how the weight of the office has wearied George, as his health begins to rapidly deteriorate.
In an especially poignant scene following George’s death (spoiler alert I guess, but it is history, so….), Elizabeth (Claire Foy) invites her exiled uncle, Edward, to dinner. “You never apologized,” she says to him. He insists that he apologized a thousand times to George, and their mother, and he was never forgiven. “You never apologized to me,” Elizabeth says quietly. It’s clear from his expression that Edward had not considered the effects of his abdication beyond his brother's life. Indeed, it was a decision that would affect the lives of all of his descendants. It is an unwelcome responsibility, but one that Elizabeth takes more seriously than Edward. The choices an individual makes result in consequences far beyond the few people involved. This is a lesson Elizabeth has learned from her uncle, and it influences her every decision.
Us modern folks might find the whole abdication absurd. Who cares who he marries? So what if she was divorced? People should be able to marry for love! But the show excels in its exploration of why the role of the monarch requires these types of sacrifices. While the monarch at one time might have had any personal whim catered to, at this time the royal family’s every decision—who they married, where they lived, what their hobbies were--had to pass muster with Parliament. Stripped of power, the crown is a symbol, and the person wearing it becomes one, too. Individual desire, agency, and even personality must take a back seat to what the crown represents: history, tradition, and the Church of England. This is the lesson that Winston Churchill (John Lithgow) is desperate to convey to Elizabeth. You get the feeling that Churchill is willing himself to live an extra couple of years just to get this message across.
The religious aspect is something I hadn’t much considered until I watched the episode featuring the Queen’s coronation. She becomes the head of the Church of England and the coronation is more a religious act than a political one. She is anointed queen by the Archbishop and she vows to uphold the “Laws of God.” It is a promise that Elizabeth takes quite seriously, much to the chagrin of her sister Margaret, who seems to share a few--shall we say, modern?-- qualities with her uncle Edward.
The writing is excellent, and succeeds in making you feel pity for the royal family and their lack of individual freedom. It can occasionally be a stretch to feel sorry for Philip, who spends a great deal of time sulking because he didn’t get to live in the palace he renovated (he had to live in another not very nice palace called Buckingham. Life is so unfair!) But you do actually come to appreciate the nonstop compromises he is not only asked, but commanded to make. The writers handle the gender dynamic very well: it must have been quite a challenge to be a Queen commanding your husband in the 1950s. And it’s the shift from the traditional values of the '50s into the modern, liberal world that the writers capture so well.
An especially genius episode about the ill-fated commission of Churchill’s portrait captures this great social change brilliantly. Churchill’s painting is by the modern artist Graham Sutherland (you’ll recognize actor Stephen Dillane’s sour mug from his performance of Stannis Baratheon on Game of Thrones). The conversations between Churchill and Sutherland are interwoven with Churchill’s struggle against retirement and aging itself. I marveled at the connection the writers made between what the portrait conveyed and what Churchill refused to see: not only his denial about the aging of his body, but the denial about the decline of his entire worldview. The confrontation between the two men after the portrait is revealed (Churchill’s family later burned it) is a gut wrenching bit of virtuoso acting from both men and reveals the personal, emotional core that lies just underneath the surface of their work and their art. Look at the framing in the still shot below: the modern artist stands looming over the hunched Churchill, the painting bears down on him and cuts him off from the room.
After watching this series, I wondered: has the pendulum swung a bit too far from Churchill's values of self-sacrifice over personal freedom? Churchill once said that “out of the depths of sorrow and sacrifice will be born again the glory of mankind.” It was sometimes painful to watch Elizabeth make these sacrifices out of her sense of duty, but it was also entirely refreshing in light of our self-centered modern sensibilities.
The show has not dealt with some of Elizabeth’s more controversial actions, and I look forward to a more critical view of her in the seasons to come (I particularly hope they address her poor response to the conflict in Northern Ireland). Long live Claire Foy; what a stunningly talented actress. We’ll only get her as Elizabeth for one more season, but please see her Anne Boleyn in Wolf Hall, and seek out the excellent indie film Wreckers—she is fantastic in both.