The Politics of The Crown
This season, the crown begins to corrode everything it touches.
When I think of the royal family —which, I’ll admit, has been rather often these past couple of days — I often think of what philosopher and anthropologist Ludwig Feuerbach had to say about God. Paraphrasing heavily, in a one sentence summary, Feurbach believed that our Gods are nothing more and nothing less than the outward projection of our inward nature. Through a heavy combination of Divine Right Theory and myth making, the Windsors are not very far off from this definition. Through billowing fire and smoke, the monarch, like a deity, occasionally makes an appearance, her dazzling smile sending millions swooning, her displeasure causing the very foundation of centuries of political consensus crumbling.
But whether the House of Windsor does indeed fit this definition depends entirely on which God concept you have in mind, because before the one God of Abrahamic religions came the Gods of Ancient Egypt, Greece, Sumeria, and India. Across the world and across cultures, almost simultaneously, our first God concept was of a quibbling, rancorous, licentious and entirely, ridiculously human family, foibles and fopperies included. Season 4 of The Crown, then, is entirely based on the tension that lies between these two ideas about God. Which God concept will the Royal Family of Great Britain choose to represent?
Elizabeth has become less and less an individual and more and more the institution she represents.
This season marks the beginning of the darkest episode in Queen Elizabeth II’s reign until this point, forcing her and her entourage “to ask themselves the bigger questions.” And the strategy employed by its creators is to carefully balance its tensions between counterpoints, with one character throwing the strengths and flaws of the other into sharp relief at every turn of the way.
Action Versus Inaction
Former seasons show the young Elizabeth’s character (Claire Foy) slowly being moulded by factors extraneous to her. The initial challenge for the Queen was to swear to inaction, doing nothing as the country she was sworn to love and protect occasionally burned due to mismanagement by people constitutionally beholden to her. Through the first two seasons, we look on with fascinated horror as she struggles to rise to the occasion, eventually making inaction an art form. In this, the strongest of her and the British monarch’s virtues are on display as her sense of developed restraint are exalted in the viewer’s eyes.
Now, that very honed strength is the mature Queen Elizabeth’s greatest weakness (Olivia Coleman). At the seat of the most sacred position on Earth, she has become utterly, unquestionably powerless in the face of geopolitical crises and her family’s disintegration. Indeed, the very act of doing nothing has become her character’s greatest flaw. Coleman renders this brilliantly for the audience in her strongest, most emotive performance yet. The show’s strength lies in slowly turning the viewer against her as she becomes less and less an individual and more and more the institution she represents, while rendering the cost of this opaque in viewers’ minds with some of the most evocative scenes the series has ever had.
To drive home this point are the Princess Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter) and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson). Even the few scenes that Bonham Carter makes an appearance are a treat. There is something about what this woman does onscreen that makes acting look almost easy. Time and again, the Princess toes the party line for a family that consistently overlooks the continued disintegration of her psyche. Even though it is this very conformity that upholds the system that oppresses her, she cannot extricate herself from it. Holding the crown on Elizabeth’s head has become her entire life’s work, and her hands will not falter no matter how much they hurt.
Both the Prime Minister and the Queen get parenting wrong on multiple counts; clearly neither of these two famous mothers were born with some natural maternal instinct that guides them north.
Anderson’s performance as Margaret Thatcher leaves one weak in the knees. Despite her limited physical resemblance to the Iron Lady, the costume directors must be handed plaudits for the efforts they have gone to to render the likeness believable for the audience, and that’s only the half of it. Anderson seals the deal with powerful voice modulation and her subtle imitations of Thatcher’s particular gestures and mannerisms. Everyone on set was probably acutely aware that they were standing in the very, very long shadow of Meryl Streep’s performance in The Iron Lady as they got to work, and they do not let us down.
Anderson manages to carve out a humane figure from one of the most contentious women in modern history, touching upon her psyche, personal motivations, and individuality in ways that side-step the brawl with Streep’s Thatcher entirely. The two performances cannot be compared, and, indeed, mustn’t be. Anderson’s Thatcher is here to make a point: love her or hate her, the infamous Prime Minster made her mark on the world, of which the monarchy was indeed a part. Juxtaposing her with the Windsors in a delicately crafted episode at Balmoral Castle was a stroke of pure genius: every time the unstoppable Thatcher meets the immovable Crown, neither side wins. This has the effect of simultaneously elevating and humbling both sides; an undeniably delightful result.
The Royals Versus the Grocer’s Daughter
The second opposition is once again between Buckingham Palace and Downing Street. Gone is the warm and lovable intimacy of the Royal Family in Season 1. Cynical, snobbish, dysfunctional and out of touch, the near heckling of a certain Prime Minister as she fails to sail through the elitist traps set up for her by the Royals strikes the audience right in the solar plexus. The scenes hit the right chords: Margaret Thatcher, the very Mother of neoliberalism, is being looked down upon by a privileged elite for the hard labour she puts in while administering to her country’s needs. Each side takes points through characteristically acerbic exchanges à l’anglaise: the Prime Minister’s dramatised private audiences with the Queen are an excellent example of repartee leeched of all love and passion. The Queen’s crisis of motherhood, too, is worth noting: having followed what she believed were all her duties as ascribed for her to the T, she cannot understand at what point she so completely lost sight of her children and their struggles. On the other side of the fence, the Prime Minister successfully projects all of her own childhood trauma onto her daughter. Once again, The Crown breaks down the subtle, gendered narrative of the feminine mystique across class lines: both the Prime Minister and the Queen get parenting wrong on multiple counts; clearly neither of the two famous mothers were born with a natural maternal instinct that guides them north.
Lastly, the dramatisation of the Michael Fagan episode makes the clearest political point the show has ever ventured to proffer thus far: the Queen is confronted with a physical manifestation of what her Prime Minister’s policies have brought about and grasps, for what seems like the first time, what life really looks like outside the walls of Buckingham Palace. Context is given in great detail and the episode in question virtually revolves around one character. The mechanism is a familiar one to seasoned Crown fans, having been employed previously to good effect. The device comes at the right moment, as well; perfectly timed to subvert the Thatcherite narrative.
Integrity Versus Artifice
We all saw this one coming miles away. From the outset, Princess Diana (Emma Corrin) and the Royal Family are at complete odds. But very little prepares you for the portrayal of the depth of despair and loneliness faced by a woman whose entire public life was coloured by her empathy and her constant rooting for the underdog. The stigmatisation by the Windsors of a woman who, by all counts, does exactly what she was recruited among their ranks to do, is, by all accounts, as horrifying as it was in real life. For this, much credit must go to the hitherto relatively unknown Emma Corrin. The stakes involved in giving us a real, loveable Diana, warts and all, were incredibly high.
We are all part of or know families that have sacrificed everything for their public image while they rot away on the inside. And this is what made Season 4 remarkably relatable.
However, Corrin does something that you’ve never seen onscreen till date. From the shy turning of the head, to the honesty in her gaze, to the tilted wave, and the cherry on the cake, the smile, Emma Corrin brings Princess Di to life again. In The Crown’s Diana, we have a real human being who is thrown into the madness that is the Royal Family and is required to “bend or break.” Diana’s struggle to humanise the monarchy out of sheer necessity is a critical element of the season. We see how she unravels the threads of the myth holding the cold, burnished monarchy to create a new one of her own: of integrity, social justice, presence, involvement, and honesty that forever changed the monarchy. Books can be written on Corrin’s performance, so I’ll stop here.
The Monarch, The Family, The Monarch’s Family
“How many times can this family make the same mistake, paying the consequences each time?,” asks a broken Princess Margaret.
The brilliance of this show, however, lies in the depiction of the destruction of one institution, the family to hold up the other, the monarchy. And though the show’s directors have touched upon this before, notably in Season 3, this time around, they spare no punches. Princess Margaret unearths hidden truths literally locked away for decades, and worse, grasps that they posed no real threat to the monarchy. Repeatedly, mention is made of how ‘the centre’ ie; Elizabeth, must hold, and everything else may suffer to do so. “How many times can this family make the same mistake, paying the consequences each time?,” asks a broken Princess Margaret. Indeed, this is the central thrust of the character in each of her appearances: with her stellar performance you see the transformation from spoilt, spirited young girl to depressed and bitter woman. Through her performance and striking dialogue, the line that runs throughout the show is drawn between King Edward VIII, Princess Margaret, Princess Anne and Prince Charles: all of them have given up everything for the Crown, and in return, they have nothing left to live for. Suddenly, the Abdication almost seems like a wise choice.
This, in a nutshell, was what made Season 4 remarkably relatable: we are all part of or know families that have sacrificed everything for their public image while they rot away on the inside. The Crown persuasively depicts this age-old family drama playing out with the highest stakes of all: in the sanctified apartments of what was once the wealthiest monarchy in the world, in a state whose name has become synonymous with the colonisation project.
For the first time ever, you see that both Prince Charles and Princess Diana had their own truths, and that they were both lonely.
Unlike the rest of us, however, the royals are locked in a gilded cage, part of which is of their own making. And that is the strength of the show: despite the horror, you are pushed to empathise with each of the characters since you know exactly what circumstances have led to them becoming their own and their inner circle’s worst nightmare. The show somehow resists the powerful urge to throw its lot entirely behind the young Princess Diana. Just when the audience risks falling into a tizzy of righteous indignation for her, it whirls the camera around and shows things from one of the Windsors’ perspective, all the while never actually tarnishing the sacred image of Lady Di in the popular imagination. You see for the first time ever that both were right, and that both were lonely. The phenomenon that was Princess Diana was thus inevitable, just as the phenomenon that is Meghan Markle was inevitable: both are physical manifestations of bigger conflicts the Crown cannot seek to resolve.
The only thing I can fault the creators for this season was the occasionally forced dialogue for moments where only official narratives were present to fill in historical gaps. Both of the strongest examples of this were in the Season Finale, in exchanges between The Prime Minister and the Queen and, separately, between Prince Philip and Diana. At these moments, a heavy reliance on official narrative combined with character flaws seemed to fluff up dialogues that were not truly necessary.
There is something about what these women do onscreen that makes acting look almost easy.
This season reinforces the idea behind the naming of the show: the crown, beyond Elizabeth II, is more an institution than it ever has been before. And like most stultified institutions, it has begun to corrode everything it touches. “In time, she will give up her fight and bend as they all do,” says the Queen Mother in the trailer as images of a lost Prince Philip and a drowning Princess Margaret are splashed before our eyes: collateral damage in the fight to keep the show, both onscreen and off, going.
It is no wonder the royal family is none too pleased about the season. However, I believe that just like with much of what the royal family does, they’re getting this wrong. Considering the train wreck the Wales’ marriage was, (in large part due to the Windsors, with numerous sources corroborating this,) the show achieves what nothing the Royals have been able to do thus far to minimise the damage from the 80s and 90s: a deeper understanding of where each of them come from, humanising them and even occasionally (gasp!) eliciting empathy for them.