‘The Crown’ is a sumptuous, historical tonic for our weary modern souls

The new mini-series provides a helpful balm—and a few lessons—after this highly contentious election.

The Crown, Season 1, starring Claire Foy and Matt Smith. Alex Bailey | Netflix

The election is over. The votes have been counted (mostly), the winning candidates have poured their champagne, and most of us are, quite frankly, thrilled it’s finally in our collective rear-view mirror. No more robocalls and yard signs, no more debates or rallies. Now we deal with the aftermath, and I’m sure that some of you are looking to the future with trepidation—even as others are hopeful.

Wherever we land now, though, most of us can agree that the process was a slog. And maybe we could be forgiven if, in the darkest moments of this interminable presidential contest, we wondered whether our founding fathers might’ve been a little too hasty in giving up on the British monarchy.

Well, my friends, Netflix may have a little post-election tonic for you: The Crown.

The Crown, the first season of which was released in its entirety November 4, is a tempting blend of political drama and lavish escapism—House of Cards meets Cinderella with a healthy dollop of reality tossed in. The show’s centerpiece princess is Elizabeth II. We all know that her real-life reign—63 years and counting—is the longest in British history. But The Crown’s Elizabeth, played by Claire Foy, is painfully young, woefully inexperienced, and hoping that her father, King George VI, enjoys a long, healthy reign.

At an age in which most of us were still trying to get out of our parents’ basements, [Elizabeth] inherits a sprawling empire at a time of rapid, bewildering change.

But even as the curtain rises on the Netflix show—beginning with Elizabeth’s 1947 marriage to Philip Mountbatten—there are signs that Elizabeth may become queen far sooner than she or anyone else might have anticipated. George (Jared Harris) is coughing up blood, foreshadowing the lung cancer that would eventually claim him. Before the episode is over, George knows the truth: he has very little time left, and he must prepare both Elizabeth and Philip for the roles they must play.

“The titles, the dukedom, they are not the job,” he tells Philip (Matt Smith) during a duck hunting expedition. “She is the job. She is the essence of your duty. Loving her. Protecting her.”

“I understand, sir,” Philip says.

“Do you boy?” George asks. “Do you really?”

The Crown, Season 1. Alex Bailey | Netflix
The Crown, Season 1. Alex Bailey | Netflix
The Crown, Season 1. Alex Bailey | Netflix
The Crown, Season 1. Alex Bailey | Netflix
The Crown, Season 1. Alex Bailey | Netflix
The Crown, Season 1. Alex Bailey | Netflix
The Crown, Season 1. Alex Bailey | Netflix
The Crown, Season 1. Alex Bailey | Netflix

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He doesn’t, of course. How could he? How could Elizabeth herself understand the pressures that go along with being queen? At an age in which most of us were still trying to get out of our parents’ basements, she inherits a sprawling empire at a time of rapid, bewildering change. And in the midst of all her official duties, she must deal with stresses and scandals within her own family: Her sister Margaret’s relationship with Capt. Peter Townsend, a married man and her uncle’s continuing presence in the court—despite the fact that he abdicated the throne himself to marry an American divorcee. Elizabeth must even keep her own husband in check—a man who bridles at simply being known as Mr. Queen Elizabeth.

We all know now that Elizabeth was equal to the task: no real suspense there. The question is, really, how did she do it?

“Through her [Elizabeth’s] eyes, you can see the entire second half of the 20th century.”

Peter Morgan, creator of The Crown, has created a sort of cottage industry around Queen Elizabeth, even though he’s never actually met the woman. In 2006, he brought The Queen to the big screen. (The titular role earned Helen Mirren an Oscar.) In 2013, Morgan brought a play called The Audience—also starring Mirren and focusing on Elizabeth’s weekly meetings with the British Prime Minister—to London’s West End. It came to Broadway two years later.

“Through her [Elizabeth’s] eyes, you can see the entire second half of the 20th century,” he told the RadioTimes.

And while Morgan describes Queen Elizabeth as a woman of “limited intelligence” who would’ve ”much preferred the life of a solid English countrywoman, living with her dogs and breeding horses,” The Crown treats her with respect, even compassion. He understands that, even if the British monarchy is largely ceremonial, it still demands a great deal of skill, nuance, and energy.

Sure, the gig has its perks, and Netflix isn’t shy about showing us what they are. The Crown’s first season reportedly cost $130 million, making it the most expensive show in television history. The wedding dress we see in the first episode—on screen for less than five minutes, I’d imagine—took $37,000 and seven weeks to make.

Yes, viewers see plenty of carriages, castles, and beautiful gowns. We’re taken by the hand through royal palaces, where we can gasp at the rooms, ogle the dresses and, yes, poke through the closets where all the family skeletons are hidden. (The show is rated TV-MA (“mature”) and it earns it at times. What is a royal family without a salacious scandal or two?)

But what strikes me most is not its sometimes unfortunate language or sexual dalliances, but Elizabeth’s desire to do what’s right, what’s necessary, for the health of the crown and the kingdom. It’s a desire shared by much of the royal family, in fact—an overwhelming sense of duty, and a determination to see that duty through, whatever the personal costs might be.

Call me crazy, but it’s kind of nice to see people in leadership positions trying to take the high road. Perhaps we former colonists, even though we’re all grown up now, still have a bit we could learn from them.

Paul Asay
Paul Asay

Paul Asay is a movie critic for Plugged In and has written for a variety of websites and publications, including Time, The Washington Post and Beliefnet.com. He’s authored or co-authored several books, including most recently Burning Bush 2.0: How Pop Culture Replaced the Prophet.

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