You’re a Mean One, Mr. Prince
Royalists worry that the Netflix juggernaut THE CROWN is bad for their business. They’re absolutely right.
by Eric Peterson
’Tis the season for those seemingly holiday-related things that seem verboten outside the window between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day: molasses cookies, decorated trees indoors, tolerating your racist uncle, or Bing Crosby’s “Let it Snow” (despite the fact that it typically snows more in February than December, but no matter). Recently, this list seems to include Netflix’s The Crown, a beautifully dressed drama about the British Commonwealth’s royal family that appears most years in December.
This year, Christmas came early, as it were: Season 4 dropped well before Thanksgiving, allowing viewers a fictionalized peek inside the palace walls during the rise and fall of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership and the beginnings of The Prince of Wales’ unhappy marriage to Lady Diana Spencer. Filled to the brim with beautiful sets, period details, and Helena Bonham Carter, this seems to most like the opposite of a guilty pleasure. One can’t help but feel sophisticated and urbane watching these royal goings-on. On the other hand, some viewers have wondered how Princes William and Harry might feel about how their parents are depicted in this season, and whether it’s ethical somehow to binge episode, after episode, after delectable, scandalous episode.
Many of the actors in the show defend the show (and themselves) by noting that obviously, the series is an adaptation, and shouldn’t be taken as a history lesson. And, they should tell that to everyone in my Facebook feed who has lately posted some variation of, “Good morning to absolutely everyone except Prince Charles” since Season 4 was released.
As for me, I guzzled the fourth season down like so much egg nog in less than a week after it appeared, and did not lose a wink of sleep. Firstly and most observably, the show is a monster hit. Whether I decide to watch will not stop the show from existing. I hope for their sakes that Britain’s young princes have decided to binge The Queen’s Gambit instead (which, though the title might suggest otherwise, is about a Kentuckian orphan with a drug problem, and as far away from their lives as The Crown is from mine). But William and Harry’s viewing habits are out of my control, and I’m not going to deny myself the finest soap opera of my generation in the misguided hope that the richest unemployed people in the world won’t watch either.
More importantly, I believe The Crown is important. I meant it when I called it a soap opera, and it does contain those sudsy elements that make it fascinating and addictive. However, what makes it a significant work of art lies just under the surface: in addition to being an epic melodrama about the overprivileged, it’s also the best argument against a monarchy I’ve ever seen.
Take the principal villain of Season 4, the whiny, emotionally abusive Prince of Wales. If one recalls Season 3, Charles was then not only tolerable but sympathetic. One short year ago, he was a young man who dreamed of being an actor and marrying the girl he loved. But the object of his affection wasn’t considered a suitable future Queen of England, and he was forbidden from any kind of work that distracted from his birthright. Wearing epilates, waving from limousines, and delivering wooden, empty speeches were all he’d be allowed to do. His later behavior is certainly deplorable, but can it be argued that his descent into villainy was caused by anything other than the dictates of his miserable family?
Or take Thatcher. For most of Season 4, she lays waste to British society without the least bit of interference from Britain’s leader-in-name-only, the Queen. When Elizabeth does decide to do the least she could possibly do in sanctioning apartheid-era South Africa, all her machinations must be so subtle as to be quite nearly ineffectual. An entire episode of the show was thereby dedicated to educate its viewership on how toothless and powerless the titular crown truly is.
But the best argument probably lay in Episode 7, which focused on Princess Margaret’s depression (caused by the lack of attention paid her as her sister’s heirs come of age) and subsequent discovery of a pair of mentally challenged cousins, who were long ago proclaimed dead and cruelly hidden in an asylum. The reason given for this atrocious behavior is that their mere existence erodes confidence in this or any monarchy — a family that is destined to “rule” simply because of the all-too-human genes they inherit from the royals before them.
In short, devouring The Crown makes a few things crystal clear. Olivia Colman can do no wrong. It is foolish to hunt stag in your kitten heels. Hugs can be incredibly powerful gestures. And finally, Meghan Markle is absolutely correct: The monarchy is so 20th-century.