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The Queen Puts Duty Before Family As The The Crown's First Season Closes
Elizabeth has to make some tough calls in the tense season finale.
The heart of The Crown is the dichotomy between Elizabeth Windsor, wife, mother, sister and daughter, and Queen Elizabeth II, the monarch of the British Empire. This conflict between woman and ruler is what ultimately drives the show's first season; in the show's final episode, Elizabeth's two halves are in opposition, as she must decide what to do about her sister's engagement, and her own unruly husband.
These two decisions have been teased since the first episode. Early in the season, before his untimely death, Elizabeth's father, King George, tells her that picking the right partner is crucial to her success as a ruler. It's advice that seems too little too late, since she and Philip are already married with two young children. But it's a theme that takes root because, as she will come to see, she didn't pick a husband who is very interested in being her partner. It's not until several years into her reign that she realizes this; when she does, her solution is to send Philip to Australia, where he can open the Melbourne Olympics. She thinks this will give him his moment in the spotlight and allow him to "settle." When we last see Philip, he's agreed to go, leaving his wife and children for five months.
There's a flashback in the season's tenth episode, in which a newly minted King George makes Elizabeth and Margaret, still just children, promise that they won't let the monarchy come between them, as it did George and his brother. A near impossible thing for the king to ask, it's a promise that's made to be broken. Margaret's love affair and eventual engagement to a much older divorcée (a dealbreaker for any member of the royal family) puts Elizabeth in the terrible position of having to forbid the match. She doesn't do so lightly, consulting with politicians and bishops before she makes her final call, but since marriage is a sacrament in the Church of England and the queen is the head of the Church, it doesn't leave her with a lot of wiggle room. It's an awful situation for both women. Margaret's happiness is at the mercy of her sister, and Elizabeth's sisterly inclinations are defeated by her duty as queen.
Because the season covers so much time -- nine years from the premiere to the finale -- it's interesting to see how the characters grow. We watch Elizabeth, superbly acted by Claire Foy, go from a bright-eyed, twenty-one-year-old newlywed, to a strong, graceful queen. In a role that is markedly quiet, Foy's best moments are played out in her expressions, allowing us to see the inner turmoil of a woman who is rarely able to speak freely.
Interestingly, Margaret and Philip don't change much from that first episode. Neither seems to grasp the seismic shift that Elizabeth has to go through. I found myself particularly annoyed at Margaret in the finale: she's so fixated on her love for this one man that she seems to have no shame about the awful position she's put her sister in. She accuses Elizabeth of breaking the promise they made to each other, not to let the crown interfere with their sisterhood, but she ignores her own role in that interference. Yes, it's an outdated law that is preventing her from marrying Peter, but that wasn't Elizabeth's fault either.
Philip never does seem to grow past the sneering young man he is in the premiere. It's easy to understand where his frustrations are coming from. His children aren't even allowed to take his last name. He feels emasculated and takes it out on Elizabeth for the next several years. The show's writing doesn't afford him much complexity: he's basically just there to be a whiny villain and constantly remind us that Elizabeth is surrounded by unsupportive ninnies.
The show's true standout, to me, is John Lithgow as Winston Churchill. While he seems an unlikely candidate to play the famous prime minister, Lithgow is a treat to watch, scowling and grunting like the bulldog Churchill was often compared to. One of the more compelling dynamics in the season is the relationship between Churchill and Elizabeth -- a grizzled old man and a fresh young queen. It will be interesting to see if Lithgow or Jared Harris, who is so good as King George, reprise their roles in future seasons' flashbacks (since Churchill's tenure as Prime Minister ends in the ninth episode, and King George dies in Episode 2).
The production value on the show, rumored to have cost upwards of $100 million, is stunning, and every dollar is visible on the screen. The high-quality production feels integral to the show, in the same way that it does on shows like Game Of Thrones or Westworld: it's lush and decadent, but if you're going to tell this story, doesn't it need to be?
Series creator Peter Morgan originally pitched the show -- which is already filming its Season 2 -- as six ten-episode seasons, spanning Queen Elizabeth's entire reign. Whether his ambitious vision will be realized remains to be seen; for now, The Crown seems like another win for Netflix.