Tuesday, November 19, 2019

The Crown (Season 3)

Netflix' ongoing series The Crown is back for a third season. Devotees of this fantastic series may miss the first two seasons's equally fantastic cast - notably Claire Foy as Princess and then Queen Elizabeth and Matt Smith as her loving and dutiful but complicated consort, Philip Mountbatten, the Duke of Edinburgh. They are ably replaced in season 3 (which carries the story forward from Harold Wilson's election in 1964 to the Queen's Silver Jubilee in 1977) by Olivia Colman and Tobias Menzies. (The other royals are also aging and so are also portrayed by new actors, and, of course, the younger royals - e.g., Charles and Anne - also figure more prominently in this season.)

The new season continues to impress, as did its predecessors in lavish production and its splendidly evocative version of familiar history. But it has a different feel, a darker feel. In a very real sense this season is about aging, as the royal couple (and in particular Philip) undergo what we conventionally call a "midlife"crisis. Those of us who have long since past midlife can, of course, recall that age - and can also identify as well with some of the older figures in the family, who are coming to the end of their  story, for example, Princes Alice, Philip's mother, and her more famous brother, Lord Mountbatten. The episodes that highlight the stories of Princes Alice and of her son. Prince Philip's personal struggles are among the more moving episodes. (I also felt a personal connection  with the story of Prince Philip's involvement with the founding of Saint George's House at Windsor, since I was personally privileged to participate in Saint George's House's summer program in 2005.). 

At the other end of the aging spectrum, Charles and Anne are coming of age in this season, and we cannot but empathize with Charles in particular as he struggles to find his "voice" both as newly installed Prince of Wales and also as a member of a family, in which for so many reasons that is not easy. The sad story of the Family's successful efforts to prevent Charles from marrying the woman he loved (Camilla Shand) is that much more poignant since the audience, of course, knows the tragic consequences this will have, how much better it would have been for Charles and Camilla to have been allowed to marry in the first place! (That said, the implicit identification of Charles' situation with that of his uncle David downplays - as earlier episodes did not - the former king's extreme unsuitability in contrast to Charles' overall dutifulness.)

The darker dimension in the royals' personal lives parallels and perhaps on some level also reflects that darker period in modern British history. It is sometimes  alleged that Harold Wilson became the Queen's favorite prime Minister. True or not, Wilson is certainly portrayed with great sympathy and sensitivity, even as he and Britain suffer through an era of serious decline, socially and economically, and also in international prestige. His replacement by the unappealing Edward heath only highlights Wilson's merits - not just for the audience but, one suspects, for the Queen as well.

The demand of royal duty and the toll it takes on one's personality and family life are even more on display in this season, which is perhaps the series' most introspective season so far. Event he Queen appears at times to want to escape. But when duty calls, she responds  - as, for example, when she finds herself challenged to defend the constitutional and British democracy, the values she is anointed to personify, against even a member of her extended family.

The series ends with the Queen riding in the Golden State Coach to her 1977 Silver Jubilee, the great event in that long bleak winter of British discontent which reasserted the bond of genuine mutual love between the Sovereign and her people. The final episode portrays her as ambivalent about her Jubilee celebration, given the seeming disarray around her. It is left to, of all people, her ne'er do well sister, Margaret, to remind her that one point of monarchy is to "paper over the cracks... So you must hold it all together."  The Jubilee confirmed her subjects' conviction that she had done so - and done so marvelously well.

Considering the poor quality of political leadership on both sides of the Atlantic, indeed considering the virtual collapse of the political class, one can only appreciate that much more the moral value and significance of a monarch's role in society and the particularly virtuous and effective way Elizabeth II (for all her personal limitations) has so wonderfully lived and exemplified what she signifies.

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