Monday, November 16, 2020

The Crown (Season 4)

It's November - time for another much anticipated season of The Crown, the glorious Netflix series that chronicles the life and times of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II. The first three seasons took us from Princess Elizabeth's 1947 wedding (with occasional flashbacks to scenes from her earlier childhood) to the 1977 Silver Jubilee. Despite the "jolly" that was the Jubilee, for Britain that was a problematic period of political and social decline, a motif that permeates the series through its focus on the singular institution that theoretically is best placed to transcend the transitory character of politics; but which cannot escape the difficulties and distress of being a family. 

Season 4 fortunately finished production just prior to the pandemic. Hence its release has not ben delayed - one small mercy amidst the misery covid has inflicted on our world.

As was historically inevitable, Season 4, which picks up after the Jubilee and takes Queen and country through the tumults of the 1980s, features the Queen's complicated relationships with the two most powerful and threatening women of that period - Margaret Thatcher and Diana Spencer.  The memory of those two figures still really resonates. While most of the series has reflected the living memory of my aging Baby Boomer generation, now we are on the cusp of our contemporary world - and the forces that have fed this long winter of our discontents.

Ably played in The Crown by Gillian Anderson, Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013). was born just six months before the Queen herself, and became head of the Conservative Party in 1975 and the UK's first female Prime Minister in 1979, remaining in office until 1990. Her rise roughly corresponds chronologically to the rise of Ronald Reagan and his malignant ideology in the United States. However rocky her relationship with her sovereign may or may not have been, Thatcher's relationship with Reagan may have mattered much more historically.

Like all relationships, that between Queen and Prime Minister - two women of the same generation in what was largely a male world, one of whom personified ascribed status and inherited privilege, while the other exemplified bourgeois individualism and privilege-undermining mobility and personal achievement - was a complicated one. It is generally believed, as the series suggests, that  between them there was a conflict between competing concepts of what a country is and what different elements in society owe to one another. (Thatcher, as we all remember, was once famously quoted as saying there is no such thing as society.)  
The Crown, season 4, begins with two perennial problems that seemed intractable in the late 1970s - Ireland, which famously led to Lord Mountbatten's murder and the apparent inability or unwillingness to Mountbatten's protégé, the Prince of Wales, to find a proper wife. It is against this double background of political and familial dysfunction that we and the Queen first meet Margaret Thatcher.

The two get off to a seemingly good start.  But then the infamous "test" at Balmoral (what Dennis Thatcher calls "half Scottish half Germanic cuckooland"). Nothing could symbolize the radical difference between the Royal Family, with their love for aristocratic country life and outdoor country sports, and the urban, incorrigibly middle-class, work-obsessed Thatcher, who disdains "upper-class habits" (like husband and wife sleeping in separate rooms) and who is already at war with the traditional, aristocratic values and ways of her own conservative party.

Thatcher did, however, have one great moment of genuine glory, the Falklands War. Against the background of that impending conflict, the series successfully seeks to humanize both women in a surprising way by paralleling - in the same episode - each one's complicated emotional struggles with her children. Those private dramas inevitably get overshadowed by the deeper difficulty posed by a Prime Minister determined to transform Britain into a different kind of country - a transformation the Queen was clearly quite uncomfortable with. Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the social pyramid, that transformation was proving disastrous - for people like the famous palace intruder Michale Fagan. I have no idea what the real Michael Fagin said to the Queen on that occasion, but in this dramatized depiction he proves quite eloquent - as well as quite prescient about the long-term social harm Thatcherism initiated.

Their ultimate quarrel, of course, came over the Commonwealth, especially dear to the Queen and not at all to Thatcher. While we may applaud the Queen's commitment to the Commonwealth and the relationships she cultivated with Commonwealth leaders, we wonder whether in the long run the Commonwealth will matter less and less, leaving Thatcher the long-term winner in that struggle over British identity.

In the end, Thatcher is overthrown by her own party colleagues. And, when that happens, the Queen shows her unexpected understanding and appreciation of Thatcher's own struggle.

Next Time: The Diana Drama and the Perennial Problem of Family

(Photo: Netflix promotional poster for The Crown, season 4)

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