Originally published on Sumner Newscow on November 29, 2020
Happy Sunday. The scene is set: families reconvene (against their better instincts) after a painful year and just want a weekend to give thanks and gather like old times. After the meal is over and the extended family goes home, the adult children and the empty nesters need a non-offensive show that has just enough scandal to keep everyone entertained.
Enter: the new season of the Crown on Netflix (proceed with caution, as there are spoiler alerts). At first glance, this seems like the perfect show for the whole family with palace drama, British history, and political intrigue that steers clear of any personal politics on our side of the world. The only problem is after you get past the brilliant cast of characters playing people far uglier than them and the Hans Zimmer intro music, you’re left with the shell of a show that sought out to explore the personal feelings of a family whose internal workings were as rotten as the medieval structures that prop them up.
It almost isn’t fair to mock season 4 of the Crown. After season 2, the brilliant, but still finding her place in the monarchy, Claire Foy and her man-child husband played by Matt Smith were replaced by equally talented actors devoid of a real conflict. The initial draw of the show was to see how a young Queen Elizabeth dealt with helming a crumbling empire and a flailing marriage at a formative time in her personal growth.
Once we’ve moved on to the more established Queen Liz played by Olivia Colman, we’re forced to move on to the periphery characters who not only don’t inspire sympathy from the viewers, they don’t deserve it. Nearly every episode of the last two seasons has begged the audience to empathize with the literal most privileged people in the world while simultaneously exposing how toxic that character actually is next to the most lavish settings you’ve ever seen all paid for by the British taxpayer (and colonies they’ve exploited). Here are just a few of the British royals we’re supposed to feel sorry for:
- Princess Margaret: Helena Bonham Carter puts her entire foot into this role, but it doesn’t matter because no amount of charisma and talent can bring this porcelain doll of a character to life. Where is the conflict between her and her estranged husband? Gone. Where is her drive to break the mold of what Princesses are “allowed” to do? Nowhere to be found. In this new season, she’s completely flipped to a strict monarchist bent on shaming Princess Diana for being likable and having existential crises because her sister took her job away. Mind you, she is still able to do actual charity work or advocacy for oppressed people in her kingdom, but she flees to the Bahamas to drink with her swinger friends and pout.
- Every offspring of the Queen of England: We watch multiple episodes of the Queen realizing she’s actually a very bad mother who doesn’t support her children’s choices nor seems to know them in the slightest and we’re meant to sympathize with one or all of them. Each of them sits in important positions they were gifted by birthright and I understand the golden handcuffs they’ve been born into. But if the show wants us to feel bad for them, it should make a point to show them is a positive light rather than making them spoiled, pompous brats who fail to see the effects of their privilege
- Prince Charles: I’d like to thank the Kansas public education system for keeping this man from my thoughts because he is the worst person to ever live. All he does is bitch and moan because his family is mean to him, he doesn’t get the respect he thinks he deserves, and he’s married to the best and brightest teenager he could find. To be fair, his family does hate him, but I’m on their side for once because if Charles couldn’t cheat on his wife (who is again, a teenager when they meet) and wax poetic about how interesting he thinks he is, I’m not sure what he would do with his life
So with this motley crew of the worst people on earth, the Crown must explore the intricacies of their daily personal battles. Shows can do this well as shown by the Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and the first few seasons of House of Cards. It’s very possible to wrap a despicable character around a great concept or plot, but what the Crown fails to realize is that its protagonists are the bad guys. The previous examples are keenly aware how evil their characters are and work to show the ways in which they go against that nature, but ultimately fail in a meaningful way to the viewer. The Crown doesn’t see it that way and, much like everyone who still tunes in to watch Royal Weddings, continues to make apologies for the outdated and deplorable institution of the monarchy because it’s beautiful and does wacky things (much like the show itself).
And this unwitting posturing of protagonists as villains isn’t a rare occurrence either; every episode pits the royal family versus a sympathetic, and often likable, opponent that ultimately loses. The first episode concerns the IRA and their guerrilla war for independence, but once the show realizes that would be entirely too interesting for their show about the family who believes they descended from a god, they never speak of it again.
A later episode tells the story of a man so ravaged by the devil—I apologize, Margaret Thatcher— that he breaks into Buckingham Palace to tell the Queen about how bad England is under her care, only for nothing to change as he’s thrown in jail. And the most frequent punching bag of the inbred family of degenerates: Princess Diana played by Emma Corrin. Princess Di consistently shows us what a common person (with hordes of money) in England would do when thrust into royalty.
She stumbles through the silly rules of etiquette, perseveres through her loveless and verbally abusive relationship, and just wants to be with her kids. As her entire support structure is aimed against her, we see her family members insult her behind her back, her husband cheat on her incessantly, and not a single person around her help her with her battle with bulimia despite nearly everyone being aware of it. Punching down is the Crown’s specialty and just because you’re married to the future King of England doesn’t exempt you apparently.
But I can’t end the article in good faith without pointing out this season’s good features as well. As always, it is remarkably acted with a brilliant score, all back-dropped with the beautiful locales of Scotland and the non-London parts of the UK. After that, however, the virtues are few and far between. The greatest of all of them is how the show treats Margaret Thatcher.
Margaret Thatcher has an almost Reagan-esque identity in that they both have huge fandoms of people who have no concept what they actually accomplished. She was an evil person who sought to deregulate every enterprise she could find at the expense of any British citizen that had the misfortune of being poor. She also financed or fought every person of color that challenged her in one of the colonies, but her racism is almost swept under the rug. But in a show all about the private lives of terrible people, they really showed Margaret at her worst: when she’s around her family. In every scene with her family, she insults her daughter only taking breaks to make misogynistic remarks to her son and otherwise ruin the good time.
In a show with so many failures, it’s nice to see that it is at least aware how to portray a villain from time to time, but let’s not forget that the real losers of this show are the British citizens. After watching this season, I’d be hard-pressed to find one good reason to keep the monarchy around. Every decade, the UK is in some financial crisis that could easily be solved by kicking the royals out of the house and selling their stuff. France did it back in the 1700s and it worked remarkably well for them. So if you’re in Britain and you’re reading this, I’m sorry about leaving the EU, but maybe you could start the rebuild by making Queen Elizabeth the last monarch in your country’s history.