Since 2016, The Crown has been the gold standard for television drama. Chronicling the life of Queen Elizabeth II, the series has appealed not only to fans of the royal family and consumers of escapist entertainment like Downton Abbey. In her career, as well as in the lives of her family members and subjects, Queen Elizabeth II represents a complex vision of the good: sacrifice over selfishness, duty over desire, wisdom over passions. In season one, we saw a contrast that explained much about the modern world: King Edward VIII abdicated the throne to marry an American divorcée. His brother King George VI led his people through World War II and died from the stress of a job not meant for him. His young daughter, Elizabeth, took over with determination to bear the giant crown with dignity on her tiny frame. Season three saw a completely new cast, including the superb Olivia Colman as the Queen, taking us into Her Majesty’s mature years, where we remain in season four, newly released on Netflix.
We finally meet the iconic first woman prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, as well as the beautiful, troubled Princess Diana. We also encounter a Britain and a world that looks increasingly alien to the queen’s throwback virtue; however, Thatcher, played somewhat as a caricature by Gillian Anderson, is a cold workaholic against whom the queen finally appears warm and relaxed. The episode when Thatcher and her husband visit the Royal Family at Balmoral is particularly poignant, especially coupled with the future Princess Diana’s hit appearance in the same venue. Emma Corrin’s portrayal of Diana is astonishingly authentic and deeply moving. Her sad story contains some of the most difficult content to watch in the whole run of The Crown, but it is also some of the very best.
Season four is a riveting story of three powerful, troubled women; but I was most intrigued by the accompanying story of the queen’s four children: Charles, Ann, Andrew, and Edward. In them, King Edward VIII’s tragedy of modernity resumes.
All four of Queen Elizabeth II’s children are determined in their own way to play their great uncle’s role of selfish victim instead of pursuing their mother’s example of servant leadership. As such, the latest episodes of the Crown present an origin story of today’s disenchanted world. In episode four, “Favourites,” the Queen has cringe-worthy luncheons with each of her offspring, including a disturbing conversation with Prince Andrew, who alludes to the kind of #metoo crimes he is widely alleged to have engaged in years later with Jeffrey Epstein. Here we see how in one famous and powerful family, strong institutions can be undermined in a single generation. Or maybe, the seed of decadence long ago planted finally takes root after a valiant last flowering of virtue. From the queen to her children, there is a dramatic drop-off from the height of supernatural courage. The queen’s generation won wars. Her children’s generation wallows in its own comfort.
Josh O’Connor is magnificent as the childishly vain Prince Charles, struggling in many ways as Prince Philip did in season three, but failing to find the inspiration to embrace his duty as his father ultimately did. Charles is particularly dangerous because he is so serious in the face of what he perceives as frivolity. His own wife becomes an object of jealousy, and his public role is an inconvenience to the private paradise he seeks to build at his new stately home. If the ordinary world will not understand his adulterous desires, he will keep it at arm’s length until mores change. In a telling moment at the end of a conversation with Prince Philip, the queen appears subtly determined to live as long as she can to keep her wayward son off the throne. Decades later, Prince Charles still awaits his turn to rule in real life, making do with being part of a group of mediocre figures of yesteryear that want to dictate my children’s future with a Great Reset. Thanks, but no thanks.
Season four of The Crown follows the series pattern of focusing on peculiar events to use as backgrounds to tell a larger tale. The Falklands War and the crisis of trying to end Apartheid in South Africa are two well-known stories. Less memorable but just as interesting is the story of Michael Fagan, who broke into Buckingham Palace and aired his grievances to the queen in her bedroom. Likewise, the series depicts Princess Margaret’s discovery of her mentally disabled, cast-aside cousins. Throughout the new season, as in the previous ones, writer/creator Peter Morgan displays a storytelling genius that few working in television today can approach.
For Christians, the message of season four of The Crown is a call to repentance and an instigation to renewal. The tragic divorces, decadence, and death that await the characters in the series represent the failure we live with at the top of our society today, in parts of the Church as much as in the secular world. But alongside the darkness of the 1980s Boomer ascendency, we find some hope in the next generation—the baby heir to the throne, Prince William.
We may breathe a sigh of relief in the United States that we have probably elected our last president born in the 1940s. But we do well to take a peek further back in the past at ancestors who lived through graver crises than ours today. Prince Charles and the rest of the ruling elite have messed up good, and we need something else—both ancient and new. It may take time. As the real-life Queen Elizabeth II said in her Christmas message to the British people last year:
At the heart of the Christmas story lies the birth of a child: a seemingly small and insignificant step overlooked by many in Bethlehem. But in time, through his teaching and by his example, Jesus Christ would show the world how small steps taken in faith and in hope can overcome long-held differences and deep-seated divisions to bring harmony and understanding.
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.
Until then, arguably the best TV show of the decade may help us cope.