Netflix released their most ambitious original series yet on Nov. 4 called “The Crown,” a partially fictitious interpretation of the historic rise of Queen Elizabeth II. The series is reportedly the most expensive television show ever produced, with a whopping $130 million budget. After binging the entire first season, it is clear that their efforts paid off tremendously. Every frame is immaculate, filmed on location at an impressive spread of British historical sites, including Buckingham Palace. Each lavish costume is exquisitely crafted for the time period. The score is bold, filled with grandiose and sweltering with emotion. Elegant and moving, “The Crown” ups the ante for a period drama, redefining the scope of what quality television can achieve to be.
“The Crown” reveals the hostile and restrictive nature beneath the picturesque British throne. Queen Elizabeth is immediately tested in a growing conflict between love and duty. When her father dies, Elizabeth claims the throne as queen. Her grandmother warns that she will internally struggle between her own heart and that of the crown. She warns that the crown will be the inevitable winner. Tradition becomes more like imprisonment, stripping her individual freedoms and self-morals as her identity fades when she inherits the burdensome, symbolic role.
The acting is so strong that you forget you are watching a performance and not reality, achieving a full immersion into the real lives the characters are based on. Elizabeth is embodied by Claire Foy as someone relatably human – a 25-year-old with all the familiar insecurities – who dedicates her life to the crown for the sake of her country, taking every detail of responsibility to heart. Matt Smith plays Elizabeth’s dashing, yet defiant husband Prince Phillip, a very different character than his “Doctor Who” persona. Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s iconically quirky character is provided a skillfully textured portrayal by John Lithgow. Elizabeth’s envious and wistful sister, Princess Margaret, is played charismatically by Vanessa Kirby.
Foy’s Elizabeth is a quiet, yet resilient feministic figure. She faces the discrimination of a sexist society in the 1950s, pushing against the glass ceiling despite her status as queen. When asked what her new name will be upon coronation, she insists on retaining Elizabeth and her maiden name Windsor rather than her husband’s last name. Phillip struggles adjusting to his new role as his wife’s support. He is forced to place his own life on the backburner while under Elizabeth’s shadow, much like a woman’s usual marital position at the time. He becomes fed up with the frivolities, nonsensical traditions and conformities in which the royal family is bound, creating a marital friction that threatens to collapse the carefully crafted public illusion. Phillip finds himself kneeling to his wife during her coronation after arguing about it prior to the ceremony. This moment manifests the idea that although he is Elizabeth’s equal in marriage, he is still subservient to the Queen and the crown.
This subservience is most heavily laded on Elizabeth, her entire existence completely dedicated to the impossible task of upholding this flawless ideal. She must eliminate her individuality and strip herself of free will. The role as queen is passive and silent, preserving the church’s laws without any hint of deviation. This understanding led Elizabeth to disappointing those she loves in order to do what is decided as best for the country. A photographer’s words during a portrait scene accurately captures the new Elizabeth we come to know: “Not moving. Not breathing. Our very own goddess.” Her expectations expel any risk of faults and she is officially presented as a smiling and composed reminder that the British Parliament is sound. This imprisonment in throne emblematically causes her body to lash out, resulting in doctor treatment for a facial muscle spasm from smiling too much during public appearances. Like one of the well-tempered horses Elizabeth breeds for racing, she herself is a pedigree of the English Crown, raised and poised to consistently perform, not as a human, but as a decorative emblem serving the public.
“The Crown” takes Elizabeth’s life to a deeply personal level without forcing melodramatic narrative. Despite it conveying a topic that would seem dry or stuffy, the series manages to not only churn out one compelling episode after the next, but also bring a relevancy that resonates with many of our societal issues today. The series investigates separation between church and state, morals versus obeying authority and highlights an unexpected example of a feminist icon. Watching liberation leak through the cemented bounds of ancestral tradition is empowering. Embedded within the exquisitely lush context of “The Crown,” experiencing this series is all the more enthralling.