Bow from your neck." Harold Wilson, the new British prime minister, is thus instructed before his first private audience with Queen Elizabeth II. The palace briefing includes pointers for conduct—the PM should first address the queen as “Your Majesty", and then “Ma’am"—as well as pronunciation: “‘Ma’am,’ rhymes with ‘ham’." Decorum holds the monarchy in place, and this excessive, extraordinary formality is finely probed in Peter Morgan’s lavish Netflix series, The Crown. A majestic third season arrives on 17 November, and this more introspective chapter is the best the show has been.
It is also educative. Depending on where in England you are from, “Ma’am" is also occasionally pronounced “Mum", leading some American viewers of Netflix hit Bodyguard to believe the home secretary being guarded on that show was, in fact, the bodyguard’s own mother—therefore scenes of their lovemaking caused unintended awkwardness. There is no such fear with The Crown, a show that not only speaks the Queen’s English, but tries to tell us why Elizabeth II herself speaks as she does. Why she is who she is.
The first two seasons of the show were impressive enough—with Claire Foy as a sparky young Elizabeth alongside Vanessa Kirby’s increasingly reckless Princess Margaret—but things have evolved. Season 3 begins in 1964, with the queen looking at her profile on the nation’s postage stamps, as we transition from Foy to the regal Olivia Colman, stepping in for a more mature queen, aware that “age is rarely kind to anyone". Colman, a delightful performer who won the Best Actress Oscar this year for The Favourite, plays Elizabeth as a queen afraid—even unable—to emote. There is a mournful Basset Hound sadness to this monarch, forever swallowing her words and stiffening her lip from impulses.
It is as if the younger Elizabeth, played by the more optimistic Foy, has had her hopes dashed for too long, resulting in this pall, this year-round spiritlessness. She now feels too bleak, and after a profoundly affecting third episode—featuring a mammoth performance from Colman—we realize this cold queen is all too aware of her own temperature.
In the other corner stands her younger sister Margaret, played by Helena Bonham Carter with undimmable verve. Like one who fell into a cauldron of charm as an infant, this Margaret wields limericks as sharply as she does her cigarette holder. Bonham Carter predictably revels in revelry, while also bringing heart to Margaret’s outlandishness, and wistfulness to her every oversized move: She is all her elder sister could never be, but she would trade it in a heartbeat. Her adoring fans are called The Margaretologists, but one suspects Margaret herself may not be one of them.
“We can’t be everything to everyone," says Wilson, “and still be true to ourselves." It is a line that could be echoed by each gilded character of this series.
Still, flashiest face forward. Morgan’s series—like his film The Queen and his play The Audience—has always been about looking beyond a public persona, and this season not only delves into the complicated relationship between the two sisters, but also looks at the need for a royal family in a conflictingly modern England. Harold Wilson, the Labour PM, starts off opposed to the monarchy but soon realizes how much he needs the royals—despite their perceived irrelevance, they are the ones keeping the country afloat.
At Prince Philip’s behest, a BBC documentary is filmed inside Buckingham Palace, and one scene involves the royals watching television. Margaret points out the banality of audiences watching them watch television—on television—yet Morgan ensures that, like the BBC audience of the day, we can’t look away. There is nothing normal about this lot.
The production design has always been breathtaking. The Crown may be the finest-looking series on television, luxuriating in the gleam of vintage automobiles and painted ceilings—I doubt the actual palaces look as good. The cinematography is traditional, often in a CinemaScope fashion: with compositions often burying characters amid seas of details and flourishes.
Philip is particularly excellent. Played now by a bitter Tobias Menzies with a painfully clenched jaw and a scar that could hold up a monocle, Philip has become a deeply compelling character. “Eyes left," he barks at an onlooking Lord, commanding privacy so he can kiss the queen, with whom he now shares a more comfortable relationship—a diplomatic calm, for the most part—and his insecurities have matured. He still longs for the spotlight, but in less obvious ways. The same can be said of his exasperated and increasingly sidelined uncle, Lord Mountbatten, now played by the imperious Charles Dance—allowing us to see these Game Of Thrones actors trade cutting lines. (Rupert Vansittart, another GoT alumnus, also shows up.)
The new season goes from 1964-77, encompassing events like the Aberfan disaster of 1966 and the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969. The next generation is upon us, with Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor) and Camilla Shand (Emerald Fennell), but the true personality belongs to Erin Doherty’s Princess Anne, who listens to David Bowie even as the world inside Buckingham Palace belongs to a different time. “Where would Great Britain be without its greatest Briton?" asks Elizabeth of her beloved Winston Churchill (the irreplaceable John Lithgow, one of two unchanged actors)—an absurd description that illustrates how even monarchs need idealized figureheads upon whom to hang their hopes.
In terms of dialogue, the lines about policy and conflict spell things out too much, but the actors carry it off, and this allows Morgan to achieve a brisk, even pace —more than the seasons earlier. These episodes of The Crown play out like satisfyingly self-contained chapters, independent in tone and each holding their own context.
Jason Watkins is terrific as Wilson, a PM who starts out defiant but ends up needing the crown more than it needs him. Margaret and Philip shine with the best repartee, while Queen Colman makes the most of what she leaves unsaid. She is superb with dialogue as well, saying “£1,000 million" as if the word “billion" would be too uncouth, too American.
The Crown is a confession. It is a toast to tradition, but also a rap of the knuckles against an empty sarcophagus, exposing the hollowness of it all. As Britain totters today, this series about past glories feels like a dirge. Bring out the guillotines. A bow from the neck is, after all, an act of decapitation.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.