The strange, countercultural message of Netflix’s ‘The Crown’

Last week my wife and I watched Netflix’s new show, The Crown. I found the story riveting, its characters compelling, and the angle surprisingly countercultural.

The first season (out of projected six) deals with the ascension of Elizabeth II to the English throne in 1952 and the first decade of her reign. Her father, George VI, died of lung cancer. But Peter Morgan’s script suggests it was the weight of a job he never wanted that really killed him.

That’s the fundamental tension in the story, individual interests versus transcendent duty. What’s surprising is that duty wins.

Often period movies take us to remote times and places but present us with something pleasingly familiar: ourselves. Writers unnaturally transpose the modern obsession with, say, self-pursuit and self-actualization into a previous age. We watch characters in unfashionable clothes struggle to live fashionable ideas. Not here.

George VI came to power after his brother, Edward VIII, abdicated to marry an American divorcee. When the union was opposed on political and religious grounds, Edward chose love over the crown. It’s an example of our modern virtue of individual fulfillment trumping societal obligation. But the abdication appears shameful, not heroic. Sacrificing all for love is portrayed as selfish and small.

Morgan accomplishes this by portraying Edward as selfish and small. In fact, worse, he’s cruel. Edward puts on a good show when he needs to, but he’s either gaming people or sniping at them behind their backs. He’s not only petty, he’s vicious.

Edward’s troubled romance serves as the backdrop for his niece’s entanglement. Elizabeth’s sister, Princess Margaret, secretly loves her father’s aide, Peter Townsend. But the lovers have unclean hands. Peter is married, soon to be divorced.

Unaware of the adultery, Elizabeth initially supports her sister. But (spoiler alert) she eventually sees the relationship in the light of her uncle’s abdication. It’s a selfish pursuit that will ultimately undermine the crown.

Elizabeth’s opposition to her sister’s marriage is presented as a tragedy, not a triumph. But the strange turn is that Margaret, like Edward, is not considered the hero or even the victim. The Crown resists any effort to turn the pair into martyrs. Instead they both come off as grasping and narcissistic. For them there is no higher duty than their desires. Elizabeth has the crown, they have their glands, and modern virtues come out the loser.

If we tell stories to reinforce our values, then the first season of The Crown represents an intriguing subversion.

Image: Netflix screen capture.

11 comments:

  1. Loved the series . . . except that John Lithgow was so astonishingly miscast. It’s not that his performance was bad, but — for heaven’s sake — he’s 6’4″ and Churchill was 5’6″!

  2. I found myself thinking the same thing as I’ve watched. Duty above all else, and how that is something worth admiring and emulating. Well done 🙂

  3. A few years ago I read a biography, I think it was Thomas Cranmer, forgive me if I am confusing British clerics. When the Crown changed hands, and his life’s work stood in danger, he sent his staff away to the safety of the continent. He, on the other hand, stayed at his post and faced execution manfully. When I read that, I thought, “Who today would do that, putting duty over personal safety?”

  4. Thanks for this! I was not sure whether or not I wanted to watch. I have found Foyle’s War to be likewise countercultural, subtly so.

  5. Absolutely spot on my friend. You put into words something I was feeling as I watched this stellar program. Thank you so much for your insights

  6. I watched the entire series in 2 nights because i needed to see how the choices would eventually be displayed….
    Was Elizabeth to be portrayed as the evil power driven decision maker? Or would duty to the crown be portrayed as the higher choice?
    Duty….it actually made me consider my faith and the journey I have been on as I seek to go beyond what “feels good” to my temporary emotional self to a deeper place of truth and peace.
    I am not orthodox…I was raised protestant/charismatic….attended a Jewish synagogue for a long time….and this past year has been spent reading these blogs and many orthdox books to gain an understanding of something that runs deeper than what I thought was possible.
    But then one faces duty.
    So how does one really know?
    I want to know what it means to know God beyond duty…
    But it seems that duty has a dual role and one that might not be something I should ignore….
    That series really made me think.

  7. We have watched three episodes so far. This series appears to be an excellent history lesson, well worth the time taken to watch it, and a much better use of time and attention than most of the other stuff on Netflix.
    Churchill’s role is a lesson in and of itself. However, I do not like the portrayal of Prince Philip Mountbatten, although it may be accurate. I don’t know.
    Elizabeth’s father, George VI, was crowned in Westminster Abbey, May 12, 1937. At that time the Crown, and the United Kingdom generally, were more closely allied with the Church of England. An elaborate ceremony in Westminster preceded the Archbishop’s anointing of George VI, as it did also, later, for Elizabeth’s coronation.
    Several years ago I acquired an original edition of the Times of London, printed May 20, 1937; it was a Times’ special edition to commemorate the Coronation of George VI. Reading that old paper was a fascinating experience. It described the spiritual significance of the Coronation ceremony and all its accompanying pageantry, as well as some history of the British monarchy.
    My fascination about the event grew; I undertook some study and research. One thing lead to another and I began to write a novel about that period of time. The story begins on May 12, 1937, in London, on Coronation Day, and follows the travels of a young American businessman. He encounters several European characters who represent various historical developments during the darkening days of pre-WWII.
    Because young Philip was representing an American tobacco company, the novel is named “Smoke,” although smoke, generally speaking, is an ever-shifting, ambiguous symbol in the annals of human history. In Revelation, for instance, smoke is shown rising to heaven in the prayers of God’s people; on the other hand, smoke is later seen rising from the bottomless pit, which is no good thing.
    Smoke, as incense, also rises at Westminster and other high-church cathedrals as a symbol of God’s presence in the anointing of human leaders.
    Edward’s abdication, in my opinion, falls into the category of God’s sovereignty. George VI, humbly stuttering man that he was, was better suited to serve as monarch of the British Empire during the perilous times of WWII.
    One could perhaps say he was, as a support to Churchill and many others, God’s man of faith and power for the hour.
    Subsequently, his daughter Elizabeth, whom this Netflix series depicts, has reigned now longer than any king or queen in British history, In this modern, democratizing (or socializing) age, a century in which many monarchies have lapsed into irrelevance or have fallen by the wayside, Elizabeth’s reign is no small feat.
    The devotion of the Brits for their sovereign is a curious anomaly in this fiercely anti-privelege age. And yes, it is absolutely countercultural, from our jaded social-media-obsessed American sensibility. Perhaps democratic republicanism, in all its present manifestations, is not, after all, the evolved apex of responsible, benevolent human government.
    Methinks men and women of this earth are waiting for a King, although not necessarily an earthly one.

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