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.