Season 4 of The Crown is finally upon us. Releasing worldwide on Netflix on November 15th, it will feature Olivia Colman in her second and final season as Queen Elizabeth II. But it’s the arrival of two other women – rivals – that is poised to usher The Crown’s Great Britain into a new era of drama: Gillian Anderson as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and Emma Corin as Princess Diana. If it means more variations of that regal, rousing, life-affirming Hans Zimmer-composed title theme fading in to foreshadow the end of each episode, I’m prepared.
In the meantime, here’s my own version of a recap. Here are 8 of my favourite scenes from the first 3 seasons of The Crown:
A crying shame
Whether it’s the younger Queen with Winston Churchill, or the older one with Harold Wilson, the “weekly chats” between Elizabeth and her Prime Ministers are disarming in their duality. Under the guise of an elected leader keeping the monarchy updated on the nation’s affairs, the meetings are in fact thinly veiled therapy sessions for a Queen who is at heart still a little girl looking for a guiding light and father figure. Both Claire Foy and Olivia Colman are terrific in their depiction of vulnerability undercut by the meetings’ hierarchical formality.
In Season 3 Episode 3, the best of the lot emerges, featuring Colman’s Queen confiding in Wilson about her “defect.” She admits that she delayed her visit to Aberfan, the site of a horrific mining disaster, because she feels incapable of sadness. She speaks of her long-time inability to weep, as if it were a rare disease. Wilson responds with a moving analogy about how leaders (like himself) put up fronts for their people, and as a result risk losing themselves along the way. The episode closes with arguably the most powerful single moment of The Crown: She switches on a recording of the carols sung at the funeral, and literally wills herself to cry. The camera lingers on Colman’s stoic face until a tear rolls down her cheek. The discerning Crown fan might note the circularity of this moment – her father, King George VI, choked up while listening to carolers in the very first episode of the series. The irony was crippling: He wept not only because he was dying but also for his unsuspecting daughter, who would soon be entrusted with a job whose primary requirement is emotional inertia.
To the moon and back
An episode that opens with Prince Philip longingly looking at the lunar landing on his television set ends with a faithless man requesting a room full of existential priests to help restore – and reinvent – his faith. In one of the most meaningful episodes of television in 2019, we see an otherwise-frigid Philip filled with regret for having to sacrifice his dreams of flying – and his alpha male identity – at the altar of his Queen’s service. In the process, he pits the pragmatism of science (his admiration for Neil Armstrong and the crew) against the romanticism of religion (his disdain for the “concentration camp for spiritual deflectors”). He mocks the priests’ group therapy sessions, urging them to be men of action instead of confessional sissies.
But in the final scene, a winded Philip returns to deliver a man-breaking monologue about his grudging respect for the priests. It takes him great courage to be “weak” in front of them, and to realize that weakness is in fact the hallmark of masculine strength. Tobias Menzies performs the scene with such fidgety poise that he single-handedly humanizes the most rakish and narrow-minded character of the family. He reveals the prince in Philip who has long dreamt of turning back into an agile frog.
Mummy, I have a voice
Season 3 Episode 6 – where Charles spends a semester in Wales in the run-up to his investiture – is technically a superhero origin story. Charles has art in his blood, yet like others in the family of doomed privilege, he is forced to suppress his passion and do his duty. That duty involves learning Welsh from a local nationalist professor who resents the Royal Family. In a King’s-Speech-ish ode, however, Charles earns the professor’s respect by altering his speech and drawing analogies between the shackled Welsh identity and his own predicament as a Queen’s son: “Nobody likes to be ignored, to not be seen or heard.” It’s a wonderful, rousing moment – the first instance of vocal resistance within a family whose legacy revolves around silence. In an ideal world, this is where an episode would end. Charles, the artist, revealing his voice: defiant, brave, young. But the enduring legacy of The Crown lies in how it repeatedly nips every blooming genre story in the bud.
Moments later, reality hits. Charles returns to an empty palace. When he confronts his mother, Elizabeth is in front of her bedroom mirror – as if she were contemplating removing the mask of the Queen before going to bed. But she keeps it on, and shuts Charles down with a rant whose every word becomes a dagger to his heart. This is a scene that isn’t supposed to exist. But then again it ties in with the fact that Charles has a soul that isn’t supposed to exist.
Art and the artist
An old man way past his prime refuses to quit. He is too proud, too lost without the job. His senility is apparent to those who watch him, but in his own eyes, he is immortal. And necessary. When an artist is hired to paint a portrait of the old man, he expects the stars. He probably hasn’t looked into a mirror for years, but has a good idea of the power – the patriotism and honour – that should emanate from the painting. But he is forced to confront his mortality once the painting is unveiled: he looks frail, fragile, frumpy…and old. It’s a startling moment for the most ordinary of people. But this is Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
John Lithgow is spellbinding as Churchill, specifically in the scene where he expresses rage and betrayal to modernist painter Graham Sutherland, who he considers his friend by now. When Sutherland defends the truth of his work and blames Churchill’s denial – “age is cruel” – the old man’s face falls as if he has seen the devil himself. It’s an expression of such brutal, belated clarity that one can’t help but applaud his simultaneous straddling of humility and hubris. Minutes later, we see an ailing Churchill stepping down as Prime Minister. All it took was a paintbrush and a pained union: the epiphany of art meets the art of epiphany.
The enduring allure of The Crown lies in the tragedy that everyone is denied the privilege of existing where they truly belong. King George VI, the more diminutive of the two brothers, had to occupy the throne that his brother Edward abdicated. Edward did it for love, yet he knows deep inside – as is evident from Elizabeth’s coronation episode – that he would have been a perfect King. Margaret is the one more suited to be a Queen – charismatic, charming, mercurial – and yet she’s the “wayward sister”. Elizabeth was meant for an ordinary, stable life with a lively husband, but she is now supposed to be a Queen without a personality. As a result, the scenes between Margaret and Elizabeth bristle with tension and resentment.
The final episode of Season 1 is packed with family members who feel betrayed by the Queen, not least of all Margaret, whose relationship with Peter Townsend is “denied” by Elizabeth in a scene of heartbreaking cruelty. Vanessa Kirby is so enchanting as Margaret – as the broken sister to an unbreakable Elizabeth – that one can actually hear her come apart. Her voice quivers with hurt and anger but also panic: panic that the only person who could calm her flailing ways is gone. Despite those hypnotic blue eyes and blood-red lipstick, she wears the pale face of a patient who has just been denied her painkillers. “Without him, I’m lost” – words that, for a fleeting second, seem to touch the Elizabeth buried inside the Queen.
For obvious reasons, the Season 2 episode, Marionettes, resonates the most with art critics. In it, Lord Altrincham, a writer with a small newspaper, pens a scathing article about the Queen’s tone-deaf and “bland” speech at a car factory. The column makes headlines, sending the government as well as the monarchy into a tizzy. Lord Altrincham (like any modern Indian journalist) expects the crown to swoop in and clamp down on his career. But two scenes here in particular stand out for not just the filmmaking but also their elegant endorsement of the fourth estate. In the first, Altrincham is ominously invited to the palace to meet the Queen’s aide about his “ideas”. He’s ushered into a small office, only to be shocked by Elizabeth herself greeting him. Their little sitdown is a masterclass in the artist-v/s-critic handbook. She is terse and sarcastic, but also just about embattled enough to hear him out. He is respectful and reasonable – a critic who wants her to prosper and update the stubborn traditionalism of her institution. He reads out his ideas, and Claire Foy’s face is an ocean of conflict: a revered figure unfamiliar with the concept of accepting (constructive) criticism.
This scene ties into a resounding climax: we see the Queen apply one of his suggestions by broadcasting her Christmas message on television for the first time. Her speech is exquisitely written and performed, with an actress somehow exuding the awkwardness of her character having to act for live cameras. She is uncomfortable but earnest, realizing the importance of evolving with the times – a change as applicable to old-school British sovereigns as to the last walls of print journalism resisting the digital wave.
Father and son
In what is widely regarded as the most evocative episode of The Crown so far, Prince Philip sends a tender Charles to the rigorous Scottish boarding school that had toughened him up in his own childhood. Charles is, naturally, woefully out of place, and his situation is inter-cut with flashbacks of Philip’s time there during the death of his favourite sister. One of the final scenes of the cross-generational narrative features Philip chiding a trembling Charles in the cockpit of his own airplane. He wants him to “man up” and stop being weak, after Charles was found lost and injured during a school hike. It’s a turbulent ride through a storm, and while the sensory tone of the scene may seem dramatic, it is perfectly conceived. Everything about it is designed: Philip lost his sister (who feared flying) in a plane crash, which explains his own passion for flying and conquering those same skies, and his ruthless scolding of Charles in a plane is his way of showing the boy how the school knocked the grief out of him and made him a fearless adult. At one level, it’s yet another parent imploring his child to be like him, irrespective of individualism. At another, it’s a parent exorcising his own ghosts by trying to enforce them on his child. It’s a striking symbol of dysfunctionality in a family that is both resentful and proud of furthering their legacy.
It may seem obvious: a series called “The Crown” has to have a definitive coronation sequence. But scratch beyond the surface, and the one here conveys the notion of birth and death at once. One of the trademarks of The Crown is its interlinking of parallel narratives to elevate the theme of an episode. The buildup to Elizabeth’s (belated) coronation – a marital spat, Philip’s resistance to the ceremonial act of kneeling before her – is crosscut with her uncle Edward, the abdicated King, watching the telecast from his Paris home. Edward plays host to a posh gathering, and his commentary to them about the customs of the ceremony doubles up as a broad voiceover for Elizabeth: like the lyrical observations of an author in a book between the characters’ dialogue.
On one hand, Philip’s kneeling before his wife conveys the exact moment he realizes their marriage is no more a symbol of love. On the other, Edward, who had quit the throne years ago to marry a divorced woman, misses the theatricality of power. Even as he looks at his wife with affection, his blue blood triggers pangs of silent regret. The episode closes with a haunting image: A kilt-wearing Edward blowing bagpipes on his lawns at dawn, his eyes stinging with tears. It’s a funeral – of what could have been. Long live the Queen, the King is dead.