In an age of postmodern hyper-individualism, Churchill and Orwell’s advocacy of individual liberty isn’t what is most interesting about them.
Netflix’s popular, award-winning series The Crown depicts the early reign of Queen Elizabeth II, with the recently released second season concluding in the early 1960s. Claire Foy has played the role of Queen Elizabeth to perfection (her recently announced departure from the show could prove fatal). Foy portrays exquisitely the Queen’s great conflict: the struggle to keep separate the desires of her person from her duties as the Sovereign. We see deft evidence of this with Foy’s stolid gaze, restrained expressions, and measured breathing that show her to be constantly pulling in the reins to avoid opportunities for others to see Elizabeth Windsor instead of the Crown. As her grandmother, Queen Mary (Eileen Atkins), informs her, shortly after the premature death of Elizabeth’s father, King George VI (Jared Harris), when it is a matter of her ambitions or the needs of the Crown “the Crown must always win.” Or as the elderly Winston Churchill (Jon Lithgow) recommends to Elizabeth, “Let them look at you but let them see only the eternal.”
And this conflict runs not only through the soul of the Queen Elizabeth II, but through her restless husband, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (Matt Smith); her uncle, King Edward VIII who abdicated (Alex Jennings), her fame-seeking sister, Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby), and her seemingly unhappy mother, Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Hamilton). They succeed or fail in various ways to bridge this great divide. Churchill, a non-royal, also emerges determined to play his part as both Prime Minister and as a loyal guide to a very young Elizabeth II.
I think the show has achieved something counter-cultural—at a level that many viewers have sensed inchoately—in its dramatic presentation of the symbols of a monarchy, the personal struggles and failings and the publicly unnoticed triumphs of its characters. The Crown connects with the human soul’s need for love, power, sacrifice, and the good to be bound by a promise underwritten by duty. The scandalous thought the show introduces in almost every episode is the characters’ authenticity or decadence emerging from the choices made to accept or to dismiss responsibilities and obligations, many of which are thrust upon them. Moreover, those royal family members who shun, evade, or turn away from these obligations find themselves haunted, medicated, and seeking endless diversions. The ideology of autonomy and endless emancipation, one that has shaped the post 1968 imagination, stands under judgment.
One window into Queen Elizabeth’s character is the quarrels she has with her younger sister. During one, where Margaret complains of the burdens borne by their family, Elizabeth replies, “You love the fame, you love being a royal.” Margaret’s regret is that she can’t live with total abandonment in the celebrity style. Elizabeth is the one who doesn’t lap it up, but accepts what comes her way, and that is quite enough.
Then there’s the brilliant episode that flashes back to a young Elizabeth receiving a lesson on Walter Bagehot’s articulation of the English Constitution. The framework of government she learns has two parts: the efficient and the dignified. In that same episode, Queen Elizabeth feels inferior to the officials with whom she must regularly meet. She senses that her education is deficient, leaving her on the “wrong foot.” But her constitution is the dignified one, to hold everything together, mindful that the efficient constitution is frequently dysfunctional. The latter fact she discloses in various ways to Churchill, Anthony Eden, and Harold Macmillan. To a flailing Prime Minister Macmillan, she expresses her disappointment that all three Prime Ministers who served under her failed to last long in the job. She alone is the constant embodiment of the English Constitution. Her unwavering ways, however, frequently frustrate not only elected officials but also her husband.
Prince Philip’s education comes early, from his father-in-law King George VI. Aware that he is likely to die soon, thus placing the 26-year-old Elizabeth on the throne, he tells her husband of six years that “she is the job, she is the essence of your duty, loving her, protecting her.” But we also learn Philip’s story in season two, which provides perspective on his loutish and rebellious behavior.
Something of a rootless aristocrat, he grew up with an insane mother, and his father lived with his mistress in Paris. The person Philip loves the most is his older sister, who is married to a Nazi official. The couple dies in a plane crash, leading to a jaw-dropping Nazi funeral procession that a young Philip must walk in. Philip proves himself, ultimately, in a rugged and demanding boarding school in the Scottish Highlands called Gordonstoun, and later as a military officer. This is the hard-won identity that he must give up to marry Elizabeth. Struggling with the loss of his independent identity (and career as a naval officer), he makes a series of bad judgments that almost unravel everything. It is only at the end of season two that Elizabeth’s example, against his own force of will, calls him outside of himself and towards his own good.
The most stunning example of the shirking of duty is the Duke of Windsor, the former King Edward VIII, whose character moves through both seasons as one who wanted to go his own way, and who must bear those alienating consequences. He is famous for his 1936 abdication of the throne to marry the twice-divorced American, Wallis Simpson. There are, however, no clean breaks. In the first season, Edward returns to Buckingham Palace for the funeral of his mother, and he finds himself accepted by virtually no member of his family, save for the not-yet-coronated Elizabeth. She seeks his advice out of a desire to forgive him and to manage her own strains, which she senses he knows all too well.
One conversation between them is rather remarkable, even if it probably reflects the use of poetic license. Again, love and marriage are in the forefront. This time it concerns his niece Margaret, who wishes to marry a divorced older man—an aviator and war hero who served as an aide to George VI. Elizabeth, as head of the Church of England, must deny her sister this match, and it hurts her greatly to do it. Edward feels her pain for making this choice, but tells her to do it. He confides: “We are half people… human and crown engaged in a fearful civil war that never ends… I understand the agony you are in, and I am here to tell you it will never leave you. I will always be half king. My tragedy is that I have no kingdom. You have it, and you must protect it.”
Later, the burden of being human and wearing the Crown is made even more pressing when Elizabeth wants finally to forgive the Duke of Windsor for everything and grant him his earnest wish to resume public service. But she cannot. The reasons why are explored in the episode titled “Vergangenheit,” where Elizabeth learns from her father and Edward’s former private secretary, Tommy Lascelles (Pip Torrens) of the full extent of Edward’s long-rumored Nazi sympathies.
Indeed, she discovers that Edward sold out his own countrymen. He told Nazi officials that he thought the German bombing campaign—his royal family members remaining in London during the Blitz—would likely subdue the United Kingdom, so keep at it. He disclosed to Nazi officials that the British knew the German war plan to invade France, which was then changed. Paris fell a month later. He was offered his own castle in Portugal during the war by the Nazis and the opportunity to be reinstated King once the Germans invaded Britain. Elizabeth reveals to Edward that she knows all of this and more. She not only refuses his request to serve in public life, but kicks him out of the country. He can only return on her invitation.
In this moment, where she is pained at her inability to forgive Edward, having been recently personally tutored on forgiveness by the Reverend Billy Graham, whom she admires, Elizabeth also realizes that she is the ultimate trustee, one called to protect the dignified Constitution. Before evicting him from the realm, Elizabeth tells him that she can’t forgive him, and she asks him how he can live with himself. The last glimpse of Edward we are given is of him staring in the mirror at himself. Edward did it his way. He is a king with no country.
The example of Queen Elizabeth is the opposite. She prays on bended knee, delights in being “led” by Graham in a private service at Windsor Chapel, agonizes over the health of her people during the Great Smog of 1952, and refuses to make herself the issue on any number of occasions. She bears the indignities foisted on her with stoic integrity and grace. She has a kingdom, and she must protect it.