Power Corrupts, Even When There is None
A Look At Power and Family Dynamics on The Crown
(This is my 1000th post at my blog. It is dedicated to M, who knows why.)
Over the past four years, one of the best series on any service has been The Crown. Magnificently written, directed and performed, it is one of the greatest historical dramas in history. And one of the most incredible things about the series is how the dynamics between the family have changed as the generations have passed. In this essay, I’d like to take a look at how the series had portrayed the Windsor family, what it says about the monarchy, and how it has affected the family as a whole.
Note: I am aware that The Crown is a historical drama and not a documentary. All of my observations will be limited to how Peter Morgan and his writers have illustrated Elizabeth and her family, not how the really British royal family is.
Perhaps the easiest way to explain how my feelings about the series have changed is to illustrate my perception of the Duke of Windsor, the former Edward VIII. In the first season, the Duke comes across as a truly hideous person, treating Elizabeth and his family with contempt, not showing sympathy to anyone except how it affects him, and casting a shadow on every action Elizabeth and her descendants must take. Now, having observed just how Elizabeth and Philip treat their children and how the monarchy has affected her, I find myself feeling sympathy for the man.
To be clear, his abdication was by far the best course of action not for Great Britain but probably for Western Civilization as a whole. The series itself makes this very clear in an episode in the second season. But the scar it has left on the family has done damage far greater that could have been done to the institution as a whole.
Never is this clearer than with Elizabeth and Philip’s relationship with Charles (Josh O’Connor). In the third season, we feel a fair amount of sympathy towards Charles. In ‘Tywysog Cymru’ Charles is ordered to take a year off from school to learn Welsh in order to perform a function to keep Wales in the monarchy, something done without his consent. He does so, forms a friendship with his tutor and gives a rousing independent speech. At the episode, he is immediately berated by his mother for taking an approach that is to far away from the monarchy’s position. When he tries to pursue a relation with the woman he loves, Camilla Parker-Bowles (Emerald Fennell) he is negotiated out of it by his parents and more specifically his great uncle Lord Mountbatten. After Mountbatten is assassinated in the fourth season premiere, Philip comes to talk him about what happened, and gives the opposite of comfort. It is clear that not only to the parents not have much use for the heir to the throne, they may never have loved him.
Indeed, it is stunning just how horrible a mother Elizabeth (Olivia Colman in this incarnation) seems to be. In the shocking ‘Favorites’, Elizabeth visits her children to try and figure out which one of her children she loves the most. It is clear from her visit to each child that they are all horrible scarred when it comes to romance and happiness, and that being part of the monarchy has done damage to them. Yet at the end of the episode, Elizabeth views this not as her flaw as a parent, but as to how much damage this will do the crown. And Philip is no help, telling her: “You have better live a long time.” It is horrifying to hear any mother, much less the Queen of England seem so utterly blasé when it comes to saying she feels nothing towards her children. It’s even more stunning when you consider she is the face of her country.
And this is magnified to an even greater degree when you consider just how much damage this has done to those around her. By far the most sympathetic, and clearly the most tragic character on the series in Princess Margaret. In the first season as played by Vanessa Kirby, we saw her agonize as she was first delayed, then denied, the chance to marry Peter Townshend the man she loved because of how it might hurt the throne. In the second season, after struggling for years, she found a romance with Lord Snowden and would marry him. As we saw very clear in Season 3, it was a disaster. Helena Bonham Carter was extraordinary as we saw her marriage dissolve and her chance for any degree of happiness with another man result in what might well have been a suicide attempt.
And if that wasn’t sad enough, in Season 4 came ‘The Hereditary Principle’. Margaret overcame a bout with lung cancer and tries to take on more royal duties, only to find the law of succession has overtaken her. She falls into a stupor of drinking and debauchery and finally seeks the help of a psychiatrist. She then learns there is a history of insanity in her family and that two of her cousins have been institutionalized and hidden away from the public, denied their very existence. When she confronts her aunt about this, she learns that it was done after the abdication of Edward VIII in order to make sure that ‘the hereditary principle’ — a frankly archaic system that should have been excised centuries earlier — did not weaken to the point of collapse.
This is horrendous enough. What makes all the more terrible is that even after everything the monarchy has done to hurt her happiness, her health, and even her position, when a friend even suggests she leave it behind, she reacts in pure anger. Being an advisor to the Queen of England is more important to her. Even though it has cost her everything, she must cling to it. The final images of Margaret drinking and dancing in despair are among the most powerful — and haunting — images The Crown has ever produced.
And all of this particularly despairing when you consider that not only at this point in history, but indeed during the entire post-war England era, the royal family has no real power anymore. The series made this perfectly clear in ’48:1’, an episode which featured a confrontation between the Queen and Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson) over sanction on South Africa. Thatcher has completely disdained the Queen throughout Season 4 and in this case, her actions toward the Commonwealth over apartheid bring things to a boiling point. The Queen forces her press secretary to put a leak in the press about her dissatisfaction with Thatcher’s actions, leading towards a constitutional crisis. The scene near the episode where Thatcher basically scolds the Queen about her attitude is one of the most wrenching in the entire series because its clear Thatcher holds her — and everything she stands for — with utter contempt.
Now I am not Thatcher’s biggest fan by a long shot — if anything, the series goes out of her way to show her as being utterly repugnant and closer to being dictatorial than I imagined — but the thing is, she had a point. Margaret Thatcher was given power by the people. The Queen’s power is, for all the props that she and her family have been given, that of a figurehead. And this was made perfectly clear by the actions of that episode. Despite the fact that Elizabeth was right and Thatcher was wrong, Elizabeth backed down and forced the man who’d advised her that her action was wrong to resign. This institution that everyone in this family is so focused on protecting — to the point where they are willing to utterly ruin the lives of the people even tangentially connected with it — is as flimsy and ephemeral as the confetti that is thrown upon them parades. They’re just there to wave and stand around. If Parliament were to collapse — and in the season finale there was a very real possibility that could happen — there’d be utter destruction. If one day, the monarchy were to just not be there — and I think, in my lifetime, that may well be the case — I think most people would just shrug.
Oh don’t get me wrong. The Crown is a towering achievement and I look forward to its next season whenever it comes. But I think that the world — and Great Britain in particular — has to consider is that the Windsor family is there just to make good television then it is to serve any functional purpose. And as The Crown has made clear, behind all of that good television is pain and anguish that this family will truly never recover from — something that the final minutes of Season 4 made abundantly clear. Philip seemed to think that was all right as long as the face of the monarchy remained stable. We know from watching the series that it just isn’t worth it — personally or for the good of the monarchy. Even if all Peter Morgan writes about is purely speculative, we know enough about their history to know that there is unadulterated tragedy behind it. And as we know going forward — with our new cast — there is only worse to come.