This weekend I did nothing, and it was glorious. It felt almost… royal. And so in keeping thematically with my holiday of leisure, I binge watched all ten episodes of Netflix’s newest and most expensive original series of all time, The Crown.
I am American and, as such, the concept of a Royal family, from the perspective of my gut, is absurd. To say that a human communes with the divine, to grant that his or her molecules are more rarefied than anyone else’s—or rarefied at all—requires a big ask in the department of suspension of disbelief. So much so, of course, that (in large part) this concept (and a rejection of it) was the basis upon which the American nationality was created.
Indeed, pulling off the hoax of royalty—at least the British variety—requires no small amount of smoke and mirrors (lavish ceremonies, big jewels, crowns, a palace, tiny, funny hand movements that look more like a parody of a wave than a real wave, curtsies, horses, etc.). But, more essentially, as displayed in the good and aesthetically gorgeous Netflix series—in which Winston Churchill is played by (American) John Lithgow, King George VI is brought to endearing life by Jared Harris (of Mad Men fame) And Elizabeth herself, by the fresh-faced (and in-real-life new mother) Claire Foy—creating the illusion of Royalty requires first and foremost that the royals do almost nothing at all.
As a result, the drama of their daily lives is remarkably boring. For it to be otherwise—if they were to be left to their own devices rather than to follow strict tradition and royal decorum—would be for them to reveal that they laugh and tell jokes and make mistakes, that they sometimes are not nice and have short tempers and get tired, that they are, indeed and in fact, normal people. But no such tomfoolery is permitted, and therefor the drama of their lives is confined to what is for most people, not exciting.
Here, then, are the top 11 “dramatic” plot points that fill up large swaths of the hour-long ten episodes of The Crown’s first season. Many times these things are so inherently non-event events that, as I watched, had I not not been so distracted by how good-looking and well-acted everything was, I would have been constantly laughing out loud. The biggest secret to being royal is not that they are actually special, it’s just that they must as a rule hardly do anything. And, therefore, their shocking normalness can remain forever undetected.
Selecting a secretary
For most, the selection of a private secretary—someone who helps organize days—would be a pragmatic non-event. And it would come down to, first and foremost, having an easy rapport with whomever that person is. Not so for the royal family. One of the lengthiest plot points in The Crown revolves around the succession of Queen Elizabeth II’s first private secretary, Michael Adeane. The Queen wanted the second-in-line Martin Charteris to be that person because, naturally, they got along. But in no uncertain terms, the Queen was told that to assert individuality in choosing Charteris over the first-in-line would be to break down the very foundation of the royal structure. The Queen fought it at first, and then—as it happens depressingly over and over—she gave into the Crown. Adeane it was.
King George VI, Elizabeth’s father, smoked like a chimney and died of lung cancer. Granted, this was a time in which the medical community knew less about the effects of tobacco and smoking. And yet, George VI had a penchant for a constant cigarette in his mouth, had already lost one lung, and had been hacking up blood for months, so you might imagine his death would not be a shock. Instead, the family was blindsided. And rather than accepting his death as a result of self-induced illness, the Queen Mother (Elizabeth’s mom) spent the rest of her life blaming the King’s brother, Edward (who had abdicated the throne to his younger brother), for his death: it was the burden of the crown, she claimed, that killed him. (Which is of course a quaint if not false belief suited to a royal.)
King George VI’s brother Edward abdicated the throne so that he could break the royal rules and a marry an American divorcée. But because he was born a royal he had no useful skills and therefore no way to make a living (nor, probably, an inclination to do so) after he was kicked out of town. One episode shows Edward begging Winston Churchill to convince his family to reinstate his 10 thousands Pound allowance, so that he may “live” (by which he meant keep up his lavish French estate). Money and disinheritance can be real subjects of drama, but when it comes in the form of a man around the age of 60 begging for an allowance from his family, it is hilarious (or sad, depending) instead.
Per the royal command that the Queen be more concerned with upholding the divine than ruling the country (because that is not her job), Elizabeth had very minimal formal education. At one point, she shamefully asks her private secretary to set up a tutor for her so that she can be at a less-embarrassing disadvantage when she talks to heads of state at social functions. Again, this request takes up like most of an episode, though it is normally something that high school students, rather than grown Queens, concern themselves with.
Placebo royal duty
Margaret, the younger sister of Queen Elizabeth II, literally has nothing to do. Therefore, she is bored. At one point, throwing her a royal bone, the family lets her make some speeches at official functions. But then—Margaret does the unthinkable and, during said speeches, shows the world she has a personality. She makes jokes! And is quickly reprimanded for it. From now on, they tell her, she is to be less entertaining. Her jokes do not channel god. They channel a normal person.
Requests to fly
Guess who else is bored: Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, Queen Elizabeth’s husband. His only duty is to support his wife. He has no power. But by dint of who his wife is, he’s been made head of the British Royal Air Force, even though he can’t fly. To keep himself from passing out because he is bored stiff, and to save face in front of the military branch he leads, he requests he be permitted to learn to fly. Only, he’s told he can’t! Too much of an assertion of self, they tell him. Finally, he’s allowed to, but man alive is there a lot of flight-lesson related drama that unfolds in the meantime.
Elizabeth is a woman. Normally, women take their husbands name, as you know. Not so this time! Elizabeth is a divinely anointed Queen, so she and her children keep her name. Which humiliates Philip. He kicks and screams and says he is the only man in England who is not allowed to pass his name on to his own children. Horrific. Still, the royal armament does not relent. The Crown is stronger than the hurt feelings of this man, because the Crown is God.
When one has very little to do, it is very important how one looks. Obviously, there is much made of the dresses into which Queen Elizabeth II is fitted—plus the jewels and brooches and crowns and shoes and hats that accompany them. When she prepares to make a 157-stop tour of Australia, she is given a fashion show for all of the outfits that she will be wearing as she travels—hundreds and hundreds of them. To be fair, The Queen asks if they might not economize. But once again, the system wins. And the dresses become another awful burden she must bear.
One of the actually kind of dramatic things that happens is that Elizabeth and Philip get into some fights when Queen Elizabeth’s childhood “boyfriend,” a horse breeder and trainer, resurfaces. Relationship stress is actually dramatic, but it’s the setting for that drama—horses, horse races, breeding—that is less dramatic and funnier. Horses, of course, are a huge part of royal life, because they are really expensive and a source of distraction in the quiet periods of the day when there is little else to do than bet on races and ride horses through the country. Horses! Such drama.
This was, as already noted, a very different time—one in which divorce was not permitted. But these days, divorce is very much permitted and as common as marriage. So it is understandable—and yet still we must stand back and shake our heads—when a King had to abdicate his thrown (or face taking down the entire monarchy) in order to marry a divorced woman he happened to love. Margaret, too, cannot marry the man she loves because his wife had left him. If you’ve ever wanted a reason to feel lucky you are not royal, this is a good candidate.
Winston Churchill was very old and pretty out of it when he left office. But before he left, the House of Commons and the House of Lords raised money for the revered artist Graham Sutherland to paint his portrait. Churchill was not a royal, but he played an integral role in their lives, as Prime Minister. Over the course of an entire episode, we see Churchill sitting for the artist, lecturing him on the importance of the painting because of what it represents (the government, the country, political ideals). Of course, that is not what Churchill cares about in the end: he cares only about how bad he looks in it when Sutherland reveals the painting in a public ceremony. Despite his vanity, the conversations that unfold between the men—painter and subject—as they do their work are some of the most mesmerizing in the entire series. And that is because, in a rare moment, we see and learn that, more than a statue-like leader, Churchill is a living breathing feeling man, who has suffered insurmountable heartbreak. Ultimately, it is his vanity that provides the clearest contrast in behavior to every member of the royal family. Churchill so refuses to believe that he is just a normal man who has fallen susceptible to age and weakness, that, in the end, he has the painting destroyed.
Despite the regular non-drama of the series it is, remarkably, mesmerizing. And good news is, there will be a season 2. Hold your breath for more undeniable narrative that is sure to include some nice country walks, uniforms, and, maybe, a major social gaffe.