Historical television dramas usually aren’t my cup of tea. They’re too preachy. Political correctness is irksome enough now; the last thing we need is to fight today’s culture wars yesterday. I realize how infuriating it must be for liberals that they are unable to bring deceased reactionaries back to life for their much-deserved tongue-lashings. Historical dramas provide some catharsis for that pain. Like most forms of liberal therapy, though, it’s not something I want to watch.
I make an exception, though, for The Crown, the new Netflix drama documenting the life of Queen Elizabeth II. It’s superb. In fact, now that I’ve watched the first season, I need to confess my dark secret. I have monarch envy.
It wasn’t always so. I was never particularly drawn to the celebrity cult of the Royals. As a teenager I lived in Edinburgh for a time, and was mildly scornful of the gusto with which the Brits sang “God Save the Queen.” “How silly and provincial!” I thought. It never occurred to me to watch Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding. Who cares about such things?
I’ve changed my mind. I want royalty. It’s rather a piteous plight for an American.
Clearly, monarchy is no longer a major political force in the developed world. Britain still has a royal family, but today they are primarily figureheads, while Buckingham Palace has turned into a tourist attraction. We Americans, with our pragmatic Everyman ideals, tend to see the royal family as (at best) a walking museum piece, or (at worst) a cultural affectation. It seems mildly ridiculous to us that there are still people in Britain who have titles but not last names.
Perhaps we are missing something. The Crown gives us the hard sell on that possibility.
Presumably the creators recognized that they would need to sell it a little, because a show about the superfluousness of modern monarchs wouldn’t stay interesting for very long. That effort pushes The Crown into something rare and delightful: a contemporary drama that embraces a robust traditionalism.
The monarchy may not be politically powerful anymore, but the crown is still heavy, both literally and figuratively. Nearly every historical drama makes something of the struggle between tradition and changing times, but most cheer for progress, with the result being a triumphalist vindication of modern-day mores. The Crown can’t easily follow that path because of, well, the crown. If society’s primary goal is to throw off the benighted ways of our forbears, kings and queens will be the first thing to go. In discerning a meaningful role for the monarch, one must also find a meaningful role for tradition, and this is a major theme of the show. The young Queen Elizabeth must negotiate a blitz of conflicting demands that are placed on her, most of which are rooted in one way or another in the soil of tradition. As queen, she knows that she has particular obligations to tradition, so she is uniquely entrusted with sifting through the relevant questions.
In Episode 3, Windsor, we see Elizabeth struggling with her husband’s demand that his name (Mountbatten) be passed on to their children. Initially, she agrees. She sympathizes with Phillip’s desire, as paterfamilias, to bequeath his name to his family. The reality though is that her family is also England’s royal family, which means that a national tradition would have to be sacrificed to meet his request. That seems unacceptable to many Brits, who view the House of Windsor as their royal line. As queen, Elizabeth knows she has obligations to Britain as well as to Philip.
What’s remarkable about this episode is that it never even broaches the possibility that names don’t really matter, or that Philip’s demand is just evidence of his archaic patriarchal mindset. The bad kind of historical drama might end on a scene in which Elizabeth confesses to a friend that she doesn’t see the point of these silly name disputes; aren’t names in the end just something to put on the letterhead? That scene never occurs. Elizabeth is conflicted precisely because she recognizes the merits of both claims, and takes both seriously. Tradition is weighty, but someone has to try to carry that weight. Heavy is the head that bears the crown.
Conundrums of this sort recur repeatedly throughout the series. Should Elizabeth support a marriage between her sister and divorced (former) employee of the family? As a sister she wants to; as a queen she worries about the example this might set. Should she berate Winston Churchill and other elite statesmen for trying to hoodwink her with false information? This seems terrifying and even unfitting for a young and inexperienced woman, but as queen she believes it to be her duty. Must she bow to tradition by hiring the “next man in line” as her personal secretary, even though she prefers someone else?
To some, these conflicts might seem trivial and uninteresting. The show brilliantly illustrates why they are not. The struggle to mediate between past and future is vitally important, and a conscientious modern monarch, precisely because she doesn’t have real administrative duties, can devote herself full time to safeguarding customs, mores, and the dignity that should properly attach to legitimate government. She assures the people that their ancient greatness is not forgotten. She exhorts faltering politicians to aim higher, and conducting themselves in a way that befits the leaders of a great nation. Watching this unfold, I am stirred with a gentle envy. I know that she’s a busy lady and all, but might she spare a little time to reprimand our public officials like that?
It’s a bit of a joke, but that question really might raise some interesting questions. Again and again, The Crown reminds us that unlike elected officials (who are answerable first and foremost to the people), a monarch is answerable only to God. In the United States, we don’t have any politicians like that. Every member of our government is answerable to a merely human “boss,” whether that is a particular person or the voting public. We tend to be proud of our “founded on an idea” non-monarchical government. Maybe it would be nice, though, to have a public official somewhere who felt more directly answerable to God?
My greatest fear for The Crown is that it can’t endure. It’s hard to imagine the show could stay this good for very long. As it forwards through more transgressive decades, the siren song of progressive triumphalism may prove too hard to resist. A true traditionalist could hardly help but despondent through the cultural nuttiness of the 1960s and ’70s, but that message probably wouldn’t appeal to a wide viewing audience.
I’ll definitely give it a chance, though. With such a great first season, there’s reason to hope. In these benighted times we could all use a little dose of dignity. It’s worth indulging some monarch envy to get it. God save the queen!