Since the mid-90s, at least, British monarchy films have usually been in comic mode: there's a crisis of some sort --> the monarch temporarily loses his or her public "glamour," leaving the institution's future at stake --> the monarch is "healed" in some fashion --> the monarch's status as national symbol is fully restored and everyone lives happily ever after (well, sort of). The stakes are especially high in the symbolic monarchy films, in which the monarch has little to do with the day-to-day operations of the country's political machine and everything to do with the country's sense of itself as a unified nation. But the new Netflix series The Crown is interesting because it is not, in fact, comic, even though it does its almighty best to represent Elizabeth II as a patriotic, self-sacrificing (in more ways than one) hero. Although the production crew is hardly composed of Tom Nairns, the first season's narrative arc tracks not the consoling, unifying powers of royal glamour, but its very stark limitations in an age of imperial collapse.
The ideal monarch, as Elizabeth more than once is both told and says herself, remains silent and does nothing. "Anointed" (by God) and not "appointed" (by man), the monarch is, as Walter Bagehot said, "dignified" instead of "effective." (This may be the first miniseries featuring lectures on Bagehot.) "Its apparent separation from business," Bagehot argues, "is what removes it both from enmities and from desecration, which preserves its mystery, which enables it to confine the affection of conflicting parties--to be a visible symbol of unity to those still so imperfectly educated as to need a symbol." But in The Crown, being apolitical is merely one step on the road to the monarch's radical de-selfing. Both Churchill and the private secretary Tommy Lascelles lecture Elizabeth and/or Princess Margaret on the horrific dangers of "individualism"--that is, the monarch (or any member of the royal family, really) allowing any personal feelings or beliefs, no matter how apparently anodyne, to intrude on the performance of their duties, whether that be Elizabeth's choice of a private secretary or Margaret's choice of a husband. In this context, Elizabeth's love of horses, which Margaret describes as a "passion," looks rather like one of the sole outlets for her to assert agency and selfhood. Equally striking, though, is that even though Elizabeth eventually gets on board with the process of erasing herself, substituting "monarchy" for "the monarch," most of that process involves being given orders by a bunch of men. At various points, Elizabeth is lectured by Churchill, by her private secretary, by clergy, by the Duke of Windsor (!), and by various members of the cabinet; the only man she can effectively resist turns out to be her husband Philip, who by the end of the season has largely devolved into a party-hard drunk. Even when Elizabeth does take action, as when she calls out Salisbury and Churchill for keeping her out of the loop on Churchill's health, she needs a man to urge her on to do it. It was hard not to notice that in the final shot, when a photographer urges her to let "Elizabeth Windsor" go entirely and allow the Queen to fully emerge--the symbolic consolidation of her image--it's still a man giving instructions. George VI's wedding gift to the queen, a film camera, goes more and more unused as the season progresses, as if the queen loses her independent gaze along with her identity. (The camera's disappearance from the plot also hints at how the monarchy loses control of the media: Philip's decision to have the coronation televised appears to mark the end, rather than the beginning, of the Windsors' ability to keep TV and the press under control.) Of course, the result of all this patriotic self-erasure is that Elizabeth's family simply collapses in on itself, as she repeatedly betrays promises to family members and fails to transform Philip into an equally empty consort.
One of the ironies of having all this play out over ten hours (so far) is that the series fails to fully suppress something always simmering beneath the surface in other monarchy films and series: the self-interested, cutthroat politics driving the ongoing suppression of the queen's individuality. Such maneuverings are always visible in films like Mrs. Brown or The Queen or The King's Speech, but these films nevertheless feature a crisis-to-resolution arc that makes the conclusions comforting (well, unless you're a republican). But the background events of The Crown are all about the slow but steady collapse of Britain's role as a world power, as embodied in first Churchill's collapsing body and, in the final shots, Anthony Eden's degeneration into drug-addicted bliss as he watches a film of Nasser. Eden's literal unconsciousness as the film becomes stuck and then burns, foreshadowing the outcome of the Suez Crisis (which presumably happens next season), suggests that the Constitutional balance of dignified/effective parties is considerably out of whack. Churchill, who resists leaving his post despite multiple health crises, represents the old (imperial) era hanging on for far too long in a changing world, but the transition to Eden is not, in fact, a transition to "modernity" at all. Notably, the film's one truly idealist voice for the future, Churchill's innocent new female secretary, is abruptly flattened by a bus a few episodes in. There is a queen at the end of the season, but a queen of what, exactly?