The third season of Netflix's The Crown, a series about sexy, pretty royals having sexy, pretty problems, kicks off with a nod toward its royals aging into decidedly less sexy and pretty people, whose problems and wardrobes are less sexy, and who find themselves floundering through a period in British history (1964-1977) that is most definitely less sexy and less pretty than the decade that preceded it.
As our royals enter into middle age in the middle of a turbulent and, at times, tragic period in U.K. history, there should have been more than enough cannon fodder to drive maybe slightly-less-sexy-but-still-alluring conflict. And yet there are long stretches -- whole episodes even -- that are painfully boring.
Season 3 opens with an infamous scene that Netflix has already teased: A new, older Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman, taking over for Claire Foy) surveys the art for the new profile that will be featured on bank notes and stamps all across the Commonwealth. Side-by-side with Claire Foy's svelte 20-something profile, the transition is jarring, and the Queen's people try their best to fluff her. The new portrait shows a "seated sovereign," they stammer and compliment, which QE2 quickly tosses back with a succinct correction: "You mean old bat."
The complications and complexity of British royal family life has been at the heart of The Crown since the beginning, and it continues in Season 3 with every member, especially Philip (Tobias Menzies). The Apollo 11 moon landing provides a catalyst for Prince Philip's latest round of panic over his constant emasculation at the stiff, starched frills of tradition.
An appearance on Meet the Press has Philip confronted with the question of why he isn't given the title of king even though he's married to the queen. I rolled my eyes because it was one more example (in a season full of them) of stupid Americans asking stupid questions and generally being tacky and stupid, but also because The Crown didn't allow for an explanation.
It was a bit of a drag to get pulled back into Philip's sad-macho-sadness, but at the same time, at least part of that macho sadness drove Philip's interesting storyline in previous seasons. Philip is a tragic figure in his own right, which The Crown has explored in previous seasons. An exiled prince from a fallen royal family, Philip knows more than anyone else in the British monarchy how much their "divine right" is granted not by a supreme being in the sky, but by the capital-P People. They have to be liked, otherwise they get marched to the guillotine, executed in dreary Siberian basements, or, if they're really lucky, smuggled out of their countries in orange crates.
The Philip of Season 3 is torn between feeling like his position and the monarchy is this silly, outdated institution with no real power, no real impact. Three schmucks from America accomplished the greatest technological feat that Philip has ever seen when the Eagle landed on the Moon. They suddenly were the bravest men in the world and Philip was, what, muttering some meaningless words that someone else wrote for him, in the rain at something or some other thing, not even holding his own umbrella?
Really, what is the point of a prince or a princess? This is the question that The Crown struggles to answer throughout Season 3, and I'm not sure that by the end of the final episode we've been given a sufficient answer.
Princess Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter) faces her own struggles as her marriage to Antony Armstrong Jones (Ben Daniels) crumbles in the face of scandal, infidelity, and... other stuff. It's, you guessed it, complicated! They love each other. They resent each other. Those notes Tony left Margaret in between her books and magazines are verbatim what he actually left her in their real and messy lives. And while it's unclear whether or not a certain (and totally unhelpful) intervention on Margaret's birthday actually happened, the Windsors did maintain a generally positive and warm relationship with the Earl of Snowdon, regularly enlisting his eye for prominent family portraits -- including the engagement photos of a certain Prince and Princess of Wales. How awkward.
The Crown struggles, as much as its characters do, to balance their humanity with their status as human symbols of whatever they need to symbolize at a given time. The '60s and '70s were a time of tremendous upheaval around the world and the United Kingdom was not immune to sweeping changes and crumbling institutions. The season closes with Elizabeth riding off to her Silver Jubilee, looking more like someone heading to her own execution rather than a lavish celebration of then-25 years of rule. She is a symbol of stability in an increasingly unstable world. As Margaret put it, she's "papering over the cracks." Sometimes that means sending her sister to woo a petulant President Johnson (Clancy Brown) or sending her son (Josh O'Connor) to learn enough Welsh to woo separatist factions in Wales that see his investiture as Prince of Wales as a sort of slap in the face, particularly following a belated and somewhat apathetic royal response to the tragedy in Aberfan several years earlier.
More often than not, "papering over the cracks" means turning her family into a tool, over and over again, to smooth things over for Harold Wilson's (Jason Watkins) government. Theirs is a reluctant symbiotic relationship. Wilson was elected on a non-conservative, non-traditional campaign that claimed it would put everyday people first. There were conspiracy theories that he was a Soviet spy (because of course there were) and fears, from the Windsor camp, that his government would abolish the monarchy for being the giant tax-suck that many of his constituents felt it to be. Instead, in many ways, both parties found themselves protecting each other, whether it be from a literal coup or the latest public relations snafu.
The problem with using the same tool time and again, though, is that eventually, that tool is going to wear out, and the Elizabeth we see leaving for her Jubilee is tired, blunted by the forces of the last decade. Her country is a mess. Her family is in tatters. That careful balance between being a symbol and being a person didn't do anyone much good this season and for many of the people in QE2's orbit, it actively made their lives worse. We all know that Camilla Shand, future Camilla Parker-Bowles, future Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall (Emerald Fennell), isn't going anywhere and that Prince Charles' struggles between duty and desire still have a lot of damage to do. The series itself struggled between finding its own balance -- with some episodes striking resonant chords ("Bubbikins," "Margretology") and others falling painfully flat ("Coup," "Moondust"). But as Elizabeth herself states during one of her meetings with PM Wilson, sometimes it's better to simply look the other way, to wait for this to pass.
Season 3 is a time of transition -- for the royal family, for the United Kingdom, for The Crown itself -- yes, I know, everyone is dying for Lady Diana Spencer to make her entrance -- but we're not there yet. The monarchy we are left with is a blunted tool, going through the motions, dutifully and a little dull, a little tarnished. Lucky us, here in 2019, we know how this story ends. It's going to get worse before it gets better, but we know that it will get better.
TV Guide Rating: 3.5/5
Season 3 of The Crown premieres Friday, Nov. 17 on Netflix.