[Warning: The following contains spoilers for Season 6 Part 2 of The Crown.]
The Crown was always going to have trouble the closer it waded to the present day. It's one thing to dramatize events and figures far enough in the past that the audience's knowledge of them will be, for the most part, a little hazy, and they will therefore have fewer preconceived notions — it's a completely different beast to tackle events that most of the audience has lived through. Not only are there ample opportunities for people to point out, hey, it didn't happen like that, but the show also runs the risk of tackling subject matter of which the audience may have had their fill. The Crown took that risk and suffered for it in Season 5, yes, but especially in Season 6. It's fatigue, baby! All due respect, but focusing so tightly on the Diana story — and dragging out her death over several episodes in Part 1 of this final season, to the point of feeling extremely exploitative — left me fatigued. The William and Kate story that dominates Part 2? I am fatigued! Force-feeding us the heir and the spare narrative between the Brothers Windsor? Fatigued! I am, as the kids might say, extremely over it.
The most frustrating thing about The Crown's decision to spend so much time on what feel like well-trodden tabloid stories is that the answer to the problem of how to keep things feeling fresh and interesting was right there all along. They even have a character say it out loud! In "Hope Street," Episode 9 of Season 6, as William (Ed McVey) is providing commentary to the Middletons during the Queen's (Imelda Staunton) Golden Jubilee celebrations, he starts talking about how "inscrutable" his grandmother is: "Princess Margaret and the Queen Mother always seemed to know what was going on beneath the surface, but they're gone now. To the rest of us she can be quite an enigma. That's the trick I suppose, to maintain the mystery. And how she manages to keep us all on our toes." The answer is Elizabeth.
Yes, The Crown is set up to be about the institution as a whole — a look at not just the bearer of the crown, but all those it affects as its reach spirals outward. But let's be real: Time and time again characters on this show remind one another that Elizabeth is the center of it all; she is the one they work in service of. The longer the series has gone on, the more it has seemed to forget that this truth applies to itself as well. Perhaps because in real life the Queen felt mostly unknowable, she's made for such an interesting character to watch (it certainly doesn't hurt that they've cast three powerhouse actors to play her over the years). Of course, there have been great episodes throughout the series that sidelined Elizabeth (hello, Season 4's "Terra Nullius" and Season 3's "Tywysog Cymru," I treasure you — remember when Charles was interesting?), but Season 6 is a prime example: When The Crown sticks closer to its star, it's a much more compelling show.
Part 2 of this final season does finally step away from the Diana (Elizabeth Debicki) saga — well, mostly; she does pop up in a quick flashback, and Mohamed Al-Fayed (Salim Daw) returns to drag up the past for a bit, too — which is a step in the right direction to pick up the pace, but it dumps us right into the William and Kate (Meg Bellamy) of it all. The show seems unwilling to really examine William as anything other than the golden boy who becomes the company man, which, paired with the fact that we hear about the real William and Kate relentlessly these days, makes that entire storyline a real dud. At least when Charles was a young adult (then played by Josh O'Connor), the series was still willing to explore all shades of him — we could empathize with him for the way he was treated by his parents and yet still clock his ego and his cruelty when they showed up.
There are a few interesting threads here, but the show doesn't take the time (or, perhaps, have the guts) to fully unspool them. At one point, William accuses Charles (Dominic West) of resenting him for his popularity because it reminds Charles of Diana, but they tie that idea up neatly instead of pushing further into that father-son dynamic. Season 6, overall, has really watered down the show's portrayal of Charles. (Is creator Peter Morgan trying not to ruffle the new king's feathers or something?) He mostly spends the season realizing he wants to be a good dad and bothering his mom about letting him marry the love of his life. The show does once again broach the subject of how desperately Charles would like his mother to step down and hand him the keys to the car, but other than a perfectly crafted close-up of Charles's face in the exact moment he realizes that's never going to happen (seriously, it is so good), there's not much to it — at least, not on Charles' end.
Elizabeth's final bow on the show is very much about her looking inward and examining her role as the Queen. In her last few episodes, leading up to her Golden Jubilee and then ending on Charles and Camilla's (Olivia Williams) wedding day, Elizabeth is more introspective than she's ever been, looking at her past to figure out her future. This introspection is spurred by a few things: In a short span of time, she loses her sister Margaret (Lesley Manville) and her mother (Marcia Warren), hits 50 years as a monarch, and turns 80. The loss of her sister and mother is especially potent. Episode 8, "Ritz," is a heartbreaking, bittersweet send-off for Princess Margaret that hops between detailing Margaret's growing health problems and the two young sisters (Beau Gadson and Viola Prettejohn, who looks so much like a young Claire Foy I did a double take) celebrating VE Day with a night out on the town. It's the best episode of the bunch. Not only does Lesley Manville give her best performance of the series and in turn give Margaret a gorgeous send-off, but it once again showcases how no one knows Elizabeth the way her sister does.
At Margaret's 70th birthday party, Elizabeth does something unusual: She gives an emotional toast to her sister, who has dutifully stood by her side all these years. When the Queen Mother dies in the following episode, we are reminded that Elizabeth is somebody's daughter, too, as she quietly and tearfully asks her mother not to "leave [her] alone in all this." It's no wonder that when Elizabeth is asked to finalize plans for her own funeral, it, as Philip (Jonathan Pryce) says, "stirs things up." Thank God it does — it's as if Imelda Staunton, who was really given so little to do up until this point, was told to let it rip. Her performance in these final episodes is worth sticking it out for. When her eyes fill with tears while her personal bagpiper — whom she calls "Pipes," by the way — plays "Sleep, Dearie, Sleep" as a suggestion for the lament he could play at her funeral? Forget it. I'd go through all the William and Kate stuff again just to watch that moment. And if you've watched the William and Kate stuff, you know that's a big deal.
The Crown ends its run firmly and definitively on the side of unwavering support for Elizabeth — whether this was always the show's intent or sentiment changed in the wake of Queen Elizabeth's death, who's to say, but its approach to examining Elizabeth's role and the role of the monarchy does seem much less nuanced than it did at the start. There's an entire episode devoted to illustrating the power of tradition, and more than once someone talks about the "magic" and "transcendent" experience the royals offer their subjects. Although, having Philip say that he and Elizabeth are "a dying breed" and that the rest of the family "isn't ready," but it won't matter if the whole thing burns to the ground because they'll be long gone, as his last scene in the series is certainly an interesting twist on the whole thing.
As a character, it's easy to be pro-Elizabeth, especially in the hands of the skilled performers who've portrayed her. In the end, she winds up once again burdened by the duality of her life: Can she be a good mother and a good monarch? Is she willing to sacrifice Elizabeth the woman for Elizabeth the Queen? These are the same questions that have been tormenting her for decades. So it's no wonder then that while she's trying to decide whether or not to step down from the throne and give it to her son, she is visited by the Elizabeths of yore.
Oh, you knew at some point our three Elizabeths were going to share the screen. While people have surely been waiting for Staunton to be joined by Olivia Colman and Claire Foy, their appearance really does work from a story and character perspective and isn't solely fan service (although I do certainly feel served!). Staunton's Elizabeth has a conversation with Colman's Elizabeth and Foy's Elizabeth separately, each of them arguing for or against her plan to abdicate. She is arguing with these pieces of herself. In the end, to no one's surprise, she picks duty. She picks the promise she made at the very start of her reign. There is no one else she could have had that debate with but herself (her selves?); no one else would truly understand. She is unknowable, remember? It feels right, then, that the series ends with Elizabeth alone in St. George's Chapel, imagining the end of her life, while flanked by these other parts of who she is, until finally, she makes the long walk out the doors by herself. It is her show, in various senses of the phrase, after all, and The Crown remembered exactly that just in time.
The Crown Season 6 Part 2 is now streaming on Netflix.