I devoured the first season of the The Crown during the holiday break last year in response to the American election and other social stressors related to it: the fever pitch of white supremacy, heightened Islamophobia. It got to the point where I needed something that was as far away from my identity as possible in order to cope and a story about the reign of Queen Elizabeth II provided that. However, The Crown did more than distract me from my real world concerns; it captivated me.
With the release of season two, I’ve come to realize that my favourite episodes of The Crown tend to be ones that break down the monarchy’s inner workings or place in the world, while also humanizing Elizabeth. It’s when she’s shaken out of the safety net of protocols that we get a true look into the symbolic power of monarchy and the person who leads it.
Two episodes stood out to me over the course of the show so far: season one’s “Scientia Potentia Est” (Ep. 7) and season two’s “Marionettes” (Ep. 5). In “Scientia Potentia Est,” Elizabeth deals with her anxiety around her limited education which valued the British constitution and small talk over philosophy, math, and other subjects explored in normal school settings. She seeks out a tutor, Professor Hogg, and when he gently probes her to find out her level of education, physical ticks appear. She clutches the pearls on her neck and wrings her hands. She’s feeling the anxiety of having her gaps in knowledge exposed. When explaining why she’s asked him here, she tells him that her job involves spending a lot of time with statesmen like himself “of exceptional intellect who’ve risen to the very top of their profession by virtue of their intelligence and their ability.”
Unlike the crown which is bestowed on someone, not based on what they’ve done but the family they were born into, and Elizabeth has become hyperaware of that. It’s in that moment that I felt Elizabeth was someone who I shared some basic human fears with. A symbol reduced to a young woman who was thrust onto the throne at age twenty-five: the same age I am now.
The monarchy, however, is a massive machine of tradition. After finding out that Winston Churchill lied about his health, Elizabeth seeks advice from Professor Hogg on how to proceed and he tells her that a dressing down from nanny is what these British upper middle class men need. Where her lack of knowledge was once a source of anxiety, this has transformed into newfound confidence in her expertise in the constitution. A great lesson in understanding that everyone is good at something but ultimately both a disservice to and letdown for Elizabeth, which leads into the events of the fifth episode in season two, “Marionettes.”
In season two, Elizabeth grows comfortable in her role, and therefore complacent. So much so that she gives a speech she doesn’t read ahead of time that essentially dismisses the working class and comes across as tone-deaf. Her public image takes a beating as a result and her most vocal critic, Lord Altrincham, is also a self proclaimed monarchist. After resisting the public critiques for most of the episode, she finally invites him for a chat at the palace. This scene was my favourite by far. In it, Elizabeth asks why people like Lord Altrincham feel they can say anything and he responds, “Because the age of deference is over.” It’s really interesting to see this and concepts like equality being thrown at the queen as she slowly begins to realize that her power is very much conditional and that pre-WWII Britain no longer exists.
While former colonial territories regain independence as nations, and the powers of a queen prevented from engaging in democracy dwindles, it’s understandable why the idea of change is hard for Elizabeth, especially when it means the loss of power. In season one’s “Scientia Potentia Est,” Elizabeth felt powerless when she thought she was intellectually ill-equipped to handle leaders of nations—specifically the democratically elected ones—but in “Marionettes,” it was the symbol at risk. She doesn’t need to look far to see what happens when the people finally decide to turn on their monarchs. Her husband, Prince Philip, was Greek royalty and his family was exiled from Greece in the early 1920s.
At the end of the day, I’m a woman of colour who would love nothing more than abolishing the monarchy. Krutika Malikarjuna wrote in TV Guide about The Crown‘s karmic comeuppance and how it’s difficult not to feel petty watching the show as a person of colour: “Rarely does that glossy veneer crack in the history books, particularly so in romantic retellings of period dramas. In revealing this hypocrisy, and reveling in the monarchy’s slow and painful diminishment, the second season of The Crown painted an emotionally accurate portrait of the royal family. And in doing so, Peter Morgan, showrunner and creator of The Crown, has—unwittingly—made a show for people of color, particularly those who are part of the massive diaspora of ex-colonies thanks to the British empire.”
Like Malikarjuna, I couldn’t help but empathize with Elizabeth when she felt so anxious, or when her husband found it difficult to be with a powerful woman. Seeing her as a human being of flesh and bone has made the show more interesting—but it feels good to see the same folks who colonized so much of the world and demonized foreign cultures grapple with disintegrating power as it slips through their fingers. As Lord Altrincham said, “until recently, monarchies were the rule and republics the exception, but today, republics are the rule and monarchies very much the exception.”