Ah, the life of a British royal. The palaces! The yachts! The pageantry! The corgis! The screaming emotional vacuum!
Yes, it turns out that living in such unfathomable luxury comes with a catch: You don’t get to have feelings.
Every episode in the newly released third season of Netflix’s historical drama “The Crown” illustrates this trade-off somehow. The best might be “Tywysog Cymru” (Welsh for “Prince of Wales”). It follows a young Charles (Josh O’Connell) as he prepares for his investiture as Prince of Wales by living and studying in a working-class Welsh town, where he is moved by his interactions with the ordinary people who one day will be his subjects, if only in name.
But when he later gives a speech that subtly expresses solidarity with the divisive cause of Welsh separatism, his mother, Queen Elizabeth II (Olivia Colman), will have none of it. By expressing an opinion and appearing to take a side, she explains, Charles overstepped his rank, even if he is the future king. To have a voice is the one privilege the British royal family is denied.
“To do nothing, to say nothing, is the hardest job of all,” she says. “It requires every ounce of energy that we have. To be impartial is not natural. It’s not human.”
“The Crown,” over its three sumptuous seasons, has somehow humanized a group, the British royal family, whose job it is to be among the least “human” people on Earth. Creator Peter Morgan generates remarkable empathy, not for the monarchy as an institution, but for the people who are conscripted from birth to live in opulence while performing ceremonial public functions as figureheads of a waning global power.
Needless to say, it can be a hard sell. The fourth of the season’s 10 episodes, “Bubbikins,” begins with a public relations blunder, as the Queen’s husband, Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies), complains in an interview about palace budget cuts that threaten to downgrade the royals’ living standards to a marginally lower degree of aristocratic plushness.
The resulting backlash prompts an even worse PR move, as the family commissions a BBC documentary in an attempt to show the people behind the monarchy, but instead generates widespread mockery because of how mannequin-like everyone appears on camera. To this day, the real royal family still refuses to let it be shown — although one must wonder what they think of an internationally popular series like “The Crown,” mustn’t one?
Morgan is planning six seasons of the series, spanning decades of the royals’ lives, from the years preceding Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953 to presumably the present day, with a new cast stepping in every two years. (One must also wonder how, in a few years’ time, the series will dramatize the recent scandal involving Prince Andrew’s close friendship with Jeffrey Epstein.)
The show’s first two seasons starred Claire Foy as a young Elizabeth, a sharp-witted twentysomething struggling to adjust to life as a titular head of state. We pick up in the 1960s, Elizabeth and Philip face down middle age and cultural upheaval churns in the background.
It’s hard to pick a standout episode in a season so uniformly strong, but many viewers likely will remember the gut-wrenching “Aberfan,” based on a horrific tragedy in a coal-mining town where a landslide killed nearly 150 people, most of them schoolchildren.
In what we’re latertold is the biggest regret of her sovereignty, Elizabeth waited nine days to visit the grieving community. She argues, not unreasonably, that the presence of a monarch would only distract from the disaster recovery, but the eventual public outcry prompts an overdue visit where, in front of newspaper cameras, she fakes wiping a tear from her eye.
She understands the detachment that enables her to do her job as Queen has incapacitated her emotionally. It’s only when she is privately reflecting on the tragedy, with no cameras in sight, that she’s able to produce a single real tear.
Who would have thought doing and saying nothing could be so complicated?