Culture

Netflix's 'The Crown' Reminds Us That Duty Must Win Over Personal Desires

But enough about politics. Has anyone else been watching The Crown? For someone like me, who’ll watch pretty much anything that has to do with the royal family, it’s basically an early Christmas gift. Thanks Netflix!

And, while I’d watch the thing even if it was dull as dirt and accompanied by an annoying screeching noise akin to fingernails on a chalkboard, I’m actually enjoying it much more than I thought I would after happening on a few negative reviews.

Time, for example, describes the main narrative of the show (which follows Queen Elizabeth II, played masterfully by Claire Foy, in the early years of her reign) as a series of scenes in which the queen attends “meetings at which she either acquiesces to her advisors or puts off acquiescing until fifteen minutes later” and pronounces Elizabeth “a bore.” And The Independent summarizes the show as “men in rooms talking about what a woman should or shouldn’t do.”

It’s not that everyone hates it, or anything. It’s received a number of glowing reviews from places like The New York Times and Vanity Fair, but this idea that the main character is rather dull seems to be held by many. But the reason I’m finding myself much more engrossed than I’d feared I might be, is that I think all the negative reviewers have totally missed the point.

Though you might tune in for the impeccably appointed period rooms and the luxurious and historically accurate costumes (I certainly did), the show actually has something quite specific to say. Underneath the glitz and glamour we’ve come to expect from a Netflix drama of this kind, the show is clearly about the conflict between personal desires and responsibility.

Elizabeth’s grandmother, Queen Mary (played by Eileen Atkins), pretty much sums this up in Episode 2, Hyde Park Corner: “I have seen three great monarchies brought down through their failure to separate personal indulgences from duty . . . The fact is: the crown must win.”

I don’t know about you, but I think the old lady’s got a point.  Substitute “the crown” for “duty given by God” (as the monarchy was/is believed to be) and I think the show has something relevant and worthwhile to say.

So, yes, Elizabeth does spend a lot of time acting like she’s going to defy the government (helmed by an aging Winston Churchill, played expertly by John Lithgow) and then being convinced not to. But there’s a reason for that.

John Lithgow as Winston Churchill Image: YouTube Screenshot

John Lithgow as Winston Churchill
Image: YouTube Screenshot

When, for example, her husband, Philip, played by Doctor Who’s Matt Smith, convinces her that they shouldn’t move to Buckingham Palace (the traditional home of the monarch) but stay in their family home, Elizabeth is initially on board. She loves their home and finds Buckingham Palace impersonal and vast. Plus, she wants to appease her husband who is trying to assert himself as head of the household even as his wife is becoming queen. But, in the face of Churchill’s strong disapproval, she backs down and moves everyone to the palace.

Sure, you could call her a pushover. Our American sensibilities don’t take well to being told we must follow tradition. And we worry about her, also, because she’s a woman being told what to do by men. But she isn’t a pushover at all. She’s choosing between what she wants and what’s best for the crown. And, as Granny says, the crown must win.

Why? Because people are broken and petty and selfish and mean. They give in to their emotions because they think they mean something. They favor themselves and the ones they love and believe themselves righteous because that feels good to them. It’s only when they step outside of all of those things, put them to the side and examine the issue for its own sake, that they can do their duty.

All the characters in the show are dealing with this. Heck, all people on earth are dealing with this to some degree. And, just like regular people, some of the characters are more successful than others.

Elizabeth’s Uncle David, the Duke of Windsor, (played by Alex Jennings), for example, has completely shirked his duty as king in order to marry the love of his life, a divorcée named Wallis Simpson. The fact that the show presents him as just shy of mustache-twirling makes the show’s point abundantly clear.

Matt Smith as Philip, Duke of Edinburgh Image: YouTube Screenshot

Matt Smith as Philip, Duke of Edinburgh
Image: YouTube Screenshot

She is the job,” King George VI (Elizabeth’s father, played by Jared Harris) tells Philip. “She is the essence of your duty. Loving her, protecting her. Of course, you’ll miss your career. But doing this for her, doing this for me—there’d be no greater act of patriotism. Or love.”

No greater act of patriotism than putting aside the personal and shouldering your duty. Sounds about right to me. But really, enough about politics. Look! Pretty dresses!