A thousand memes are launched when you see Melania Trump swat away the President’s hand or watch her smile melt to a blank stare once she’s out of his eyesight. The current political climate often feels dramatic, yes, but in many ways it is farcical. These are people who are not universally beloved, and even the ones that do love them cherish the “deplorable” aspects of their character. It this which makes The Crown so alluring—the sumptuously rendered series is populated with heads of state who are for the most part, admirable and idealistic. To watch it as an American is to be reminded of an era of politics when brief glimpses into the interior lives of our leaders weren't farcical, but juicy, sometimes lurid, but altogether soapy.
I can thank the flu for my newfound love affair with The Crown. I’d avoided the molasses-paced drama, despite its ostentatious appearance. It seemed to be a great deal of money spent on a historical drama that had no bearing on my life. After all, The Crown debuted just days before last year’s election and there were far too many emotions besot on me to focus on a British costume drama. Who needed to watch the winding days of British royalty when you could watch the winding days of another American decency play out on the news?
Yet at some point weeks ago when the trailer for the second season was released, I became enamored with the ramped up soap of the series: Princess Margaret’s illicit romps with photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip battling it out over his infidelity, beautifully crafted costumes amidst the breathtaking backdrop of Ghana. Then there was the music “I Only Have Eyes For You.” It told me this wasn’t merely a soap, but a rather melancholy one. And something about the condition of the year and our current political discourse prepared me for a melancholy romance to tick away the time as I recovered from the flu.
The first season of The Crown was a marvelous journey, if a bit of a uneven march. It is, after all, hard to sweep several moments of history under an umbrella and give them each thematic meaning. Life simply doesn't work that way. However, individual episodes managed to create stories that highlighted a central thesis. The lives of those living under the crown is one of scrutiny and their loves, their heartbreaks, their scandals, and their defeats must always be hidden from the harsh light of day. The newspapers eke out whatever they can, but it’s far from the full blown media bonanza of what we experience now. And there's certainly more discretion, more of an idea of generating a positive image of the crown across the globe—in contrast to the reckless abandon of today.
Perhaps it's odd to harken for these days when injustices were high and colonialism and racism and misogyny was rampant, but series creator Peter Morgan knows nothing if not how to render problematic history into breakneck drama. If the first season was reminiscent of The Queen, then the second season is more like The Other Boleyn Girl. The drama has been dialed up to 11 and the structure of the series is such that Morgan squeezes every ounce of romance from the stone. The first three episodes in particular break tradition with the last season, operating as a short story themselves—it’s the explosion of Philip’s public image as an adulterer, partier, and carouser and Elizabeth’s attempts to protect not only the image of the monarchy, but her family and ultimately her heart.
What’s so stirring is watching this emotion take place in secret rooms and magnificently lit hallways, far from the eyes of the public. The second season highlights, however, the toll that the clandestine and rigid nature of the monarchy has on its citizens (whether that be financial crises or personal devastations in the case of the wife of Philip's Private Secretary) and it’s all the better for it. It’s refreshing to see a drama with consequences, rather than watching political drama unfold in real life with no seeming consequences for scandals and sexual improprieties from day to day. It makes The Crown a bit of a fantasy, but it is a British costume drama and the best of that genre, William Shakespeare himself, knew that the best romances need a bit of sorcerery infused in them. Where else can you turn but pulpy, well-churned drama when hell is empty and the devils are on cable news?
Period pieces often work well when they are infused with the sensibilities of the day, but there's always a base level of understanding that the rules we operate by did not exist then. It’s a bittersweet soap, because much like the feminists and civil rights stargazers of series like Mad Men, we know the roadblocks that meet them at each turn. Margaret longs for love with a man we know she does not marry, Elizabeth and Philip might be better off if they could be set free but we know they are still bound together… even the joie de vivre of Princess Diana’s eventual appearance on the series will be encumbered with tragedy. I love The Crown because it's a romance, but the austere nature of its setting means romance withers and dies in it. The only love affair that's truly lasting, the one you'll resist rooting for but know you eventually must is that of the titular crown and those who live by it. That makes it an icy and cruel soap for sure, but it's glorious to watch.