‘The Crown’ Season 3: Olivia Colman Shines as Queen Rocked By Tragedy, Scandal, and Camilla Parker Bowles
The recastings take some getting used to, but the series is as sumptuous and melodramatic as ever as it charges toward the royal family’s most notorious scandals. (Hi, Camilla.)
“Age is rarely kind to anyone. Nothing we can do about it. One just has to get on with it.”
The third season of the award-winning drama arrives later this month—November 17—with an audacious gimmick.
Much ado has been made about the decision to cast new actors in the series’ pivotal roles, priming the show to propel on to time periods up to four decades past the instigating events of its first episodes in 2016.
While perhaps not earning a knighting in its execution of these efforts, to say that it succeeds in entertaining, often dazzling fashion, despite some imperfections, would be an egregious example of British humility. As the action charges toward some of the royals’ most notorious scandals, fans will be as rapt as ever.
Oscar-winner Olivia Colman assumes duties from Claire Foy, who won a Golden Globe and an Emmy for her work as Queen Elizabeth II. Outlander and Game of Thrones alum Tobias Menzies plays her husband, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, taking over for Matt Smith. And in a stroke of genius, Helena Bonham-Carter steps into the teetering heels of Vanessa Kirby as Princess Margaret.
Helping ease the transition is the fact that two years have passed since The Crown’s second season premiered, a gap necessary for memories of the original cast’s performances to fade enough away, considering that much time hasn’t passed at all when events kick off in season three. Season 2 concluded with the birth of Prince Edward in 1964. Season 3 picks up with the death of Winston Churchill, not even a year later.
The new actors range from eight years (Menzies) to 23 years (Bonham-Carter) older than their counterparts in the original cast, with Colman 10 years Foy’s senior, making it easier to carry the show through season four, which will head into the ’80s with Margaret Thatcher’s tenure and Prince Charles’ relationship with Princess Diana.
Rather than completely ignore a jarring transition to these new faces, the season starts with an overt acknowledgment of it.
We meet Colman’s Elizabeth as she’s gazing at two portraits, one of her former self—Foy’s face—and one of her now. She’s judging her new postage stamp against the first one, issued two decades earlier when she was the new queen. Her adviser marvels at how, side by side, they chart the trajectory from young woman to... “Old bat,” she interrupts before he can finish. “Mother of four and settled sovereign,” he clarifies.
“Settled” seems to be the greatest advantage and most daunting challenge this version of Elizabeth faces at this point in her reign, something that is mirrored in the state of the series.
We spent two years with Foy and Smith and their versions of the royal couple, coming of age under the weight of the crown and the burdens of their duty, a fiery time that flared colors of strength, fear, frustration, and fortitude. Here, with Colman and Menzies at the helm, we’re being introduced to a couple mid-career and mid-life, no longer reeling from the stakes of something so huge and so new, but grappling with the demons that lurk in stasis.
Adjusting to this, from a viewer’s standpoint, takes time. Thankfully, none of the other tenets of the show that seduced audiences originally have changed.
It is a production of the highest caliber, with one of the most consistent voices, episode by episode—creator and writer Peter Morgan can be thanked for that—and certainly the most cinematic flair of any drama out today. It is sumptuous and solemn, so rich in visual elegance and abundant with emotional stakes that you are swept away.
Every frame carries with it a certain amount of pomp and circumstance, whether it’s lavish shots romanticizing the rituals of life at the palace or meticulously-framed silhouettes of the actors. Even what could be seen as gratuitous indulgences are merited, considering the show’s intrinsic opulence.
Bonham-Carter’s Margaret is the benefactor of much of these, be it tracking shots of her sauntering through the palace grounds, kaftan billowing behind her, or slow-motion lingering on her face as the wind whips her hair around her on a hillside. (If watching Bonham-Carter singing from Annie Get Your Gun while drunk at the White House is a dream so fantastic you didn’t even dare dream it, this season is for you.)
Part of The Crown’s great appeal is its opening of the iron gates, the salacious allure of entrée into a world that is deliberately walled off to us. In that sense it is a peculiar kind of escapism, one that is shrewdly grounded in inescapable, often-harrowing reality. Each episode tracks historical events that shaped Britain as we know it today, charting the ways in which the palace succeeded or failed in handling them.
The season launches with the infamous case of Sir Anthony Blunt, an art historian working in Buckingham Palace whose unmasking as a Soviet spy the Queen, to her disgust, was forced to keep secret in order to save the monarchy embarrassment. Margaret’s trip to America, where she charms President Johnson into becoming an Anglophile, gets an episode, as does the dissolution of her marriage to Antony Armstrong-Jones and her scandalous affair with Roddy Llewellyn.
Josh O’Connor’s Prince Charles gets a starring role in the latter half of the season. We first see him at the dawn of his 1969 Investiture, in which he receives the harsh lessons his mother was forced to stomach when she was his age: Just how much of himself, his desires, and his instincts he will have to bury in the name of duty. Theirs is the rare position of responsibility that requires one not act, speak, feel, or take a stand. Then later, we watch him reject those very lessons as he pursues a romance with a young Camilla Shand.
The standout episode, however, is its most devastating, recounting the events of the Aberfan disaster in 1966, when 144 of the town’s residents died, 116 of them children, buried by a landslide triggered on the coal mining mountain looming above the streets.
No expense or tragic detail is spared in recreating the trauma, which morphs from horrific action sequence to gut-wrenching portrait of grief—miners who the day before were digging for coal, now on their hands and feet digging out their children’s bodies—to, as always, a meditation on how the events changed how the palace thought about its relationship to the British people.
The parallels struck in each episode between what’s going on in the world and the royals’ own personal struggles can tend toward too clever, too forced, or too coincidental at times. (Turns out a mid-life crisis of masculinity set off by the moon landing is insufferable even if that mid-life crisis is happening to the Duke of Edinburgh.) But it also is emblematic of a certain kind of soap-opera schmaltz, something that for all of the show’s high-minded pretensions, you are tuning in for, too.
It probably should be mentioned that this season of The Crown is premiering as the current royal family has reached a level of mainstream media fascination, the public’s emotional investment, and, recently, empathy not seen since, coincidentally, the events that this season is leading up to: the hysteric global interest in Princess Diana.
The wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, the birth of Louis, the birth of Archie, and the discussion of Markle’s treatment by the press have preoccupied us in a way that arguably eclipsed Will and Kate’s Royal Wedding fever. It’s interesting, especially given the broader themes of this Crown season, that the clips from a recent documentary on Harry and Meghan that went viral discussed not any salacious bits of their personal lives, but the emotional toll of their duties.
“I think being part of this family—in this role, in this job—every single time I see a camera, every single time I hear a click, every single time I see a flash, it takes me straight back,” Harry said in Harry & Meghan: An African Journey, which aired on ITV in the U.K. earlier this month. “In that respect, it’s the worst reminder of [Diana’s] life as opposed to the best.”
But the piece that really spread and resonated was when Markle seemed to fight off a breakdown when asked about her own well-being amidst constant, often cruel scrutiny.
“Any woman, especially when they’re pregnant, you’re really vulnerable, and so that was made really challenging. And then when you have a newborn, you know. And especially as a woman, it’s a lot,” she said. “So you add this on top of just trying to be a new mom or trying to be a newlywed. It’s um…yeah. I guess, also thank you for asking because not many people have asked if I’m okay, but it’s a very real thing to be going through behind the scenes.”
It’s impossible to not have these things on your mind as you watch a depiction of this same family navigate changing times and changing expectations, albeit decades ago, and see it’s a conundrum that has yet to be solved two generations later.
Colman, who can trigger an earthquake of emotion with the twitch of a smile or slight widening of the eye, manages to telegraph the ways in which these considerations dominate her every thought, while not betraying the stoicism and stillness required of her. But when that facade slips, it’s explosive—and, by the way, makes a good case for Colman to inherit something else from Foy: acting trophies for this part—even when the rare outburst may be in the defense of decorum.
“Not having a voice is something all of us have to live with,” she tells Prince Charles. “We have all made sacrifices and suppressed who we are. Some portion of our natural selves is always lost...It is not a choice. It is a duty...To do nothing, to say nothing is the hardest job of all. It requires every ounce of energy that we have.”
Concealing where Queen Elizabeth—the history and the person—ends, and Queen Elizabeth—the TV character—begins is where The Crown showcases its most delicate sleight of hand. And it’s in that, too, that the series continues to be the most compelling, teetering between tabloid snuff and reverent curiosity with a confident handle of the creative danger that entails.
Of course, navigating what people may want from you and the integrity of what you need to be for them, such is the burden of the crown.