New Royal Faces Bring Fresh Drama to Season 3 of Netflix’s ‘The Crown’

The first queen is gone, long live the new queen. Netflix’s third season of “The Crown” introduces a whole new cast to portray the denizens of Buckingham Palace. Older, more jaded by life, the royals are again portraits of all that is human except masked over by the extravagance of a modern-day monarchy. It again makes for compelling drama in one of the best recent television series. This season there is more of an edge to the storytelling as the royal family faces both internal changes with the passage of time and a keener sense of their alienation from the common people.

The season opens in 1964 and Claire Foy has now been replaced by Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth II. Political changes are afoot in the UK as militant Labour Party head Harold Wilson (Jason Watkins) becomes prime minister. Wilson’s election initiates a sharper sense of the country’s class divisions. Blunt, dismissive of bourgeoisie perceptions, Wilson is even rumored by the elite of being a Soviet spy. Elizabeth also feels the divide in character with her sister Princess Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter taking over for Vanessa Kirby), the vivacious attention-getter always resentful for not being queen herself. Yet it’s Margaret, while on vacation with photographer husband Antony Armstrong Jones (Ben Daniels), who uses her charms to secure a bailout from a feisty U.S. president Johnson. When one is a national symbol the personal always conflicts with the historical. Elizabeth faces her own sense of duty and personal detachment when national tragedy strikes, and her husband Phiilip, Duke of Edinburgh (Tobias Menzies taking over from Matt Smith) cannot escape his past as a member of exiled Greek royals when his mentally-impaired mother must flee their country of origin yet again. Elizabeth and Philip then face a new challenge when Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor) starts dating Camilla Parker Bowles (Emerald Fennell) to the detriment of the family.

Returning to the world of “The Crown” this season has the distinct feel of a home where the years have passed. This owes much to the new casting, which elevates these characters to a deeper place. While the first two seasons were superb, featuring Emmy-winning performances, the new cast feels even less than dramatic interpretations of famous faces but as organic characters who would be just as fascinating if these people never existed. In the first episode Elizaebth, now played by Colman, watches as a new stamp is unveiled while contrasting her current profile with that of Claire Foy’s younger monarch. Colman’s Elizabeth is now more confident and settled in her role as head of state, yet old insecurities still surface. When a mining accident kills over a hundred children in the Welsh village of Aberfan, the queen hesitates to visit the site, even as Wilson and even Antony are moved to tears by what they see. Elizabeth admits to Wilson that there might be something wrong with her since expressing sorrow, or even crying, don’t come easy to her. Her relationship with Margaret also hovers over the season with a  surprising, tragic tone. Even into middle age, Margaret can’t get over the fact that she’s played second fiddle to her more prudish sister. In a flashback we see the sisters agree to switch places in the line of ascension, only to be strictly informed old traditions can’t be changed so easily. Helena Bonham Carter is completely absorbed by the role, playing Margaret with the lively, rebellious charm of the privileged royal who never grew up. It works when she parties with Lyndon Johnson (a fun Clancy Brown) and secures a bailout, forcing Elizabeth to concede her sister’s lack of protocol can work sometimes, although few people like to be seen as the boring one in a pair. 

Peter Morgan  remains the showrunner and key writer, maintaining the format of making every episode into a kind of vignette. Each hour offers a new angle involving the royal family. After the Aberfan episode the show switches to Philip attempting to command a documentary project to put the family in good public light (also to secure a higher income). But the project is nearly foiled when the Duke’s mother Princess Alice (Jane Lapotaire) is brought over from Greece when a military coup takes place in 1967. Alice is a nun, having lived her days in a convent after losing her sanity following the events that split up Philip’s family. It’s an immensely effective episode about Philip facing an internal shame towards his mother, with Elizabeth forcing him to face the past. 

So enclosed is this world that the radical changes of the 60s feel distant, as do the masses. This season even more than the last two poses questions about the very nature of the monarchy. When a journalist writes an article mocking the royals’ need for a higher salary when they already jet set around the world, or when Wilson looks puzzled at Elizabeth hesitating to visit the victims of Aberfan, you almost wonder what the point of it all is. The point is of course tradition and how it upholds a functioning society like England. But tradition should and must be critiqued and that’s precisely what “The Crown” does elegantly in episodes where even who Charles dates becomes an urgent matter for the whole monarchy. Margaret’s petty bitterness over not getting to be queen would be comic if it didn’t involve an entire state, or the fact that being a member of this clan means having little choice in your life paths. Even the 1969 Moon landing is incorporated into the narrative where it becomes a metaphor for a characters’ long, introspective journey.

Along with its lush cinematography, at times full of haunting images, and evocative music by Martin Phipps, this season of “The Crown” is particularly striking because of the fantastic cast. Colman, fresh from winning an Oscar for playing a quirky royal in last year’s “The Favourite,” defines rectitude and hidden vulnerability. Tobias Menzies brings a new depth to Philip, serious yet less cold than Matt Smith. He comes across more as the seasoned aristocrat, a man high born yet lacking naivety. Jason Watkins as instantly likeable as the socialist Labour leader Wilson, who brings to Elizabeth’s circle a needed, down to earth tone. He’s the one who has to explain to the unsure monarch the very nature of how power presents itself in public. It is an endearing and brilliant moment. 

As history progresses so do the lives at Buckingham Palace. Shut away amid the halls of royal tradition, Elizabeth II and her inner circle become relatable through their very human flaws. To feel ambition, a tinge of greed, the pressures of one’s place in the world and the pull of love are universally relatable, but made even heavier by the weight of a crown. 

The Crown” season three begins streaming Nov. 17 on Netflix.