‘The Crown’ Returns the Queen to Center Stage for Elegiac Final Episodes
The British monarchy may not be ending anytime soon, but we have reached the final march of Netflix’s “The Crown.” It would be difficult to pinpoint precisely where audiences would expect this series to end, but if we approach these final episodes soberly, “The Crown” ends in a way fitting for the subject. The reign of Elizabeth II as a personality rode quietly into the sunset as the United Kingdom tried to figure out its place in Europe and the world. Anything dashing or romantic of the early days has been replaced by tabloid fodder and celebrity intrigue. These final episodes find the right, elegiac tone to bid the queen farewell and acknowledge the new generation defining an institution ever so wobbly.
Fittingly, the Queen (Imelda Staunton) does return to center stage. She’s become a rather calm island in the middle of all the ongoing tempests, personal and historical. In the aftermath of Princess Diana’s tragic death in the first half of the season, the young princes, William (Ed McVey) and Harry (Luther Ford) face the trials of adolescence with their differing personalities. William is the more reserved type who feels the crush of becoming a global celebrity and heartthrob. He soon enters the University of St. Andrews where dating is never easy, but he clicks with one Kate Middleton (Meg Bellamy). Harry, written in keeping with the popular image, is the party animal prone to impulsive antics. The two siblings are in sync when it comes to resenting how their father, Prince Charles (Dominic West), remains devoted to Camilla (Olivia Williams). Charles knows it’s time to push for the two to be allowed a proper wedding. It’s a potential milestone reminding the Queen that times continue to change and the monarchy will carry on after she’s gone.
Showrunner Peter Morgan could have easily dabbled in more scandal and melodrama (and there is a little of that) to speed the finale along. What he understands well is that this series really was all along about Elizabeth II. Every life around her flows out of her legacy, even when she’s not present. In the 2000s the U.K. begins its own, unsteady transitions that reflect on her own uncertainties and deeper wisdom attained from experience. Yet, this was never a show that ignored the blemishes of power. A key character in the first episodes of the second half is Prime Minister Tony Blair (Bertie Carvel), who threatens to overshadow the monarchy with his energetic persona as the head of the New Labour movement, which sought to shed the left’s socialist identity with big, free market promises. He soon tries to push the Queen to “modernize” the monarchy by shedding some of its traditional institutions or features, even the royal swan keeper. Then Blair stumbles into the Balkan wars by spearheading, with U.S. president Bill Clinton, the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. By the end of the season he commits his greatest political folly by blindly following the Bush administration into Iraq. The Queen kindly reminds him at one point that it’s not bad to learn from antiquity when trying so hard to impose “modernity.”
The Blair moments are a welcome return to the wider political scope of earlier seasons before Morgan does swerve back into some of the soapier storylines. In the subtext of “The Crown” there’s always the theme of parents attempting to mold their children’s pathways, even when it comes to marriage. Kate Middleton is introduced as a teen shopping with her mother, Carole Middleton (Eve Best), and locking eyes with William as he greets the masses with Diana in a flashback. Carole then becomes another maneuvering British parent, not royalty but corporately successful, who starts moving around the chess pieces to ensure Kate and William become an item. Per the series, Kate ends up at St. Andrews against her original wishes because Carole wants her there to get close to the prince. Is it accurate? Who knows? But it’s certainly plausible considering the allure of joining the royal family. Lucky for Carole, Kate and William do connect, but in an initially funny, humanly quirky way involving the prince getting slammed in public for really not knowing how to gauge women’s sensitivities.
Despite the youthful vigor at play, Morgan properly exits the older, defining characters we have followed since the first season. Princess Margaret (Lesley Manville), the eternally fun queen who never was, collapses at a party in an episode full of nostalgic emotion. Her final days are combined with a flashback to the night World War II ended in 1945, when she and a younger Elizabeth went out for a late night stroll through partying citizens and allied troops. Instead of going for the cliché of giving Margaret some kind of debauched sendoff, the episode settles on a moving note about these two women facing the twilight and looking back cherished moments. We also get insights into them as people, because that one night was one of the few times Elizabeth was allowed to truly let loose and enjoy the company of non-aristocrats, who are of course clueless about her actual identity. Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (Jonathan Pryce), also ends his tenure in this series in ways fitting for the man who was always meant to stand behind the Queen. He is now a man so comfortable with mortality he truly enjoys the process of planning his state funeral with staff. When William erupts on Charles, blaming him for the death of Diana, it is Philip who visits his dorm and gives him the advice of a man who has reflected on his own faults.
The ending of “The Crown” seems to comprehend that the world is wondering these days what more is there to this family. Philip tells Elizabeth in one of the season’s closing scenes that even he realizes they are a dying species. Harry the true millennial doesn’t even seem to care at all about what any of his birthright means. He’s content being a prankster, which gets him in trouble when he dresses as a Nazi to a “colonials and natives” party, an incident which grabbed global headlines at the time. The series avoids Harry’s own famous marital drama, no doubt to the disappointment of some fans. Charles finally gets to marry Camilla and it doesn’t do anything to shake society or the throne. In the real world he’s king now, overshadowed easily by Brexit and ongoing global conflicts he stays mum on. We still tune in for the royal weddings when they happen, but even Harry and Meghan can’t command the coverage Charles and Diana inspired back in the day.
Fittingly, the series finale finds Elizabeth at times conversing with her younger selves. Claire Foy and Olivia Colman return as gentle specters reminding the older monarch of what she represents, the ideals she has devoted herself to. Even if we on this side of the Atlantic, unaccustomed to monarchy, don’t quite take the institution to heart, as a character the Queen remains fascinating, like any figure born into history itself. Her entire life was defined by symbols and tradition. What always made “The Crown” special is that it comprehended the human side to it all. Some of these characters are psychologically affected forever, others give in to the excess, and none of them are ever quite free. In the final moments, the Queen quietly walks away toward the great doors of a cathedral, as if facing mortality, and eventually being overtaken by myth.
“The Crown” season 6, part 2 begins streaming Dec. 14 on Netflix.