It may be hard to believe today, but Queen Elizabeth — the 90-year-old monarch best known for her colorful hats, tight smiles, and corgi collection — represented a new dawn for the U.K. when she ascended to the throne in 1952. She was 25, female, married to a Greek-born naval officer, and a young mother. Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who’d saved Britain from the Nazis, was on his way out of Parliament. But as the Empire broke away and the Cold War settled in, she mostly stood by and watched.
“To do nothing is the hardest job of all,” Claire Foy’s Queen Elizabeth II is taught in the bio-series The Crown, which debuts on Friday, November 4. The show is Netflix’s biggest gamble yet, with the streaming site green-lighting six seasons ahead of the series premiere. Created by Oscar-nominated The Queen (2006) screenwriter Peter Morgan, who also dramatized Elizabeth’s 64-year reign in the 2013 play The Audience, The Crown will devote each season to a decade of Elizabeth’s life. The series opens in 1947, with Elizabeth’s marriage to Prince Philip (Doctor Who’s Matt Smith). Her choice in husband isn’t a popular one, if the wagging tongues around court are anything to go by. It might be the last unpopular decision that Elizabeth makes in years.
You won’t miss The Crown’s theme — that a monarch’s responsibility is to subsume the self for the sake of the state — for it determines virtually every story line. Elizabeth’s ascension heralded a new era, but the queen uses her authority to uphold tradition and preservation, no matter the inconvenience or injury. Her importance as a political or social figure, especially during the Season 1 years, is debatable — which may be why The Crown’s stories feel so small. One crisis-of-the-episode revolves around whether the resentful Philip, a man very much of his time, will kneel during her coronation, while another debates whether Elizabeth can successfully argue her husband’s case that their children take his last name instead of hers. (Masculinity pro tip: The more you insist on symbols of manliness, the smaller we think your penis is.)
If Elizabeth has wants or needs beyond those desired by her title or her petulant consort, we’re rarely privy to them. There’s nothing to fault about Foy, whose saucer-wide eyes, slight underbite, metamorphosing carriage, and simultaneously clipped and whiny royal accent make her a perfect fit for the part. But it isn’t until the seventh episode that the dominant Windsor family saga finally allows enough screen time and character development for Elizabeth to feel like a real person, as the queen finds herself educationally unprepared and out-of-depth in her weekly meetings with the power-clinging Churchill (John Lithgow, looking like someone has stretched out Danny DeVito’s Penguin from Batman Returns and he’s stooping to compensate for his sudden too-tallness). In one of the most human moments in the first season, Elizabeth snipes at her mother (Victoria Hamilton) for never giving her formal schooling, for she’s increasingly embarrassed that she has to keep changing the subject to dogs and horses when she’s around members of Parliament.
Morgan wasn’t just being metaphorical by calling his show The Crown. Those looking for a show about a young woman thrust into an extraordinary circumstance — even one she’s presumably been groomed for all her life — are bound to be disappointed by how uninspiring a figure Elizabeth cuts and how timid, even marginal, she is as a protagonist. (I also found the series’s relative dearth of gendered issues — especially for a young woman whose appearance, marriage, and motherhood become fodder for intense public debate — rather unsatisfying. That she doesn’t speak a single word about her children — even in a series about her job — is wildly incongruous with what we might expect from both a young mother and a queen.) The chronic tension in Elizabeth’s marriage because of their upside-down spousal roles is without an arc, and the eventual cleave between the queen and her sister, Margaret (Vanessa Kirby), would have more impact if their relationship had some nuance. Save for an episode about the Great Smog of 1952 (essentially, five days of heavy fog), there isn’t much history being rehashed other than the seesawing grabs for influence among MPs. And, frustratingly, Morgan declines to conjecture what Elizabeth thought of one of the biggest events of 20th-century British history: the anticolonial independence movements all around the world.
Instead, The Crown keeps ringing the same old bell: sacrifice, sacrifice, sacrifice. Rehearsing for her coronation, Elizabeth asks if she can borrow her towering headgear for longer practice. “For whom?” she’s asked. “If it’s not yours, whose is it?” It’s an engaging scene, and Morgan’s scripts are full of such well-told moments. But they all say the same thing: Elizabeth’s service to her country is playing the not ill-fitting but occasionally burdensome part of the dutiful ruler, who must cast aside personal satisfaction to perpetuate ancient customs. Her role model is her sickly, stuttering father, George VI (Jared Harris), of The King’s Speech (and Mad Men) fame. Her cautionary tale is her favorite uncle, Edward VIII (Alex Jennings), who abdicated the throne, and thus fled his responsibilities, by marrying the divorced commoner Wallis Simpson (Lia Williams). Season 1 leaves Elizabeth a woman who got old quick, for she’s a priggish stickler who respects the rules more than she does rightness.
Sumptuous and stately, The Crown’s prestige trappings can’t conceal its repetitiveness or narrative padding. Initially a catty delight, Edward’s presence grows increasingly exasperating as he keeps popping up and won’t shut up. Accustomed to the privileges of royalty, he’s more than a bit jealous of his newly throned niece when he sniffs, “She’s fat, common, and looks like a cook.” But watching her coronation ceremony, he’s enraptured by the transformation of a human into a monarch. Princess Elizabeth was “an ordinary young woman of modest ability and little imagination,” he declares. But in the process of becoming a queen, “you wrap her up like this, anoint her with oil, and what do you have? A goddess.” Indeed, it’s the pageantry of power that continues to enchant after we get bored by Elizabeth sticking up for those in power yet again. Most irresistible are the scenes where the royals self-mythologize their rule. Elizabeth exists, she’s told by her grandmother, so the common people in their “wretched lives” have something to aspire to. Determined never to be fallible again, she closes down, never letting her subjects catch a glimpse of her true self. That might feel more like a tragedy if there was much personality to hide in the first place.