With the rise of anthology television, the possibilities for storytelling opened up considerably. For The Crown, Netflix got to take a bigger swing than most shows: they recast the entire series. Perhaps more importantly, Peter Morgan refocuses the series around the concept of the royal family. While the first two seasons were acclaimed, especially with standout performances from Claire Foy, John Lithgow, and Vanessa Kirby, the series was intensely focused on Queen Elizabeth II’s first years in power. Armed with a new cast and a new approach, we receive one of the strongest seasons of television in 2019.
The new face of the Queen (Olivia Colman) looks over a portrait of days gone by as great change looms. In 1964, Harold Wilson (Jason Watkins) becomes the Prime Minister. Rumors of Wilson’s relationship with the USSR fill the atmosphere, and labor disputes loom across the country. Meanwhile, Princess Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter) and Anthony Armstrong-Jones (Ben Daniels) fight through their marriage. Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies) continues to question his life choices and relationships. Perhaps most exciting of all, Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor) and Princess Anne (Erin Doherty) are introduced as adults who make questionable choices. With Lord Mountbatten (Charles Dance) and the Queen Mother (Marion Bailey) operating behind-the-scenes, the dramatic tensions within the family reach a fever pitch as the world watches.
The Crown‘s cast steps into the roles and takes off. Colman brings the stoicism and icy resolve to the Queen. Still, her emotions occasionally crack through her restraints. While Colman has brought several larger than life characters to the screen, Elizabeth channels her subtly that made her a beloved character actress. Surprisingly, the show captures some of her excellent comedic timing, turning her propriety into big laughs. With an actress as multifaceted as Colman, the writers clearly knew they could add texture to the Queen and differentiate her from Foy’s turn on the character.
Menzies quickly surpasses the Matt Smith version of Philip. While he appears as doltish and unaware as his predecessor, Menzies adds a vulnerability that actually makes the childish prince somewhat relatable. The two (Menzies and Colman) pair wonderfully together, making their marriage far more believable than the prior coupling ever really managed.
Carter brings a mania to Margaret that ages the character dramatically. She pulls on the threads that made Kirby an electric performer and follows them to their natural conclusion. Carter commandeers episodes at a time, using her non-verbals to show the broken side of Margaret while allowing her boisterous actions to make her the life of the party.
O’Connor and Doherty grab breakthrough status in limited screentime. While this season works to introduce us to their actions, it becomes apparent they could carry the show on their own. When they are not included in an episode or two, you will begin to wonder why. O’Connor captures the petulance that many associate with Charles, but grounds those emotions in relatable terms for any young adult. Just as Charles must be introduced to the world, Morgan and his team use “Tywysog Cymru” to introduce the O’Connor to uninitiated. He brings wells of emotion to the role, making Charles one of the most deeply philosophical characters from the jump. Perhaps most impressive of all, the young actor can stand toe-to-toe with Colman during their fights, a feat few have been able to achieve in recent years.
Doherty utilizes the stoicism of Anne to tremendous comedic effect. She becomes a standout actress for the season, and you want to know more about the wild adventures of Anne. While the rest of the family can be a struggle to root for, Doherty sweeps the audience into a seemingly different show. In this case, her limited deployment greatly benefits the series, as it gives her the opportunity to liven up the show as the only royal with any self-awareness.
In terms of the series hitting new levels, two episodes tower above the rest. In fact, they may be the four best episodes of the show to date. It will be hard for Emmy voters to ignore the spectacle and tragedy of “Aberfan” or “Bubbikins,” with each presenting the best aspects of the season. The spectacle and grandiose storytelling of “Aberfan” sets the stakes for the show in a new light. It also offers standout moments for nearly every performer in the cast, especially Watkins and Colman. Watkins becomes the first PM since Churchill to leave any impression on the audience. The emotional contained in this episode might be some of the most intense and tragic content on television in the past five years.
“Bubbikins” offers another side of the coin as an acting showcase. Menzies could ride this episode to an Emmy win for Lead Actor. Yet the writing really shines through, compiling several interesting topics and streamlining the story to fit those moments. Perhaps no episode this season plays looser with the facts, but few will take your breath away like “Bubbikins” does in several sequences. The reverberations of this one are felt in later episodes, allowing the show to cash in on the excellence of the episode by simply alluding to its events.
Finally, it would be impossible to ignore the stunning craft of this season. The costumes, production design, and makeup work have always been standout elements of The Crown. This season, you can add cinematography to that list, with the series taking a step forward on the visual front. A shot of a young boy a library sparks to life as you watch the waves crash down on the beach behind him. The silhouette of the Queen leaves an impression on your mind. Even an extreme close-up on an elderly nun marks the show’s willingness to trust the performers with challenging material. Adding more close-ups certainly does not hurt the performances, with this group allowing the emotion to be read across every inch of their face.
The Crown stages another winner this season while advancing the story forward to new levels. It will be impossible to ignore its cast, as The Crown feels destined to win at least one performance Emmy in 2020. With so much talent to chose from, the Academy will have an embarrassment of riches to choose from. Most exciting of all, Morgan got his staff to take a step forward on the narrative front. With clear warnings to our world today, The Crown makes itself one of the essential programs on any streaming platform.