If there’s a mantra in season three of The Crown – debuting on Netflix this Sunday, 17 November – it is thus: keep calm and carry on.
It doesn’t get more English than that, which is apt, considering that it doesn’t get more English than this lavish Netflix series, which lifts the hood on the historic, endlessly glamorous Rolls Royce that is the royal family.
The first two seasons, which starred Claire Foy and Matt Smith as Queen Elizabeth and her husband Prince Philip, as well as Vanessa Kirby as Princess Margaret, were an enormous success for Netflix. The theme of those first two seasons was humanisation, a theme that unfolded over the course of 20 episodes that spanned a time period in which both Elizabeth and Margaret got married, their children were born and Elizabeth assumed the throne.
Here are the figures that you know and love, the faces on your bank notes and your postage stamps and your tea towels and your commemorative mugs. Here they are in all of their real, raw, human messiness. See how they live and laugh and love, behind the closed doors of the palaces that they call home.
That was the theme of the first two seasons, and there’s still plenty of that in season three of The Crown, headlined by Olivia Colman and Helena Bonham Carter as the Queen and Princess Margaret respectively. Debuting on Netflix this week, these 10 new episodes are as dedicated to showing the royal family warts-and-all as before.
We see the breakdown of Princess Margaret’s marriage to Tony Armstrong-Jones (Ben Daniels) and the relief that she finds in the arms of her lover Roddy Llewellyn (Harry Treadaway) in Mustique. We learn that Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies) has no relationship with his ailing mother whatsoever, and no desire for one. We learn that Princess Anne (Erin Doherty) is going to do whatever she bloody well pleases, including starting up an affair with Andrew Parker Bowles. Which brings us to the real human story of season three of The Crown – the maturation of Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor, wonderful and empathetic and full of pathos) as he learns what it means to be the man who would be king.
Keep calm and carry on. These are, essentially, some of the last words spoken in the series – uttered by Princess Margaret to her sister in the closing moments of the season finale. They are also woven into every episode of season three, which strives to show you – whether you’re a royalist or not – the very real toll of keeping the institution aloft.
Where seasons one and two were focused on passion and drama and intrigue and scandal, season three is more refined. There’s very little tongue-wagging this time round, and even when expressly concerned with the sex lives of its characters, season three is never racy. And this is the season in which Camilla Parker Bowles (Emerald Fennell, the writer behind season two of Killing Eve) is introduced!
While season two had sex scenes galore, about the raunchiest that season three gets is a tossed-off comment from Princess Margaret to Roddy when they’re shopping for a pair of bathers. “What size are you?” a sales assistant asks, to which Roddy replies ‘small’. “I sincerely hope not,” Margaret quips, eyebrows arched enthusiastically.
What The Crown realises is that, soapy and lathered-up though it may be, it’s not really a soap opera. It’s a prestige drama, one that costs Netflix a reported $150 million a series, that has gathered the best writers and directors working in the industry right now. It also stars a gaggle of Britain’s finest thespians – Colman, fresh from her Oscar win; Bonham Carter, who despite being a little underused is still a tour-de-force as the misunderstood Margaret; Menzies, who has transitioned effortlessly from Outlander villain to a bottled-up Prince Philip. What The Crown knows is that it is at its best when unfurling immensely watchable episodes about real, lived history.
No wonder, then, that season three has traded the scandalous storylines of seasons one and two for a renewed focus on the bureaucratic machine of the royal family. Storylines include the initial tension between the election of a Labour government led by Harold Wilson and the Queen, the filming of a calamitous BBC docuseries inside Buckingham Palace and the death of the Duke of Windsor. Yes, we see Princess Margaret and Tony’s marriage fall apart, but watching Princess Margaret apologise to her sister for bringing about the first royal divorce since Prince Henry VIII feels like less of a milestone considering how commonplace divorce is in the royal family now – three of the Queen’s own children, after all, have been divorced.
The best episode is the third, which focuses on the 1966 tragedy at Aberfan, when a collapsed coal tip crushed a small Welsh town and killed 144 people, including 116 children trapped in their school classrooms. In this episode, we see the Queen besieged on all sides to respond more emotionally to the tragedy, something that goes against everything she has ever been taught. It’s the first of many episodes that feature scenes of the Queen on her own, a major theme this season. Whereas in the first two seasons, Foy’s Elizabeth was seen bracketed by advisors and quite literally dwarfed by the larger-than-life figure of Winston Churchill, Colman’s Elizabeth is often alone.
There’s a dual purpose here, firstly to showcase Elizabeth’s growth as Queen – Colman is more self-assured than Foy, more able to soundly criticise advisors who attempt to manipulate her – and, secondly, to reinforce the loneliness of her position.
Time has not made being Queen easier, something that Colman’s performance, with its shades of weariness and resignation has made clear. But it has made her understand that calmness, consistency and continual forward motion is the only thing that matters.
And the tension between Colman’s Elizabeth, scrambling to keep those emotions just below the surface, and Prince Charles, who thinks that he can beat a system that predates most modern civilisations, is utterly compelling. (“Watch out for your family,” Wallis Simpson tells Charles, in one scene. “They mean well,” Charles responds. “No, they don’t,” Wallis fires back.) When, in the season finale, a shocking, upsetting incident causes Colman’s Elizabeth to finally open the floodgates, it’s not only a powerful scene but a believable one, too.
Aside from this scene, though, it’s very much ‘keep calm and carry on’ in season three of The Crown. If that necessarily makes for a very different season of television than seasons one and two, so be it. Change is good. A lull in the drama, after the previous years of ducking and weaving around Prince Philip’s rumoured affairs and Princess Margaret’s broken heart, is a welcome reprieve.
And we’re going to need it – season four is when The Crown is going to introduce Diana, and there’s going to be nothing ‘keep calm and carry on’ about that.
The Crown season three streams on Netflix from 17 November.