[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for world history between 1964-1977 and Season 3 of “The Crown.”]
In the year of our lord 1969, man landed on the moon. American men, to be specific.
The momentous event occurred 16 years into the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, the supreme monarch of the United Kingdom as well as assorted realms, territories, and a commonwealth that spanned the circumference of the planet from which those men came.
One would think that the most powerful woman in the world would have some thoughts about her former colony achieving one of the most stunning achievements of humankind. Less than 200 years after the U.S. kicked England to the curb, they put together a space program out of, essentially, spit and twigs provided by the lowest bidder, and landed on the moon.
Season 3 of “The Crown” takes place during this time period, and Episode 7, “Moondust”, centers on the mission of Apollo 11. So how does Elizabeth feel about the literal eclipse of the British Empire?
Well, we’ll never know, because the vast majority of the episode focuses on how her husband, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, has his big boy feelings hurt by being an old military man who can’t jump into orbit himself.
Let’s make this perfectly clear: Besides the universal exhilaration she experienced at the moment, I want to see a dramatized version of how Queen Elizabeth felt when the Americans beat her to the moon. I do not care how Prince Philip felt. I care about how the ruler of a millennia-spanning monarchy felt when its wayward child bested it. I want to explore Elizabeth’s feelings, and explorations of Elizabeth’s feelings are nearly non-existent in Season 3 of “The Crown.”
This is a sin of omission, and one that almost derails the entire season. As written by showrunner Peter Morgan, Elizabeth is the least important person in the story, vacant except as a means to react to the antics of her family and world events. It is a recurring pattern: An episode centers on what should be one of the peripheral players — Princess Margaret, Prince Charles, Prince Philip’s man feelings again, Prince Philip’s mother, Lord Mountbatten, Nazi Uncle David — only to have The Crown herself pop in at the end amid a stampede of corgis and comment on the situation.
There are attempts to explain away the show’s utter lack of interest in her interior life. Early on, Elizabeth says she is damaged; she doesn’t feel emotion; she didn’t cry at the birth of her children. So, apparently, there isn’t a focus on Elizabeth’s feelings because she doesn’t have them? It’s an odd scene — one that contradicts the obvious worry and concern for others that she showed in previous seasons. She’s not a psychopath, after all, just overburdened by the duty of being the human embodiment of an ancient institution.
This is the exact territory that Morgan gloriously covered to Oscar-nominated effect in 2006’s “The Queen,” and the reluctance to further explore it for television is baffling. This is the same problem “The Crown” suffered in the first three episodes of Season 2, where we followed the Duke of Edinburgh’s good ol’ boy globetrotting instead of Elizabeth’s spurned anguish.
Is Morgan simply reluctant to revisit themes he covered over a decade ago? Possibly — but the visual shorthand that is used instead does not suffice and cheapens the overall arc. The recurring image of Queen Elizabeth staring out of windows as a stand-in for exploring her emotional turmoil is an easy out for Morgan. After all, why try to plumb the depths of a woman who is dealing with what she believes is an ordination by God to serve her country when we could instead focus on winsome polo groupie Camilla Shand?
What saves the show — and, indeed, what always saves “The Crown”, year after year — is the astounding performances and production values. Colman is, as she always is, a joy to watch, all sparky charisma — this Queen Elizabeth tells jokes — giving texture and nuance to her character in a way that isn’t written on the page. She not only smoothes over the emotional holes in Morgan’s scripts, she creates profound undercurrents. It’s worth admiring the things Colman can do with a single look: a downward shift in her eyes when dealing with Philip in Episode 1 reveals decades of dismay; a later Don Draper-level of cunning intervention in his life is conveyed via a glance while she’s, yes, taking a walk with the corgis. Her performance in the closing minutes of Episode 3, centered on the horrifying 1966 Aberfan mining disaster in Wales, instantly puts Colman at the forefront of next year’s Emmy race. It is breathtaking.
Tobias Menzies is a more comfortable fit for the swaggering, belittling and belittled Prince Philip than Matt Smith ever was; he looms larger both physically and in terms of the sheer radiance of his arrogance. Helena Bonham Carter wildly blends exuberance and profound melancholy as Princess Margaret; she’s the reason it’s even more baffling Morgan didn’t write Elizabeth as a multi-dimensional middle-aged woman — Carter’s messy but endearing Margaret shows that it can be done. Charles Dance as Lord Mountbatten is worth keeping your Netflix subscription through his tenure in “The Crown” Season 4; Josh O’Connor lays the groundwork for an empathetic portrayal of sheltered, shattered Prince Charles. (And proving that some people hit the Pick Six in the creative talent lottery, “Killing Eve” Season 2 showrunner Emerald Fennell stars as Camilla Shand, soon to become — spoiler alert — Camilla Parker Bowles.)
On top of this Murderer’s Row of acting talent, everyone and everything just looks spectacular. “The Crown” is undefeated in the Emmy costuming race; during Season 1 Michele Clapton took the trophy while Jane Petrie won in Season 2. Amy Roberts has taken the helm in Season 3 and her work is as painstaking and as beautiful as her predecessors, especially given the fact that the fashions of the era have not, shall we generously say, stood the test of time as classics. The production design also was Emmy-nominated in 2018 but lost to the “Game of Thrones” dragon-based juggernaut; with that out of the way, it should take its rightful trophy this year.
And so we’re left with a conundrum. What is on the screen in “The Crown” is a gorgeous display of some of the age’s best actors performing at the peak of their craft. The final “Aberfan” scene from Colman will be taught in drama schools, I can guarantee it. And yet, Colman is relegated to reacting more than acting because of how her role is written. By Season 3 of “The Crown” Queen Elizabeth is no longer an ingenue, fumbling her way around a dynasty she didn’t anticipate inheriting. She’s a complex sovereign in a complex time, the defender of the faith. Morgan should show some more faith in her himself.
“The Crown” Season 3 will debut Nov. 17 on Netflix.