This past weekend, Netflix released season two of "The Crown," a six-season project covering the life and times of the current reigning monarch of the United Kingdom, Queen Elizabeth II. It hit the Internet a few weeks after Prince Harry, a character to come along a little later in the series, made history by announcing his engagement to American actress Meghan Markle.
The second season of "The Crown" will feel familiar to audiences who watched the first. Much of the ten-episode run once again focuses on rumors concerning the state of Philip and Elizabeth’s marriage. Princess Margaret’s romances are portrayed as ever-more dramatic. The abdicated Edward VIII turns up with Wallis Simpson in tow, as well as his extraordinarily catty letters describing palace life. Throughout, the overarching theme is an emphasis on theirs being an inhumane situation, with customs and traditions that force the royals into an impractical lifestyle.
But a new strain has been added to the story this year, an undercurrent that threatens to get stronger as the show progresses: The extraordinarily slow yet steady turning of this royal ship, in order to be seen as aligned with the rapidly changing society around it.
Netflix’s fictionalized history of the reign of Britain’s current monarch intersecting with the current “Harry and Meghan” PR show from the palace makes an interesting contrast to these themes. With Harry’s announcement, it feels like we're seeing in real-time the end of the story that "The Crown" is telling on screen. The decisions we witness characters make in season two (and presumably in future seasons to come) will all lead up to this moment in history. Harry has done what everyone on "The Crown" failed to do before him: Marry a completely unsuitable person, and open the monarchy up to new members in a way that the palace has refused to consider until now.
Call it a masterclass in public relations, or call it what it is: perfect palace propaganda.
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The problem is, that's not how any of this works. History is nowhere near so tidy. So why does this moment look like "The Crown's" fairytale ending? Call it a masterclass in public relations, or call it what it is: perfect palace propaganda.
"The Crown" is helping cement how the palace wishes to be seen. This is a show so conservatively royalist in its myth-making, even Her Majesty is said to enjoy it. Creator Peter Morgan (who was also the man behind Helen Mirren's "The Queen") is becoming the Shakespeare of our Second Elizabethan Age, with his continued presentation of Elizabeth as a woman who “Keeps Calm and Carries On” no matter what happens. Be it her husband’s infidelities, the slow loss of empire, or the death of Princess Diana causing the country to call for her crown, she takes a licking and keeps on ticking — at least, that’s how it plays out on screen.
But the reality is much more complicated. Take, for instance, the continuing edits to Princess Margaret’s relationships. In season one, Elizabeth wants to support her sister in marrying a divorced man, Peter Townsend, but cannot because of her duties. (Uneasy is the head that wears the crown, etc.) In reality, Elizabeth and the Prime Minister worked out a deal where Margaret could marry Peter if she gave up her spot in the line of succession. It was Margaret who decided that price was too steep.
In the second season, again, reality gives way in order to present Elizabeth as a Queen with her hands tied. She wants to warn her sister than the man she’s marrying is a serial cheater, but cannot bring herself to say it, lest it is viewed as “The Crown” disapproving. In reality, it seems likely no one tried to stop Margaret from that disastrous choice.
Much of the revisionism in Season 2 stems from Morgan choosing to treat rumors as fact. Most of these storytelling liberties wind up in Philip’s story. There’s the “soft focusing” on his childhood in Germany, including the suggestion that his sister died on her way to visit him. In reality, his sister and her entire segment of the German royal family were on the doomed plane on their way to London for a wedding. All perished, not just her.
But this is a good example of how Morgan tries to (gently) address the subject of the Windsor’s family ties to Nazi Germany. In fact, most of episode six, “Vergangenheit,” is made up, including a meeting Elizabeth supposedly had with Billy Graham. (He did tour the UK and speak with Elizabeth, who is a fan, but not during that time period.) The episode does end with photos of Edward meeting Hitler (which are real, and unsettling), but Elizabeth was never forced to make decisions regarding her family’s German sympathies. She continued to invite Edward to events in England following the war, including the 1969 investiture of Charles.
So why do we believe "The Crown’s" portrayal of Elizabeth? Well, for one thing, there’s very little countering this version of events.
The ongoing innuendo surrounding Philip and his alleged affairs is another way the showrunners attempt to sway viewer sympathies towards to Elizabeth. But these stories, too, are likely trumped up, at best. Most of the “affairs” the show suggests Philip to be having are unproven in real life, though rumors continue to persist to this day. (Beginning this season, we see also the show start to use Philip to sway sympathy to her coming successor, Charles, as well.)
So why do we believe "The Crown’s" portrayal of Elizabeth? Well, for one thing, there’s very little countering this version of events. Elizabeth is still alive, and her longevity has bolstered the “Keep Calm and Carry On” mythos. While some anti-royalist media is out there, it mostly takes the form of shows like Channel 4’s "The Windsors," which tempers its punches with comedy. Stage shows like "King Charles III" leave Elizabeth’s legacy mostly alone, choosing instead to focus their heat at Kate Middleton. And television counter-punches like the proudly trashy soap opera "The Royals" isn’t exactly changing hearts and minds.
Perhaps when the Queen dies, more honest portrayals will proliferate. (Although probably not for at least a decade.) "The Crown" is currently contracted for four more seasons, putting the finale in 2022. Ironically, 2022 is about the point when those in the palace assume that, in their euphemism, “London Bridge will fall.” (Though it should be noted Elizabeth’s mother lived until 101.)
Until then, we will keep enjoying "The Crown," and look forward to Olivia Colman’s taking over of the lead role in season three. Just remember, when May 19th rolls around and Harry and Meghan are wed, that there’s a reason fairy tales so rarely come true in real life — even in Buckingham Palace.
Ani Bundel has been blogging professionally since 2010. Regular bylines can be found at Elite Daily, WETA's TellyVisions, and Ani-Izzy.com.