The third season of The Crown opens with the briefest glimpse of Queen Elizabeth II (Claire Foy) as we left her in 1964, before cutting away. Suddenly, it’s a new day, and the monarch who strides into a Buckingham Palace drawing room to survey her latest official stamp is a changed woman. The stamp, says the Queen’s private secretary Michael Adeane (David Rintoul), is an “elegant reflection of Her Majesty’s transition from young woman to…” Here, the Queen (now played by Oscar-winner Olivia Colman) interrupts. “Old bat?”
It’s a clever nod to the audience, who must reorient themselves to an entirely new cast of actors as Elizabeth’s story moves into, and beyond, the second decade of her reign. It’s a major shift that may make die-hard fans nervous, but they should rest assured: The faces on The Crown have changed, but the show’s appeal — and its faults — remain the same.
Spanning 1964 to 1977, season 3 launches with the installation of Harold Wilson (Jason Watkins) as Prime Minister. Though the Queen finds him “entirely unremarkable,” she’s soon unsettled by rumors that he might, in fact, be a Soviet spy. With the Labour Party in power for the first time in 13 years, the monarchy finds itself under scrutiny from the left-leaning newspapers — which only intensifies after Prince Philip (Outlander’s Tobias Menzies) makes some obtuse remarks on Meet the Press about the royal family’s money woes. Elsewhere in the family, Princess Margaret (the flawless Helena Bonham Carter) takes her hard-partying lifestyle to the United States, where she and her husband, Lord Snowdon (Ben Daniels), are recruited for an unexpected diplomatic mission. The Queen’s two oldest children, Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor) and Princess Anne (Erin Doherty), are now young adults, and they begin asserting their independence accordingly.
Colman is an extraordinary actress, as anyone who has ever watched her in anything can attest. (Finished Fleabag? Cue up Broadchurch next, and then The Night Manager.) The Emmy-nominated star gives a performance that is technically precise — she nails Her Majesty’s posh nasal voice and clipped cadence — as well as emotionally resonant. In public and private, Elizabeth maintains a dour mask of dignity, but Colman reveals glimpses of the feelings that swirl underneath — whether its jealousy over the American media’s fawning reception of Margaret, or deep sorrow over the Aberfan mining disaster, which killed 116 Welsh children in 1966.
The Queen’s once-troubled marriage to Prince Philip, which occupied much of season 2, seems to have settled into something like contentment. The Duke of Edinburgh, though, finds personal happiness elusive, in part due to his stubborn refusal to entertain any criticism of the monarchy. The role is a wonderful showcase for Menzies, who sheds the petulance of his predecessor and brings us a Philip who is both prideful and impotent, vainglorious and deeply insecure. An episode focused on the Apollo 11 moon landing serves as a window into the Prince’s creeping mid-life crisis, and Menzies plumbs the depth of Philip’s longing as he compares the astronauts’ historic achievement with his own, often mundane royal duties.
At its heart, The Crown is a catalogue of the myriad ways Elizabeth must deny her true self out of duty to her country. It’s a theme that’s at once tragic and predictable, which makes the emergence of Prince Charles and Princess Anne as more prominent players all the more welcome. This season charts the rise of Charles’ public profile, including his investiture as the Prince of Wales — during which he develops a kinship with the Welsh people, who feel overlooked by their British overlords. O’Connor is endlessly endearing as the sad-eyed Prince, a young man who yearns to be an independent thinker, but who finds his efforts at individuation — including a romance with a young woman named Camilla Shand (Emerald Fennell) — blocked at every turn. (Yes, readers, Camilla Shand would later become Camilla Parker-Bowles, which means that we’re now getting to what fans of modern-day royalty might call “the good stuff.”)
This season, premiering Nov. 17 on Netflix, has several highlights — including every precious second Bonham Carter is on screen — but we do have to wade through some sleepy stretches along the way. There’s a saggy installment about Lord Mountbatten (Charles Dance) and a tentative plot against Wilson’s government, and several episodes would have benefitted from a few more snips in the editing bay. The Crown still inspires and rewards “did this really happen” Google deep dives, and the show sometimes struggles to be more entertaining than the real-life search results. It doesn’t help that The Crown is built around a woman who, as she settles into her reign as monarch, must increasingly keep the world at arm’s length. “One just has to get on with it,” she tells Michael Adeane in the season premiere. One does, I suppose, but one doesn’t always have to like it. B
The Crown season 3 premieres Sunday, November 17 on Netflix.