If I had to complain about Netflix’s The Crown, the ultra-expensive chronicle of the life and times of Queen Elizabeth II, I would say that seasons one and two could be...well, a little boring at times. The series is an artful, well-crafted depiction of the regimented life of a monarch—it's where the subtextual tension of Downton Abbey meets the rumination on state building of The West Wing—but sometimes the drama was so subtle and the pace so realistically slow that I had to ask: Is it necessary to watch the royal family get dressed in real time? Do we need these shots of planes taking off and landing? Maybe Brits have endless patience, but I’m an American: I want my plot right now!
Still, The Crown is a beautifully executed show. So when the third season dropped on Sunday, November 17, I was happy to watch. I thought this season would at least get me closer to season four—aka the Diana years—right? Wrong. Because season three finds The Crown punchier and more interesting than ever. (Caution: Some spoilers for season three ahead.)
The first episode, “Olding,” starts business as usual. We're introduced to an older and wiser Elizabeth, now played by Olivia Colman (previously Claire Foy). Her marriage is about where we left off, as well: At breakfast her majesty butters her toast so loudly that her husband, Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies, previously Matt Smith), turns up the volume on the television to drown her out. (Well, he has a manservant turn up the volume.) On the TV is a news report about the day’s election, which, again, sounds about right—using democracy to cover the noise of breakfast is par for the course on The Crown. Elsewhere, Princess Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter, replacing Vanessa Kirby) wakes up hungover next to an embroidered pillow that says, “It’s Not Easy Being a Princess,” and inquires after her old maid by calling her “the fat one.” Her husband, photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones (Ben Daniels; previously Matthew Goode), is only slightly more in tune with the common people, taking snapshots of graffiti that says “Eat the Rich.”
Watching these people wallow in middle-aged ennui, I didn’t so much want to "eat the rich" as tell them to snap out of it. But then something happened: A KGB spy alluded to in earlier conversations is revealed to be Anthony Blunt, an art historian serving as the Queen’s Head Chief in Charge of Old Important Paintings. Elizabeth, though hurt and betrayed, agrees not to reveal Blunt’s treason because the story would jeopardize M15's relationship with the CIA. An indignant Prince Philip confronts the traitor at an art museum, where Blunt reveals that he knows about Philip’s involvement in the Profumo Affair (the sex scandal from season two) and has incriminating evidence. They’re stuck in a stalemate.
Wait a minute. Spies? Blackmail? A showdown at an art gallery over a sex scandal? Is this Gossip Girl? Intrigued, I eagerly queued up episode two.
“Margaretology” followed a similar pattern of introducing a domestic drama and complicating it with politics. Elizabeth has the crown, Margaret’s got the charisma, and each sister envies the other. And when Britain needs a bailout from the United States at the same time that Margaret and her husband are on a tour of the U.S., the diplomats set up one of my all-time favorite kinds of plot: “You have to go to this fancy dinner in order to save the day.” Again, very Gossip Girl.
While the first two seasons of The Crown balanced love, sex, and secrets with stuffy state dinners and sitting for oil portraits, it’s all combined in the third. And here the party is in the boardroom, and the personal is political. As I watched members of the royal family jockey for status, I was reminded of HBO’s Succession, another series about a powerful family ruling over an empire.
Episode three, “Aberfan,” is a somber episode, though, centered on a disaster that killed more than a hundred schoolchildren in a small mining town in Wales. But even with the serious subject matter, the story is dramatic—and more emotional than ever. In fact, feelings are the whole point: Elizabeth laments to Prime Minister Wilson that, even after witnessing the devastation firsthand, she can’t cry. She fears there's something wrong with her. Wilson reframes her disposition in a positive way, characterizing it as strength and admitting that he, like all leaders, is different in public than in private.
I thought about that scene for a while. Was it appropriate to make a devastating tragedy all about whether or not a woman, who didn’t even lose anyone, cries? And what’s with the focus on her tears? But...Hillary Clinton caused a whole to-do 50 years later when she shed a tear publicly. And while I didn’t love how this thoughtful, capable woman was insecure about her own emotionality until a man told her it was okay, how many other people can truly relate to a monarch? It’s not like she can text the Boss Ladies Heads of State group chat. Ultimately, her royal highness listens to a recording of the townspeople singing a hymn and a tear wells up in each eye. In that moment I understood exactly what that scene was all about: making sure Olivia Colman wins a well-deserved Emmy.
To be clear, it's not like The Crown has suddenly turned into a soapy drama at the level of Gossip Girl or even Succession. Rather, there's a subtle—and, in my opinion, necessary—shift in the focus and pacing of the storytelling. Fans of The Crown will still see the show they loved, but things have picked up just enough to be noticeable. And according to my highly unscientific analysis (i.e., I googled a few things), season three's episodes are on average five-ish minutes shorter than previous seasons'. That tracks: The world in The Crown is moving quicker too. It’s the sixties, and nobody is writing letters or wiring across continents. The news cycle is speeding up, which means so is the palace’s response, which means a whole scandal can fit into one episode, which means there’s room in the season for more drama. And isn’t that what we really want from a royal family, anyway?
I can think of no higher praise for The Crown's third season than this: After the third episode I was supposed to start writing this review. Instead I clicked play on episode four. Because for the first time I didn’t just want to watch The Crown—I wanted to binge it.
Elizabeth Logan is a writer and comedian based in New York City.
Originally Appeared on Glamour