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The Best and Worst of “The Crown”



“The Crown” has been a dizzying marathon of a series, packing nearly 60 years of history into six seasons of serious drama and frivolous gossip. Sometimes rushing headlong through the decades, other times plodding turgidly through the minutes, the show has been destination television since 2016 — a sumptuous, low-stakes diversion in an era of bewildering turmoil.

Does it have a deeper meaning, other than being an impressive feat of expensive storytelling? It’s hard to say.

As we contemplate a future in which we will be forced to evaluate new royal developments without the help of “The Crown,” it’s time for the first (and last) annual Crownie Awards.

“The Crown” always veered confusingly between playing up the actors’ resemblances to their real-life counterparts (Alex Jennings, uncannily channeling the Duke of Windsor) and appearing not to care very much at all (Dominic West, patently handsomer and more on the ball than his character, Prince Charles.)

Still, it was a jolt to see Prince Harry in the final season. Played by Luther Ford, he seems like a charmless, angry Ron Weasley bizarrely sporting Prince Valiant-style bangs.

“The Crown’” often dressed its actors in replicas of their characters’ best-known clothes, for a pleasing sense of verisimilitude. (See, for instance, the wedding dresses worn by Princess Elizabeth, Lady Diana Spencer and Camilla Parker-Bowles.)

As was the case in real life, the best outfit of all was the smoking-hot Christina Stambolian dress worn by Diana (Elizabeth Debicki) in the Season 5, at a party in Kensington Gardens on the very night that Prince Charles appeared on television and confessed to cheating on her with Camilla Parker-Bowles.

It was thrilling to see Debicki’s entrance in that dress — form-fitting, off the shoulder, with an asymmetrical hem and a chiffon train flowing saucily from the waist — and it made for a breathtaking re-creation of that memorable moment.

“The Crown” was peppered with cutting remarks and snobbish asides, and the best insults came in the third season, when the Duke of Windsor returns briefly to London from his unhappy Parisian exile for his brother’s funeral. He asks for money after his family threatens to cut off his allowance and argues that his wife, the former Wallis Simpson, should be awarded the honorific Her Royal Highness because of her royal-adjacent status.

Nobody is particularly sympathetic, and it hardens his heart. England, he writes to Wallis, is a “sunless, frozen hell.”

“And what a bunch of ice-veined monsters my family are,” he continues. “How cold and thin-lipped and dumpy and plain.”

Who is this kindly old gentleman exuding benevolent wisdom in the final episodes, asking people how they’re feeling, thinking back on his days as a young father, and praising Queen Elizabeth for successfully concealing “the torment you’ve been going through” in her wedding speech for Charles and Camilla?

Surely it can’t be Prince Philip (Jonathan Pryce), the queen’s crotchety husband, who in real life had a reputation as a fearsomely irascible curmudgeon who reveled in his own offensiveness? (“You are a woman, aren’t you?” Philip once said to a Kenyan woman offering him a present. Speaking to an Aboriginal leader in Australia, he asked: “Do you still throw spears at each other?”)

Earlier seasons of “The Crown” showed Philip’s more abrasive, frustrated side, and there were a few flashes of the old splenetic spirit in the final episodes, as when he snaps at a hapless functionary: “for God’s sake, take the bloody photograph, will you!” But mostly he seemed like a benign and wise old patriarch.

Kate Middleton’s mother, Carole, has always presented herself as a model of elegant discretion and admirable good nature. She exudes an air of helpful maternal enthusiasm and smiling back-seat support for her daughter and her son-in-law. She has never seemed eager, at least not in public, to thrust herself forward or trade on her royal connections.

So it was bewildering to see her portrayed in Season 6 as a humorless social climber with one goal: pushing her daughter into snagging Prince William.

Doubtless Mrs. Middleton is glad that Kate and William ended up together. Maybe, as Tina Brown has written, she did orchestrate Kate’s decision to go to the University of St. Andrews, where Prince William had enrolled, for the purpose of putting her daughter in the prince’s way.

But the show’s depiction of Carole (Eve Best) reacting with stony-faced displeasure when Kate brings home her non-William boyfriend, a blameless aristocrat named Rupert — and then grimly haranguing Kate for failing to bag the prince? That seems not only unlikely, but also unfair.

Camilla’s job in “The Crown” is to be jolly, supportive and self-effacing, no matter how tortured and miserable Charles is and how frequently he makes her listen to him whine and complain on the phone about his troubles. Calling her on the eve of their wedding, he speculates excitedly about the possibility that his mother might abdicate and cede the throne to him.

“Just think about the boys,” Camilla (Olivia Williams) tells him, swallowing her dismay at the prospect so as not to discomfit him. But, as he told her in the famous “tampon-gate” conversation in 1989, “your greatest achievement is to love me.”

(Runner-up in this category is Kate Middleton, played by Meg Bellamy, who also logs a lot of phone time in which she does more listening than talking.)

The final season introduced a bevy of phantoms who materialized from the ether to soothe, advise and declaim to various living characters. This device worked well when Queen Elizabeth (Imelda Staunton, in the queen’s last iteration) was visited by the ghosts of her former selves, played by Clare Foy and Olivia Colman; they served to underscore the poignancy of the passage of time in her long life.

But did we really need to see Ghost Dodi and Ghost Diana assuaging the guilt of those they had left behind? No.

Who knows how the royal family really talks to each other behind closed doors. But it seems improbable that their real-life conversations include so much long expository commentary on royal protocol, precedent, duty and history — “parentheticals that seem cribbed from Wikipedia,” as Helen Lewis wrote in The Atlantic.

“What would he know of Alfred the Great, the Rod of Equity and Mercy, Edward the Confessor, William the Conqueror or Henry the Eighth?” Queen Mary barks at Elizabeth in the first season, speaking of Prince Philip, who comes from the exiled Greek royal family. “It’s the Church of England, dear, not the Church of Denmark or Greece.”

Characters on “The Crown” also had a habit of articulating their emotions and laying out their interpersonal conflicts in a way that would be embarrassing even in 21st-century American families, let alone among repressed, stiff-upper-lipped British aristocrats from the past.

“Brother really has turned against brother,” King Edward says to his younger brother, the future King George, as the two argue about Edward’s abdication in Season 3.

In the same season, Prince Philip requests a private meeting with the American astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins at Buckingham Palace. He is having a bit of an identity crisis. “I’ve not been able to achieve the things I would have liked to,” he blurts out to the nonplused guests.

What a study in contrasts between Queen Elizabeth — so dutiful, so burdened by history — and her sister, Princess Margaret, who appears to have been put on the earth to have heady, ill-conceived love affairs, smoke and drink to excess, and party late into the night on Mustique. “I’d rather die than do exercise,” Margaret says in Season 6, when Elizabeth suggests ways she might cheer herself up after a series of strokes.

But the two are shown sharing a rare intimacy and a deep affection. “Hello, you,” they say by way of greeting, and Elizabeth is a tender, loving nurse to her ailing sister. Their last scene together comes at the end of an exuberant flashback to the night when they slipped out to celebrate with the crowds on V-E Day, in 1945.

At the end of the evening, the two princesses return to Buckingham Palace and Elizabeth asks Margaret — now the older version, played by Lesley Manville — if she is coming inside.

“I’m afraid not,” Margaret says. “But I will always be by your side, no matter what.” It’s the most heartfelt moment in the entire series.

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