Spoilers ahead for The Crown season 3, if events that have been in the public record for over 50 years involving some of the most famous people to have ever lived can be considered spoilers.
The third season of Netflix’s high drama prestige saga The Crown begins streaming today with all the hubbub of a coronation. Not only has the acclaimed series been away for so long—season two premiered December 8, 2017! We were all young then! Meghan and Harry were barely engaged at that point!—but the entire series has been recast like it’s a Batman reboot. Though merely a year has passed between the dramatic events of the season 2 finale and the third season premiere, showrunner and Queen Whisperer Peter Morgan has made the revolutionary choice to age up the characters not through digital manipulation, like a reverse Irishman, or by dubious prosthetics, but by casting actual actors to play close to their actual ages. The slow and steady progress of time: what a concept!
As a result, Emmy-winner Claire Foy’s curious, enigmatic, sometimes tetchy Queen Elizabeth gives way to Oscar-winner Olivia Colman’s take, a woman who is more confident and more rigid than she was in her younger years. One is tempted to call the new monarch self-assured, but as the season progresses it’s not always her self in which she’s assured so much as it is the position. She’s Crown-assured.
Gone too is Matt Smith’s insouciant bad boy Prince Philip, whose petulance often weighed heavy on the plot of the first two seasons; now comes Tobias Menzies as a somewhat chastened but still priggish man turning his aggression inward as he faces middle age. Vanessa Kirby’s delightful, rebellious Princess Margaret gives way to an equally delightful, but markedly sadder Princess Margaret in the capable hands of Helena Bonham Carter. The season also adds adult versions of Princess Ann (Erin Doherty) and Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor) and, no shade to the children who played them before, but the concomitant uptick in dramatic line readings is exquisite.
While season 3 has no shortage of drama-filled moments, overall it’s a calmer, more introspective run, despite the occurrence of some of the most indelible events of the 1960s and ’70s in the UK—the death of Winston Churchill, the Aberfan tragedy, the moon landing, and the mining strike of 1974.
I should disclose, I knew literally nothing about any of these things prior to watching The Crown (the existence of the moon remains an open question in my book). I spent my schooling years learning all the lyrics to Rent so the events of the late 1960s and 1970s in the United Kingdom got a bit of a short shrift. As a result, I watch every season of The Crown with the same eager anticipation and slack-jawed surprise that most people bring to Game of Thrones. I never know what’s going to happen next. A dragon could actually show up and take Queen Elizabeth on a road trip and I’d be like, “Wow, gonna have to Wikipedia that.”
Still, it’s remarkable how adept Morgan and the cast are at conveying well-known (to some) historical fact in a narratively compelling new light. To wit, these are the standout aspects of season 3, which will you’ll want to rewind and replay as you fire up Google once again.
Lock him up!
Despite the fact that it’s an English show based on actual English historical events from 50 years ago, there are quite a few moments during which The Crown feels like it is making very pointed references to present-day U.S. politics. Perhaps that’s just my American-brand narcissism talking, but beginning the season with an episode in which Queen Elizabeth suspects that Prime Minister Harold Wilson (Jason Watkins) is actually a Russian spy? In this economy? Can’t be purely a coincidence. The reveal of the true spy, art historian Anthony Blunt, is a deft marriage of palace intrigue and a very funny performance by Colman. The actress is given the opportunity to showcase her breadth of dramatic talents this season, but the Queen, despite being known for her wicked sense of humor, isn’t exactly a comedic role. When those moments do come, though, Colman pounces on them with aplomb.
Another “are they saying more than they’re saying moment?” comes when Princess Margaret is dispatched to D.C. to try to woo a coarse and crude U.S. President during a White House visit. As someone who seems pathologically unable to mention Lyndon B. Johnson without blurting out the fact that he would just whip his “vice president” out of his pants literally all the time, I am duty bound to inform you that The Crown finds a way to reference this gross habit and it’s perfect. Fortunately HBC’s Princess Margaret is nowhere to be seen at that moment. Can you imagine?! When she and LBJ do connect, however, his coarseness and her ribaldry are surprisingly good counterpoints and they get along swimmingly. The chemistry here is at Kevin Hart/Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson levels.
Honestly, Princess Margaret should be a caricature of a Helena Bonham Carter character: she’s a smoking, singing, drinking, cavorting, churlish sibling with no respect for decorum. This isn’t just in HBC’s wheelhouse; Helena Bonham Carter is the wheel. For this reason, it’s a pity she isn’t given very much to do in most of the season’s episodes, because every moment she is given is extraordinary.
Hot Prince Charles
Josh O’Connor, who plays a 20-something Prince Charles, has been in my thirst Rolodex for a minute thanks to his sensational and v. v. sexy performance in God’s Own Country. While I was excited to see him cast on The Crown, I was very unprepared for the concept of a Hot Prince Charles. This is deeply confusing to me. This season we watch Hot Prince Charles fall head-over-heels in love with the future Camilla Parker Bowles (Emerald Fennell), chafe under his mother’s thumb, and be hot and glum all over Wales. A triumph!
The Princess Diaries
Erin Doherty’s performance as Queen Elizabeth’s second child is the breakout of the season. As someone who, like her aunt Margaret, doesn’t care much for the strictures of the monarchy, Doherty’s Anne puts a deliciously arch spin on every line delivery. You find yourself eagerly anticipating the moment when Princess Anne will slink into a scene, drop a wicked bon mot, then swan away to hook up with Andrew Parker Bowles.
Interestingly, during the period that the season covers, Princess Anne endured a harrowing and violent kidnapping attempt. As the would-be kidnapper struggled to get Princess Anne out of her car, she had what she would later characterize as “a very irritating conversation,” with him through the shut door. “Please come out of the car,” the man cajoled her. She scoffed in reply: “Bloody likely.” High drama and solid gold Princess Anne content. And yet none of it makes it into the third season of The Crown. I’m upset!
Prince Philip: Rocketman
As he approaches middle age, Prince Philip, ever discontented, finds himself adrift and gets moony about the space landing. Tobias Menzies is superb as the royal who is still quite often a jerk, but finds himself opening to new possibilities for his life. The Ad Astra midlife crisis plot device is fairly well-worn, but there are a couple turns that make this particular take refreshing, including a room full of priests and Buzz Aldrin with a cold.
Queen Mommy Dearest
Okay now we’re talking drama! The Crown‘s cinematography, already lush, goes full award-winning independent film during an episode in which the Queen Mother (Marion Bailey) and Lord Mountbatten (Charles Dance) make heel turns as they try to break up Prince Charles and Camilla Shand in the middle of a coal miners strike. There’s one shot of the Queen Mother draped across a couch in a candlelit room, framed by an enormous fireplace that is, literally, delicious. I want to eat it with a spoon.
Sister Act Two
Prince Philip’s mother! Shows up! And she’s a chain-smoking, mischievous nun! This was a plot line that, when I saw it, I sprinted to Wikipedia. It’s so wild and has such a different energy than the rest of the show that I was convinced that it was an embellishment. But it turns out: fact!
Two words: Derek Jacobi
Okay, I definitely thought that I’d had my fill of Edward VIII, the Duke of Windsor, particularly after season 2’s reveal of his support of Adolf Hitler. The performance was grand but the character could’ve stayed off-camera in France forever, in my opinion. But the superb Derek Jacobi joins the cast as the ailing former monarch and the coda it provides is surprisingly cathartic. I will admit, for five whole minutes of screen time, I had no idea who this dude was supposed to be because I didn’t expect Edward VIII to show up again, let alone be recast. The past is full of surprises!
The Garden of Earthly Delights
Late in the season, Princess Margaret, her marriage to Lord Snowdon in tatters, takes up with a plant-obsessed cutie-patootie she meets at some sort of rich British AirBnB key party situation. It’s a breath of fresh air for Margaret’s storyline and a bit of a sexy romp as she buys him skimpy swimsuits and flies him off to exotic beaches. It does not hurt that Roddy Llewellyn, said cutie-patootie, is played by Harry Treadaway, whom you see above. I do not mind this at all. I will say, this storyline careens a little abruptly into the final moments of the season, which focus on an introspective Queen Elizabeth. It’s a little jarring and *pushes up glasses* ahistorical, as the series makes it looks like the relationship was over in a matter of weeks whilst Wikipedia tells me they saw each other for eight years. Bring me more Harry Treadaway in a Speedo, Peter Morgan!
Porchey and Ponies
I have to say, one of my favorite Crown recurring storylines is “Queen Elizabeth gets tired of her job; hangs out with Porchey (whom she maybe loved once and is possibly her soulmate???) and they look at horses.” If you like that too, have I got great news for you! I would watch a whole series of these two characters having chaste picnics and letting the comfortable silences do the talking. Well, that and Harry Treadaway occasionally traipsing through on his way to the pool. These are my demands.
The Crown season 3 is streaming on Netflix now.