As The Crown dominated this year’s Emmy Awards, sweeping seven awards, we take a deep dive into what makes Peter Morgan’s show unstoppable.
Netflix’s British Royalty saga The Crown swept the Emmys this year with a remarkable seven-win victory including Outstanding Drama Series, and four acting awards for Tobiaz Menzies, Olivia Colman, Josh O'Connor and Gillian Anderson. The fourth and most recent instalment of the series has been widely considered by critics to be the best. Chronologically the most accurate and straightforward, this season saw the introduction of Princess Diana’s (Emma Corrin) character as she navigates her tumultuous relationship with Prince Charles (O’Connor).
Creator Peter Morgan, who based the British monarch as his central subject, divides each season into a decade of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign. This season, the narrative focused on the 1980s, a challenging time for the throne as the nation entered a zone of political awareness and consequent dissatisfaction with the monarchy. Between the death of Lord “Dickie” Mountbatten (Charles Dance) after a planned bombing by the IRA, and Diana’s acute misery pre-divorce ruining family functions like the royal Christmas dinner, this season brought an array of subjects that audiences could sink their teeth into.
Morgan’s purposeful move to also place the monarchy in complete contrast to the ever-growing public support for the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (Anderson), played out brilliantly with audiences. The steely tension that both Anderson and Colman (who plays the Queen) managed to create as two female heads of state, was both fascinating and intriguing. To top it off, the fact that these incidents may actually have happened, provided audiences with the extra zhuzh.
Yet, The Crown’s season 4’s widespread popularity may not only be the consequence of historical happenstance. Morgan’s painstaking efforts to build a strong foundation was visible from the get-go. When The Crown premiered in 2016, days ahead of Election Day, most critics were averse to its subject matter, sceptical that it might be inappropriate and overt. Ironically, Morgan had an equal, if not greater, challenge. He was placing a woman front and centre of his Netflix series, who, throughout her life was recognized for her perfect un-remarkability. The fact that the concepts of duty, diplomacy, protocol, and constancy may well be the cornerstones of running a country, but they had to be re-packaged for television viewing.
The show gradually grew a fan base, with more and more turning into its opulent sets, slick dressage, taut writing, and real-life characters. The sensationalism of peeking into the privileged, private lives took over Netflix and TV, resulting in a continual spike in TRPs. Even though the initial seasons may feel like a drawl, there was a necessary sedateness to the narrative of Elizabeth taking on the throne and then coming into her own as a national leader. Even though sometimes, it may have felt like the series’ plotlines had not yet caught up with The Crown’s true interests (both historically and thematically), it became evident that season 4 had all the intentions of altering that. With Diana and Thatcher standing firm on the meteoric sensationalism scale, The Crown had only upward to move.
It’s important to understand that The Crown would never be only about Elizabeth. Though she forms the narrative fulcrum, the series showed intentions of delving into subplots and exploring the crevices behind the functioning of the most-discussed royal family in the world. Once Claire Foy (who played a young Elizabeth), took on the mantle of the queen, the show decided to mainly focus on the vulnerabilities that come because of new responsibilities, unexpected challenges, and unforeseen crises. John Lithgow’s Winston Churchill also loomed large over the initial season, making Elizabeth’s political sores even rawer. Fresh out of the hangover of hyper-nationalism of World War II, the second season began exploring uncharted territories – whether it be the world tour that exposed the Crown’s irrelevance in a post-colonial setup, or Charles’ acute struggles during his days at boarding school.
The series played out its meta-narratives well also. The breakdown of Charles and Diana’s marriage was reminiscent of the struggles that a young Elizabeth and Philip faced during their early years. Similarly, Helena Bonham Carter’s Princess Margaret also laments that the only reason she could not marry her beloved was because traditionality deemed it unfit. The Crown has a unique way of playing out these mini-plots to paint a larger picture onto the royal canvas, giving the audiences a clear depiction of what life behind the gilded doors looked like.
The Crown worked because along with being a historical tableau of the royals, it also became a historical tableau of England. Keeping in tandem with Morgan’s theatricality, the fourth season finale sees Philip warning Diana on the primacy of the woman she cockily terms “the captain of the team.” “Everyone in this system,” he brings to her attention, “is a lost, lonely, irrelevant outsider, apart from the one person—the only person—that matters.” These words hover pregnantly in the air as the camera pans a final shot of Colman (the actress will be replaced by Imelda Staunton in the final two seasons). Philip’s words run deep; any and every other individual in this gigantic setup is dispensable, but nothing takes priority over the monarch or the institution she represents.