The Crown, Netflix’s $100 million prestige drama about the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, is not the sauciest royal programming out there: See The Royals, The Tudors, or I Wanna Marry Harry for more orgiastic viewing options. A slow-paced, lavishly made series created by Peter Morgan, who also wrote The Queen and The Audience, The Crown follows young queen Elizabeth II (Claire Foy) from her wedding in 1947 up until the Suez Crisis in 1956, as she grapples with the evolving nature of the monarchy and the conflict between public life and private self.
Unlike the last queen Foy played — Wolf Hall’s Anne Boleyn — Queen Elizabeth is decidedly not a messy bitch who lives for drama. Throughout the series, the young queen is an even-tempered and sure-handed leader, weighing options and making thoughtful choices. But viewers looking for a splash of royal intrigue certainly won’t be disappointed; there are plenty of folk in the queen’s orbit who are more than happy to deliver a dose of pettiness with their petticoats.
In preparation for your binge-watch, the Cut presents a drama-lover’s guide to the royal intrigues and scandals of Netflix’s latest TV extravaganza.
The disgraced king:
Hanging over Elizabeth’s regime like a shadow is her uncle, King Edward VIII (Alex Jennings), who chose to abdicate the throne in order to marry the woman he loved, the twice-divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson (Lia Williams). The king’s star-crossed romance threw the monarchy into crisis and ultimately resulted in the king being exiled from his family, forced to live out his life as an American socialite. (Sad!) Jennings’s Edward injects a healthy dose of snark into the royal proceedings, slamming the monarchy at any chance, kicking up a fuss when Wallis doesn’t get invited to his niece’s coronation, and devising rude nicknames for family members. (He derides his family as “a vile tawdry rabble” and “a sad desiccated bunch of hyenas,” among other deliciously Shakespearean insults.) Wallis doesn’t get as much screen time, but she’s such a compelling character — a mercilessly ambitious, pug-adoring possible Nazi-sympathizer, who once famously said it was impossible to be either “too rich or too thin” — that you’ll want to read more on her when the show ends.
The illicit romance:
While Elizabeth may be the picture of composure, her younger sister Princess Margaret is Buckingham Palace’s resident bad girl. A haughty flirt prone to wearing jewel-encrusted, off-the-shoulder gowns while puffing on a cigarette, Margaret follows in her uncle’s footsteps by embarking on a scandalous romance: She falls in love with a married man, her father King George’s former adviser, Royal Air Force Captain Peter Townsend. After a journalist catches Margaret picking fluff from his uniform, a massive scandal erupts. The government and monarchy resoundingly object to their relationship, while the press and public are captivated by it, prefiguring the hubbub that would surround future royal-commoner couplings like Kate and William.
While Elizabeth initially pledges to support her sister’s relationship, she caves to Establishment pressure and has Peter temporarily banished from the country. The sisters’ relationship grows strained, as Margaret increasingly resents living in her sister’s shadow. (Of all the reasons to envy your siblings, a line of accession has to be among the toughest.) In turn, Elizabeth is threatened by Margaret’s natural ease and charisma and jealous of her freedom. “I can’t help if they want to write about me,” Margaret snaps at one point, pointing out that she brings “character and excitement” to the position.
Elizabeth responds by pointing to the trauma of Edward’s abdication: “You showed individuality, and that made people panic,” she responds sternly. “They don’t want individuality. The last person who showed character almost brought the ship down.”
Meanwhile, in the smoke-filled rooms of postwar Downing Street, an aging, increasingly addled Winston Churchill (John Lithgow) — who likes to do business while drinking whiskey in the bathtub — tries to fend off allegations that he’s no longer up to the job. Throughout The Crown, Churchill struggles to be the leader he once was, while his would-be successor implores the Crown to oust him from his post. Still, despite early misgivings, the evolving relationship between Elizabeth and Winston proves to be one of the series’ most moving relationships — second to Liz and her corgis, of course.
A marital feud:
Elizabeth’s husband, Prince Philip (Dr. Who’s Matt Smith), finds himself stifled by royal life — its demands cut into his ability to do adventure sports — and his wife’s power presents a challenge to his fragile manhood. Things come to a head when he refuses to kneel to her at her coronation, because he will feel “like a eunuch, an amoeba” bending before her. “Are you my queen or my wife?” he asks. Liz, to her credit, shuts him down hard. “I am both,” she snaps. “And a strong man would be able to kneel to both.” In the post-coronation episodes, Philip continues to challenge his wife’s authority, while Elizabeth stokes his jealousy by reconnecting with an old horseback-riding “friend.” Draaaama!