Queen Elizabeth II in March of 1953.
At first glance, Elizabeth II is an odd monarch to put at the center of a potentially massive, hideously expensive, lavish historical TV show. Netflix’s The Crown, out on November 4, includes ten episodes and covers only her accession and the first years of her reign. But as of now, the idea is that The Crown could be a huge, six-season series, extending over the full length of Elizabeth’s monarchy. To which a reasonable person might respond — “Elizabeth, really? The one with the corgis?”
Her record-setting reign, the longest in British history, has been defined by the scandals surrounding her. And they do surround her — her sister Margaret’s desire to marry a divorced man in the 1950s; her husband’s occasional gaffes; lapses in palace security; and then, of course, the entire sequence beginning with Charles’s marriage to Diana, affairs, leaked phone calls, Camilla, Diana’s death, Harry’s Nazi costume. But they never touch her. A story about Charles seems more immediately dramatic, or maybe one that might center on William, or Margaret, or really any of the people in her family. They have human flaws. There are outward signs of their inner turmoil. But Elizabeth? Elizabeth is just … Elizabeth, standing there, looking perfectly put-together, pleasant, and utterly unreadable.
That same human disconnect, the impermeable mask, the desperate desire to see beneath Elizabeth’s flawless monarchal exterior, is of course also the thing that could make her a fascinating subject for longform TV. It’s the thing we all want in drama, but more significantly, it’s the thing we always want in celebrity coverage. Celebs! Are they actually just like us? Let’s find out! And that, as much as anything else, is what makes Elizabeth’s reign such a potentially rich subject.
When we watch historical fictions about premodern monarchs, we watch in part because we’re fascinated by the confluence of power and personality. Elizabeth I came to power amid unbelievable political turmoil, and one of her key legacies was her ability to use her personal life as a political bargaining tool. Here she was, a new queen at age 25, and suddenly thrust into one of the most powerful positions in the Renaissance world. Queen Victoria, rendered comparatively powerless with the recent inventions of a House of Commons and a fledgling democracy, still had the ability to do significant behind-the-scenes political maneuvering, and worked to smooth over Britain’s relationship with France in the 19th century. By the early parts of the 20th century, the monarch was mostly a figurehead, but a figurehead has a lot of sway when you’re dealing with two World Wars.
And then you come to Elizabeth, who has little real power, who has been Queen of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth at a time when no zeppelins were dropping bombs on London, and whose entire life seems to represent a massive national question mark. What even is the monarchy now? What is the point? And she, in the middle of that big existential and constitutional question, provides answers mostly through her lack of answers. She directs a lot of charity work. She gives a Christmas Day address. She wears hats, and has corgis.
The point of a story about Elizabeth II, in other words, is not to unravel the personality of a ruler whose decisions and viewpoints shaped a nation. Instead, a portrait of Elizabeth II is something altogether less rooted in pragmatic policy, and something more about Zeitgeist, about nationhood, and about celebrity. She’s a relic from an outdated understanding of how the world worked, a figure whose governmental utility has been hollowed out from within, and all she’s left with is her face and her perpetually waving hand. And yet, all you have to do is think back to the scandals of the early ‘90s; Diana’s death; and William and Kate’s wedding, to see how much potency there still is in that implacable expression and the hand waving to the crowds.
Elizabeth is a prime example of how we use notable people to talk about bigger cultural narratives in the modern era — the very length of her reign, at this point, gives her about as many years of material as the longest-running daytime soaps. And as a result of simply being a human in a human family, we have lots of grist for the narrative mill. Changing attitudes toward divorce and remarriage, toward formality, toward the media and notoriety, toward love and propriety: All of them are readily available plots about the world that we can find and examine and tear apart within the royal family. Even better, Elizabeth’s age now lets us examine who we are today against a previous generation’s paradigm of the world. She’s a living Forsyte Saga, and her visibility means that she’s not just your beloved grandmother who still has some mid-century opinions. She’s the Queen, so her perspective on the world, on what the U.K. is as a country, on nationhood and social mores, is still a living piece of the United Kingdom’s identity. But at the same time, she’s essentially just a beloved and occasionally amusing national mascot, in a hat and a pearl necklace.
For all her age, there is something remarkably current about that. All I need to say is “Ken Bone” in order to make a case for how intensely we use and abuse our empty public figureheads. The trite reason we should care about Elizabeth II is the same under-considered reason we lob out about why people care about the Kardashians — these are people who are mostly famous for being famous. Elizabeth was the original “famous for being famous,” forced to confront issues of national visibility and fame at the exact same moment television came into its own as a household medium, and stuck there purely for her name and what she represents. And, as is always the case with celebrity narratives, the most fascinating and desirable part of the story is the search for authenticity and humanity within the public persona. It’s something The Crown works very hard to dig up and put on display, teasing apart the complete oddness of being born into a role you cannot discard without national scandal, and of somehow needing to modulate your inner life so that it can be compatible with a constantly visible exterior. It’s a story about the monarchy as being both reduced and elevated to a brand, and about a naturally reserved person who cannot escape her job as spokeswoman. When we look at her image and consider the gap between the implacable waving hand she presents to the world and the person we imagine her to “really be,” we’re considering how we modulate our own selves to do the same.
The Elizabeth II story is a fairy-tale story — she’s a princess, she marries Philip (portrayed in The Crown by a very dapper Matt Smith), there are big dresses and tiaras, there are obstacles to overcome — and over the course of her life, she takes on all the roles in the story. She’s the naïve young woman stepping into a position of national significance. She’s the wife and the mother. Later, she’s the evil older woman who vies for narrative dominance with the beautiful young princess. Now, she’s the elderly figurehead, a living representation of an earlier era, the matriarch you have to humor and placate while she’s still around. We should care about Elizabeth II because her history is all about the collision of self and public image, about façades and our obsession with peering beneath them, and about narratives of national identity. And also, yes, it’s a story about corgis.