It’s been just under two years since a new season of The Crown hit our Netflix queues, and while only a handful of months have passed in the series’ timeline (season two ended in March 1964, with the birth of Queen Elizabeth II’s fourth child, Prince Edward), the message of the third-season opener is quite clear: The times, they are a-changin’.
Anyone who is a fan of the Peter Morgan–created series knew that the third installment would feature its biggest transformation to date: a brand-new cast stepping into the roles vacated by Claire Foy, Matt Smith, Vanessa Kirby, and Matthew Goode. (Most of the supporting characters have been recast as well.) As sad as it was to say goodbye to Foy & Co., we’ve had ample time to prepare for the cast transition over to an equally robust acting foursome, who have so seamlessly slipped into the main roles of the Queen, Prince Philip, Princess Margaret, and Antony Armstrong-Jones that I’m not so sure it was necessary for “Olding” to be so heavy-handed with the, “Hey! Things in Britain are really different now!” themes. In the span of a single episode, Elizabeth juggles both governmental upheaval and Cold War paranoia, with the death of her political mentor, Winston Churchill, shoehorned in for good measure.
Do I even need to go into what a joy it is to watch British national treasure Olivia Colman, an actress faced with the formidable challenge of breathing life and depth into a monarch who must be emotionless yet human, step into the Queen’s shoes? Or Helena Bonham Carter, infusing Princess Margaret with just the right balance of royal fabulousness and marital misery? With such thespian powerhouses assuming these roles, it feels almost treacherous to not heap on the warranted praise.
So in case you weren’t certain that we’ve reunited with the royal family at the dawn of a particularly turbulent time in British history, by the end of “Olding,” it’s pretty hard to remain in doubt. But we cannot talk about “Olding” without mentioning the adorable cold open, in which The Crown addresses the cast change via a bit of lamp-shading: Colman’s Queen is presented with a brand-new stamp featuring her profile, while being forced to confront her encroaching mortality, as the new stamp is compared with the previous one, featuring Foy’s profile. I only wish I possessed a fraction of Elizabeth’s sense of humor, as the monarch claps back at this bothersome display of ageism by referring to herself as an “old bat” — which, let’s be honest, is preferable to “mother of four and settled sovereign.”
(Also infuriating is how Elizabeth, and even Margaret, to an extent, in both the real-life world of the royal family and the faux universe of The Crown, have reached middle-aged doyenne-dom when neither have even hit 40 yet.)
“Olding” begins in earnest on October 15, 1964, when, for the first time during Elizabeth’s reign, a general election sees the old-guard Conservative Party voted out and the Labour Party set to form a new government. This was hardly a surprise considering the Conservative Party was in tatters following the Profumo Affair — also covered in The Crown’s season-two finale — the previous year. Still, Liz is plenty nervous having to work with a prime minister, Harold Wilson (Jason Watkins), who not only doesn’t come from her rarefied circles (as evidenced by the first-ever voice-over of an equerry reciting the rules for meeting the Queen), but is rumored to have been a KGB spy.
Everywhere Elizabeth turns, someone is making reference to Wilson’s alleged Soviet activities. There’s her husband, Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies, making his Outlander absence far more bearable with this new gig), dishing about Wilson’s Russian code name, “Olding.” A bedridden Winston Churchill (John Lithgow, making a welcome single-scene cameo), also raises his own suspicions.
The Queen is swiftly assured by the head of MI5, Martin Furnival Jones, that her new prime minister is not running a treasonous operation out of 10 Downing Street. No collaboration between Wilson and the Soviets was ever proved, though there’s always the “Harold Wilson Conspiracy Theories” Wikipedia rabbit hole. Fortunately for The Crown, there was a way juicier espionage story coming straight out of the Queen’s residence that Morgan, who wrote “Olding,” didn’t even have to make up.
While the Queen is looking askance at Wilson and the Russian soldiers conveniently seated behind him at Churchill’s state funeral, an American named Michael Straight was blowing the whistle on a “senior KGB mole at the top of the British establishment.” The timeline of this development is condensed for the sake of TV, with Straight’s confession seemingly happening in conjunction with Churchill’s burial in late January 1965, and the Queen learning of the in-palace betrayal shortly afterward. But in reality, Straight surrendered to the Department of Justice in 1963, and the Queen was informed of the KGB mole’s identity in 1964. It was the unassuming, or, rather, “unremarkable,” Sir Anthony Blunt (Samuel West), an art historian employed as Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, who had been working for the Soviets longer than Elizabeth had been on the throne.
But the real pathos of this story, at least the way The Crown is telling it, is how Blunt’s unmasking once again demonstrates how more than a decade into Elizabeth’s reign, her role as head of state continues to render her powerless over not just what happens within her country, but within her own home. MI5 did indeed obtain a confession from Blunt, but, due to the potential for global embarrassment, his traitorous actions remained a government secret. And no amount of the Queen’s Godmother-inspired passive-aggressive art gallery speeches or scowls through a dark, rain-soaked window can alter that decision. Nor can Philip’s whispered threats of exposure, because The Crown is still suggesting that the Duke of Edinburgh was involved in the Profumo Affair, despite, you know, proof: Blunt, ever the smooth operator (you need to be one if you’re a spy!), blackmails Philip into clamming up by revealing he was responsible for hiding away multiple portraits of the Duke drawn by the osteopath at the center of the scandal, Stephen Ward.
The episode’s postscript mentions how Blunt received full immunity from prosecution and remained the Queen’s art curator until his 1972 retirement, suggesting that this was just another silenced historical event. But The Crown fails to mention the reason why this story could even be told in the first place: In 1979, Blunt’s treason was made public by then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and his knighthood subsequently revoked.
There’s a moment early on in “Olding” when Elizabeth, having visited with Churchill for the last time, gazes wistfully at a group of voters queuing up at their local polling station from the safe distance of her chauffeured car. It’s an image that I think best sums up the new season, with Colman’s somber visage acknowledging the continued irony of Elizabeth’s position. She is the most powerful person in the country, yet she is denied the one thing that gives power to her subjects: the vote. As monarch, Elizabeth must do little more than watch as the world makes decisions around her, yet somehow find a way to maintain control. To paraphrase Princess Margaret’s embroidered throw pillow, it’s not easy being a queen.