Self is Boring
Even in its decline, "The Crown" gets its point across.
The Crown is one of Netflix’s best achievements, not least because by the time the screen goes black on its sixth and final season, most viewers will be greatly relieved. Its first two seasons are among the best things I’ve ever watched; the next two after that had highs and lows and stuck the landing pretty well. The final two seasons are mostly a misfire that lingers lost after its magic—more on that word in a second—fades. The series finale is good and tries to redeem what came before, but the way in which does that is deeply revealing.
The final episode of the series is arguably the only one of the season that is actually centered on Elizabeth II. It is not hard to realize that it is for this reason that it hits so much better than the episodes before it. The Queen (and we may add her husband Philip, Duke of Edinburgh) is a far more interesting person than almost all of the supporting characters. Why? Because by series’ end, it’s clear that she is perhaps the only person in the family who truly believes what she says she believes. The people around her are mostly avatars for the 20th century civic religion of moralistic therapeutic deism. They divorce when it suits them; they show up when they have nothing better to do. They pray because it’s the job. They believe (and say) that Elizabeth’s steely determination to fulfill her duty and lose herself in the institution of the monarchy is a crime against her individuality—and worse, a crime against theirs.
Season six begins with several episodes that chronicle the last weeks of Elizabeth’s ex-daughter-in-law Diana. This decision—to zoom on Diana almost to the exclusion of everything else in these episodes—is a miscalculation on both a technical and existential level. Technically, the writers are trying to make bricks without straw. Diana’s story is so well-known, and her final days are perhaps the most exhaustively chronicled of any person before or since, that there’s just not much compelling to see. But more significantly, it’s a miscalculation because Diana is herself just not a very interesting person in this series. She is sympathetically portrayed, and certainly we can see how difficult her marriage and life became. Yet Diana does not cut that differently a figure than the self-oriented people around her. Perhaps the series does not reflect reality in this regard; I have little way of knowing (true for 99% of other people). But the storyline around Diana is boring because it’s so self-referential, so predictably therapeutic, and so dominated by the themes of private fulfillment and victimization.
All this comes to a crescendo with a disastrous decision to have Diana’s ghost appear to both Charles and Elizabeth. It’s clear the filmmakers intend this to be some kind of eschatological judgment on both characters, to give the audience the catharsis of seeing Diana haunt her former relatives. Yet these sequences utterly fail. Charles was unfaithful to his wife? Yes. Diana was similarly unfaithful to her husband? Yes. The implosion of their marriage is clearly a two-way disaster, with a boorish, morally insensate husband and an immature, self-referential wife contributing, if not equally, then cooperatively, to their children’s suffering. There is no reason for an objective viewer to think that Diana is so saintly as to deliver spiritual judgment on Elizabeth from beyond the grave.
For six seasons, The Crown has been populated by characters who are outraged that there are obstacles standing between them and desire-gratification. The more these characters are on-screen, the less compelling and less interesting the show is. That’s why the first two seasons of The Crown are so rich. The story of Elizabeth and Philip’s growing into their roles, learning how much the world outside needed their institution to suceeed, and fighting for their marriage for the sake of that world was a mesmerizing thing. It was not that Elizabeth was just that more righteous than the people around her (though I wouldn’t argue the point), it was that the Queen really did find a reality above and beyond the actualization of her most immediate desires. To watch her restrain her words, not give an opinion, refuse to take a lover, absorb the wrath of her sister, stay still as by turns her husband, children, and in-laws scandalize themselves in the eyes of the kingdom—to see all this is to be pulled up into a higher register of human purpose.
When it comes to contemplating Charles Taylor’s “disenchanted” modern world, it is worth asking to what extent self-preoccupation could be a primary mechanism by which the world becomes disenchanted. Certainly we can talk of atheism, technology, sexual ethics, and more, as the vehicles by which moderns are conditioned to lose a sense of the divine. But perhaps there is a sense in which the most direct stripping of our sense of transcendence, awe, and worship happens simply as we place ourselves at the center of the universe.
There is a recurring theme in The Crown where people ask what the purpose of the monarchy even is in a modern, egalitarian world. One of season’s six best episodes portrays Tony Blair’s effort to “modernize” the monarchy by suggesting to the Queen several cuts and changes that might curry favor with the public. Near the end of the episode, the Queen tells Blair that the monarchy is dependent upon lavish ceremony and centuries-old titles because those are part of the “magic.” That word is used several times throughout the series to describe the monarchy. The chorus of “Zadok the Priest” as oil is poured over Britain’s newly coronated sovereign is magic. The regalia and tradition of the opening of Parliament is magic. The rules about royal marriages are magic. The boats and estates and horses are magic. Even the royal bagpipe player, blaring out early morning music to seemingly no one in particular, is magic.
The Queen is right. As she delivers a monologue to Blair, correcting his utilitarian view of the monarchy, we feel she speaks for us. And yet, is it really magic? Or, does the monarchy—with its trappings, its obligations, its solemnity—feel like magic simply because it decenters, in word and deed and beauty, the self? Does it feel like magic for the same reason a train feels magic compared to a car—we are out of the driver’s seat, not in control, simply aboard a power we can trust but not hope to tame? The Queen’s defense of the monarchy resonates not just with our whimsical appreciation for the age of chivalry, but with our sense of what’s most real. The characters who fight for more expressive individualism, who rage against their duties and marriage vows, are characters that leave us—the audience, the future, the generations looking upon what Petrarch called “the pure radiance of the past”—feeling empty. Selfishness and magic are incompatible. No one can serve two masters.
The Crown’s slow descent into subpar melodrama is, in fact, part of its value. It soars when what’s happening onscreen is pulling us upward, and it languishes when its eye becomes fixed low. Self is boring. Adultery is boring. Divorce is boring. Bottomless self-expression is boring. For those whose urges are being gratified, this is hard to see. For everyone else, it’s much more clear. And that is why the “magic” of a stoic institution holds sway. The throne is built not primarily for the one who sits on it now, but for the ones who sat before and will sit after. And perhaps that is true not just for royals, but for all of us.
I won’t spoil the last scene in the series, except to say that what Elizabeth sees in front of her is something you and I can see too. It is fitting that the series ends in an abbey, camera zooming out on its main character, until suddenly the church looks massive and the Queen quite small. We cannot miss the meaning.
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