The Crown chooses to end in 2005, when (as the audience knows) the Queen still has another 17 years to reign. It would have been difficult to cram the remaining years into the already rushed pace of the final episodes; and, if the attempt had been made, it would probably (based on previous precedents) have gotten over-focused on the Harry-Meghan storyline, which would benefit nobody (except perhaps the exiled Court in Montecito). As it is, while the Queen does not die in the series finale, her death is, as it were, anticipated.
Throughout all this, the series remains forever stuck in what seems to be its creator’s leitmotif: the purported conflict (at least in a modern, narcissistic, therapeutic culture) between a life of duty and public service and the pursuit of one’s own personal happiness. In real life, Queen Elizabeth herself may have been a shining rebuttal to that series obsession, although some of her relatives – from Uncle David (The Duke of Windsor) to her sister (Princess Margaret), to her son and heir (the Prince of Wales, now King Charles III), and finally perhaps her grandsons – have at times provided fuel for this modernist fire. Probably that is why the Queen Mother’s death in 2002 gets relatively brief treatment, while that of Princess Margaret earlier that same year gets so much more attention. Both were central figures in the actual Queen’s life, but Margaret’s sadder story better fits the duty-vs.-happiness arc that the series stubbornly insists on sticking with.
The series, brilliant as it is in so many ways and beautifully acted, seems stuck in this ideological obsession that being a captive to tradition and responsibility and public service is a prison, which prevents one from being one’s true self. It seems to want a pseudo-happy ending in the Queen’s abdication. Whether or not the Queen actually considered that course of action (as the series suggests) in 2005, the fact, which the show must acknowledge, is that in the end she didn’t. She kept her vow of lifelong commitment. Hence, the dilemma of how to end the show, which causes the Queen to be presented as reviewing her reign and wondering whether she and her role are really relevant or obsolete.
A suitable foil for this is Tony Blair, the “modernizing” Prime Minister, whose (temporary) popularity forces Elizabeth to consider all sorts of superficial “reforms,” like eliminating the Warden of the Swans and reducing the splendor of the State Opening of Parliament. Eventually, Elizabeth realizes what presumably she has always inwardly understood, the there is strength in tradition, which it is her real role to represent and preserve.
Ironically, it is the iconoclastic Cherie Blair (of all people), who inadvertently rebuts her husband’s modernizing program, when she makes an obvious analogy to the recent experience of the Catholic Church: « They modernized … they got rid of the Latin and the incense and the miracle and the mystery, and people stopped coming. »
Of course, the audience knows that the Queen will outlast Blair, who will end his term much less popular than when he began it. As the Queen Mother says, in her only good line in this final season, « Prime Ministers come in on a blaze of glory and good will, » to which Princess Anne responds, « and leave on a stretcher a few years later with the reputations and usually their health in tatters. » It is a theme that the series has repeatedly touched on, season after season, but which could have been more fully developed, this perennial contrast between the superficiality of democratic electoral politics and the solidity of the tradition the monarchy represents.
Ironically, after all the earlier preoccupation with Charles’s failed marriage and his much more successful relationship with Camilla, it is only in the final episode that that significant storyline returns to center-stage with Queen’s decision at long last to permit Charles and Camilla to marry. The complexities of that decision and the subsequent wedding are, however, rushed through and somewhat overshadowed by the final episode’s inevitable focus on the impending end of the Queen’s reign, and its implication that only Elizabeth was actually able to do this impossible job. Not insignificantly, The Crown presents Prince Philip describing the Queen (and himself) as a “dying breed.”
But maybe, the series suggests, her grandson William will be up to it. It is William who is the main protagonist in these final episodes – as he grows up, copes with the aftermath of his mother’s death, and finds true love and happiness with Kate, while beginning to differentiate himself from his younger brother and so become more like a 21st-century version of what the Queen had been. The series does highlight the apparently close and mutually supportive relationship between the Queen and her grandson, all of which is generally thought to be historically accurate. Whether it is historically accurate that Kate’s mother schemed from early on the achieve a royal romance for her daughter, I do not know. If she was not the schemer the series suggests, then it seriously misrepresents the Middletons. Be that as it may, the William coming-of-age and falling-in-love story becomes (along with the end of the Queen’s reign) the main plot of these final episodes, to the point that the other stories seem secondary at best and sideshows at most. Again the implication, unfair to King Charles (much as actual history has been unfairly underestimated King Charles) is that it will be William who will be able to do what needs to be done to make the monarchy more fully viable in this celebrity-obsessed contemporary time.
The story starts with a grief-stricken William harshly lashing out at his father, as he struggles not just to cope with the loss of his mother but to adjust to a future lifetime of unrelenting public scrutiny. William is well-played, and his story takes on a compelling character. His hapless younger brother is an updated version of Princess Margaret. As she played the seemingly self-centered sister and foil to the Queen, Harry plays the predictably disreputable younger brother as foil to the more serious William. While Harry’s youthful misbehaviors reflect real history, one wonders whether some of the royal brothers’ contemporary animosity and alienation from one another has been dramatically retrojected back. It is not clear to me that Harry’s eventual tragedy was inevitable, apart from his unfortunate marriage. But perhaps, as this story seems to suggest, it was.
The Crown concludes with Charles and Camilla’s wedding and the Queen, who still has another 17 years to reign, rather clear in her role and ready to see it through to its end. In that at least, The Crown clearly got the main point right.