Apollo 11 lifts off from Cape Canaveral, and for a minute, Prince Phillip (played by Tobias Menzies) has something in common with everyone else on the planet: He’s glued to the TV. He watches as the spacecraft breaks free of Earth’s orbit, relishing the astronaut’s freedom, feeling the full weight of the crown.
Sixties-era liberation movements — on Earth and in the sky — test the royals’ suffocating sense of duty, tradition and public service in season three of Netflix’s “The Crown,” which premieres Sunday. The juxtaposition is not an entirely new one for the series, which premiered in 2016 with Claire Foy as the young Queen Elizabeth II. But in the new season, it takes on a fascinating life of its own, with Olivia Colman as the maturing matriarch.
Now approaching 40, the queen has found peace in her once-crumbling marriage, but the UK itself is falling apart. The economy is tanking, the working class is on the verge of revolt, and Parliament is hopelessly split. And if the most visible symbol of British power has learned anything over the years, it’s that she has no power at all. Only sway.
Colman is masterful as a cold but not uncaring figurehead for a country in need of solace. She has to fake tears when touring a disaster site where a schoolhouse full of children were buried under an avalanche of coal sludge. She’s bothered, but mostly by why she can’t feel things the way others do. She wants to feel, but even if she could, her station demands an inhuman detachment. Colman carries that imbalance with her throughout the season, frostily dressing down her own son, Charles (played by Josh O’Connor), then tenderly talking about the racehorses she loves as if they were her real children.
The drama, which kicks off in 1964, also finds that the rest of Buckingham Palace has matured. Or at least grown older by a few years.
The troubled Princess Margaret is played with zest by the brilliant Helena Bonham Carter. The royal black sheep has finally found an era that suits her: the swinging '60s, where anything goes. She smokes, drinks, parties and wears colorful mini dresses, all outside the castle walls. The crown frowns, but the public loves her.
She is the flip side of the stuffy protocol and etiquette that define her sister, though she still craves to be in the spotlight. She’s a big hit with President Johnson, whom she charms into sending aid to England. (Not so much with astronaut Neil Armstrong’s wife, who meets her at a palace reception to celebrate the moon landing. “Please don’t tell me you want to talk about children,” slurs a bored Margaret, lighting another cigarette.)
“The Crown’s” attention to historical detail is stunning, as usual. It spans one of the more tumultuous decades in modern history, pitting social and political upheaval as well as modern technological advancements up against the cloistered lives inside Buckingham Palace. Be prepared to Google, a lot: “Prime Minister, 1960s, ousted in a coup?” “Image of Lord Louis Mountbatten” (played in the series by the eloquent but always slightly dangerous Charles Dance). “Aberfan.”
Sweeping historical significance aside, it’s the intimate, internal battles make this season just as riveting as — if not stronger than — the last two. The Duke of Edinburgh has made peace with his role as the queen’s arm candy, but the former pilot is now facing a midlife crisis. What purpose has he served, and what will he achieve, if anything, before he dies? Perhaps he would have made it to the moon, if not for his bloodline.
The crown has stunted the real ambitions of all who orbit the throne. It’s cut them off from the rest of the world and almost guaranteed they’ll never marry out of love (poor Charles).
Aging and opportunities lost and go hand in hand throughout season three. The queen, who refers to herself as an “old bat,” laments in a rare, vulnerable moment that she’d dreamed of breeding horses until “the other thing came along.” And Prince Charles’ great-uncle Mountbatten, a decorated war hero and influential politician, isn’t done when he’s ousted from government: He tells his aged, dying sister, the mysterious Princess Alice (Google it), that he still needs to be in there, fixing things, because he “still cares” about England.
“One of the few joys of being as old as we both are is that it’s not our problem,” she says. “There came a moment, around the time I turned 70, when it dawned on me I was no longer a participant, rather a spectator … then it’s just a matter of waiting and not getting in the way.”
Nuanced and powerful dialogue runs throughout the series, and in the hands of the stellar cast, it makes for indelible moments.
Heir to the throne Prince Charles emerges midseason as a student at Cambridge who’s found a hobby he’s passionate about: acting. Then comes the call to duty, and the dashing of dreams. He’s sent to Wales during an independence movement that doesn’t want him. He immerses himself in the culture, learns to speak Welsh and miraculously turns the region in his favor after delivering a heartfelt speech.
The warmth he engenders, however, doesn’t extend to his mother. There’s no “well done,” or even a pat on the back, when he returns. The queen is disappointed with all the emotion in his speech.
“To do nothing, to say nothing, is the hardest job of all,” she says to her crestfallen son. “It requires every ounce of the energy we have. To be impartial is not natural, it’s not human. … (They want us to speak), but the minute that we do, we will have declared a position, a point of view, and that’s one thing as the royal family we are not entitled to do. That’s why we have to hide it, keep things to ourselves.”
“I have a beating heart, a character. A will of my own … Mummy, I have a voice,” he pleads.
“Let me let you in on a secret: No one wants to hear it.”
Oh, dear. Pour the tea. Put on the armor. “The Crown” is back.