Watching "The Crown" in the reign of President Trump is a trip into British nostalgia that leaves an American viewer with mixed feelings about the monarchy, the institution Americans loathed and left behind with a revolution of arms. Nevertheless, the democracy that followed is currently suffering from an overreaching populism with a president trying to fake out a "fake media," and it might benefit from a few lessons in nuance and understatement.
"The Crown" is a sophisticated television soap opera that runs against the grain of our troubled time. We watch Queen Elizabeth II grow as a sympathetic figurehead who uses her celebrity without flaunting it. She does what comes naturally through careful tutoring and artful tuning, and shows a flair for British understatement and profound personal self-discipline that contrasts vividly with the current style of in-your-face leadership in America.
Nobody elected Queen Elizabeth, and though her duties emerge more from the rules of decorum and tradition than from democratic custom and usage, those duties are circumscribed and limited by the law of the land as applied to a constitutional monarch. She's the most famous woman in the world today (Hillary Clinton, eat your heart out), having inherited her claim to the throne through her father because her uncle, former King Edward VIII, was a weakling of a king who served only for a mercifully short time and gave up all for love.
"The Crown," in its second season, feeds us with a silver spoon more about culture and character than government. It draws deeply on the costs of the decadence of Edward VIII, as we watch him move toward lust and love and away from obligation and duty, which inevitably leads him to nothing less than betrayal of his country after the abdication and the exposure of his nasty appreciation of the Nazi leadership in Germany.
There was no predetermined line for Edward's descent into disgrace, but it inhered in the character of a weak leader carried away by passion. One critic compares his abdication to expulsion from the Garden of Eden, but the abdicator in this account is both the one expelled and the snake in the grass.
The Netflix series runs through a spectrum of criticism from right to left. It's described as the jewel in the crown of conservatism by Kyle Smith in the National Review, where Elizabeth is a royal servant of the people, taking on the family obligation of patriotism and idealism. In a piece for The New York Review of Books, Jonathan Freedland sees her as a child trapped in a narrative lifted from "The Godfather" movies, where Elizabeth is a young Michael Corleone, who wanted to break free from his own powerful family dynasty to create a new and different path but could not achieve escape velocity.
So there's something here for everybody. There's a needed reminder that celebrity and power mean different things and are dependent upon where, when and why they're thrust upon the one chosen to serve. The early episodes, depicting a simpler earlier era, seem to move in slow motion compared with the hyper, high-tech, networked world we now uneasily inhabit.
American viewers of 21st-century television can observe these dramatic figures as sort of an updated Rorschach inkblot test, seeing in them what they want to see given various personal and political perspectives. The queen's virtues — adhering to standards of faith, duty and traditional morality in a time when nothing is revered — make her an unfashionable heroine, stuffy and strong. But she is virtue rewarded compared with her sister's snobbish indulgences as a free spirit who turns to alcohol when she finds nothing else within.
The queen, like the institution she embodies, cannot afford compassion and leniency toward her sister in the matter of marrying a divorced man (Britain has a difficult history with royalty and divorce), but she is a tough and thoughtful upholder of Burkean conservatism, educated in the risks and dangers on the slippery slope of ethical relativism.
Barack Obama, in an irony of our time, chose to grant a rare interview to Prince Harry on the BBC. Many of our cousins suggest Obama was angling for an invitation to a royal wedding. If the former president exposed an American weakness for persons royal, the new president might be said to prefer queens in the beauty contests he once sponsored. The British tabloids warned Prince Harry that he dare not invite Barack Obama and snub Donald Trump. Royalty may be sheltered from politics, but the prime minister is not.
"The Crown" is neither history nor a fairy tale about a princess who marries a handsome prince and becomes the queen. It's about the queen's moral choices when confronted with contrasting opportunities and burdens, both personal and public, in an imperfect world where tradition and rebellion collide. Pop-culture popcorn becomes food for thought.