In the 1960s, as the British economy stagnated and youth movements raged against the establishment, the royal family started to worry. How long could a largely ornamental monarchy keep justifying its tax-supported existence to so many broke, disaffected subjects? Queen Elizabeth II dodged these questions, in part, by granting a BBC crew limited access to her family in an effort to make the House of Windsor relatable. But when Royal Family aired, in June 1969, the Queen found its “Royals, they’re just like us!” tone humiliating. It hasn’t been screened in full since the ’70s.
That debacle is recounted in Season 3 of Netflix’s The Crown—a drama that similarly seeks common ground between regular proles and the notoriously aloof Elizabeth. As was always the plan, new episodes swap out an original cast led by Claire Foy for an older cohort built around The Favourite Oscar winner and British TV ubiquity Olivia Colman. In terms of performances, The Crown 2.0, which arrives on Nov. 17, marks an improvement over its fine predecessor. The versatile Colman makes a more complex Elizabeth, one who isn’t brittle so much as ill at ease in her own exalted skin. While Matt Smith’s Prince Philip felt a bit like stunt casting, Tobias Menzies disappears into the role. Helena Bonham Carter as Princess Margaret is just as fun as you’d hope, though Matthew Goode’s roguish Lord Snowdon will be missed.
It helps that by placing new actors in a centuries-old, frozen-in-time palace, creator Peter Morgan underlines how difficult it must be for humans who age and evolve to occupy such rigid, dated roles. This has been The Crown’s main theme since Season 1, yet watching different bodies persist through new Prime Ministers, PR nightmares and photo ops deepens the emotional impact.
Sadly the story itself is getting old. The same aura of mystery that Elizabeth defends in the documentary episode also limits the mostly reverent Morgan’s insight into his characters, to the extent that their conflicts get repetitive. Elizabeth and Margaret keep resenting each other, as when the princess charms LBJ with dirty limericks. The moon landing makes the perennially restless Philip long for one more adventure, while Charles (Josh O’Connor) is sent off to another remote school—this one in Wales—for political reasons. Morgan made his point, way back in Season 1, that it isn’t easy being royal. But like Elizabeth, he avoids asking whether such rarefied problems are worth the price so many pay.