Some spoilers, if you can say that about a historical series.
Season 4 of The Crown premiered this week and for a “woke” Black American, I’m way too excited for this season.
I’m a sucker for a good historical drama, especially one that centers around rich white people in elaborate costumes. In contrast to shows like The Tudors and The Borgias, the sovereign protagonist is not some hedonistic megalomaniac, but an emotionless, levelheaded woman. But at the same time, because Elizabeth and Philip are still kicking, I feel more invested in The Crown’s storylines. After each episode, I find myself Googling aspects of Elizabeth and Philip’s marriage, Princess Margaret’s antics, and the Queen Mother’s role in the family as emeritus queen.
But, why? Is this just the concept of copaganda, but applied to the British Royal Family? I’m not only an American, but I’m a Black American originally from a town colonized by three separate European monarchs (it was also invaded and stolen by the US in 1813 because, you know, Manifest Destiny). I also identify as a pro-Indigenous democratic socialist so none of the trappings of monarchy should appeal to me. But in reality, democratic socialism and monarchy aren’t mutually exclusive as anyone from Scandanavia will tell you. Also, I like pretty dresses, gorgeous cinematography, and scenery porn just like everyone else.
My mixed feelings watching The Crown came early when Elizabeth and Philip traveled to Africa on a crown dependency tour. Philip boorishly teased the headdress of a local chieftain. While the filmmaker in me immediately realized that the show was establishing a Road-to-Damascus character arc in Philip, I felt a knot in my stomach watching this imperialist with Nazi connections belittle an African leader in his own nation. Philip’s entitlement throughout the first two seasons is the source of most personal drama. But as a colonized person, I hated everything Philip represented about entitled, wealthy white men. This wasn’t a fun watch like watching Henry VIII kill all his friends in The Tudors or watching Henry II tell his wife how he doesn’t like his children in Becket. This was a dislike rooted in knowing this living family colonized the world but don’t know a damn thing about the lands they colonized other than what they know from grave-robbing and their own warped stories about the people there. I would have understood if any colonized person would have immediately turned off Netflix anytime Philip opened his mouth to complain about the easiest job in the damn world: create babies he didn’t have to raise and literally show up to wave at crowds.
I can’t answer why I keep watching. Maybe part of me wants to humanize the British Royal Family despite their imperialism dehumanizing ethnic minorities. Maybe it’s escapism into a world I will never know. Maybe I’ve been conditioned by Disney to believe every story about royals is a fairy tale. Maybe it’s because of a superiority complex because I know that Elizabeth and Philip are cousins twice and therefore the British Royal Family are just rich inbreds to me. Maybe it’s because I think the show is questioning whether the monarchy is needed on a deeper level. Maybe it’s because the deeper you get into the series, the more cracks you see in the guilded image. Maybe I want to know whether that mouse running across the frame in front of the Queen Mother was intentionally added as some sort of commentary about eating the rich.
The Crown does do a great job in showcasing how the Royal Family are idly rich and out-of-touch while other people attempt to run the country. In Season 4, Philip cancels all of their royal engagements so that the family could kill a wounded stag. They invite middle-class Margaret Thatcher to their Scottish castle and when Elizabeth asked Thatcher what she and her father did to bond, Thatcher replied that they worked. In episode 3 of Season 4, Diana accidentally interrupts Princess Margaret telling a racist story about the First Lady of the Philippines, Imelda Marcos. But if you are up on your 20th-century history, you may know that President Marcos was a dictator who put the Phillippines into financial ruin with his lavish personal spending. Irony died somewhere writing this scene.
In fact, the most likable royal on the show outside of the beloved Princess Diana seems to be Princess Alice of Battenberg, Philip’s mother, who was a nun who pawns all her royal possessions to fund her convent. She is written off as “mentally ill.” She is moved to the UK for her safety during a Greek coup and dies shortly after.
In the first episode of Season 4, Lord Mountbatten, Philip’s uncle, Alice’s brother, and the show’s symbol of British imperialism, is assassinated by the Irish Republican Army. The show juxtaposes the IRA’s statement of responsibility with the royal family’s grief. The IRA states that Mountbatten's assassination was a response to British colonization in Ireland as well as the massacre of thirteen civil rights demonstrators by the British military. And while I’m not as familiar with the IRA as I should be, within the context of the show, I get it. I get it like I get Hamas, like I get Muslim Brotherhood, like I get the Zapatistas. When you are fighting colonization and imperialism, do you deserve to be called a terrorist organization? Who are really the bad guys? If Black Americans ever decide to form an organization to violently oppose our oppression from the ruling class would we be a terrorist organization? Who gets to decide who is a terrorist organization? Isn’t imperialism a form of terror?
I already know the answer to that, of course, because Black Americans only have to be armed with signs and megaphones to be considered anti-American enough for the white violent backlash to occur. So I’m already biased against the status quo of the ruling class because I know the peace of the status quo is a lie.
Before his assassination in Season 4, Lord Mountbatten is outed out of his military position for being “too old and empire.” He became a symbol of the Conservative party’s fight against modernity and his character arc seemed to peak with him reciting “The Road to Mandalay.” I’m not sure what statement the show is making here, but that scene made me most uncomfortable. He may as well be reciting “The White Man’s Burden.” It was the same writer.
So, what do I ultimately think about the show? Well, I love it, but like most beloved things, it’s problematic and patronizing in its approach. All the colonized people are literally in the background and those who aren’t like the President of Ghana Kwame Nkrumah are just tools used by the Crown to shape its evolution into the 21st century. And interestingly, the Royal Family regularly comments on the arrogance and false pageantry of leaders like Nkrumah in what seems like projection. I do feel that Season 4 is attempting to correct for what can be seen as a soft on imperialism by emphasizing how unhappy the British Royal Family are in their private lives.
God Save the Queen, I guess.