Review: The Crown Pits British Tradition Against Reform

The lightly fictionalized historical drama shows that it’s hard for staid institutions to grow and change with the times, especially when they aren’t forced to.


Netflix's lightly fictionalized historical drama The Crown examines the British monarchy through its longest-serving chief, Queen Elizabeth II. The series delves into the role of institutions and whether it's best to modernize or to maintain tradition. Elizabeth and Prince Charles attempt modest modernizing reforms, but more often they acquiesce to custom. In The Crown's fifth season, the royals face the growing sentiment that their role is antiquated. While Elizabeth and Charles wonder whether the monarchy should change, Britons debate whether it should exist.

Elizabeth denied her sister the right to marry a divorcee—and until this season denied her son the right to divorce—because as Britain's sovereign, she also heads the Church of England, and is nominally vested by God with her authority. Neither Elizabeth nor Charles considers an alternative because their entire existence is bound up in the religious belief that their roles are predestined.

The monarchy is not the only stodgy institution, ordained from on high, whose foibles are explored in season five: As Princess Diana prepares to go public with her grievances against the royal family, the chairman of the BBC resists any programming too critical of the monarchs. He sees both the monarchy and the publicly funded BBC as inextricable from Britain's national identity. (The BBC was breathed into existence by a royal charter.) The Crown shows that it's hard for staid institutions to grow and change with the times, especially when they aren't forced to.