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The third season of Netflix’s The Crown attempts the impossible: changing the entire cast viewers had grown to love from the first two seasons. At first it’s jolting to see Queen Elizabeth as depicted by Claire Foy transform into the more mature and dour Olivia Colman in a year of the show’s time.
But the changes are necessary for a show depicting the more-than-six-decade reign of the British monarch. Elizabeth is no longer the 21-year-old woman hesitantly taking up the crown following the death of her father, King George VI. Now the middle-aged mother of four is confident in her role as she carefully threads the balance between duty and personal convictions.
The latest season, which premiered last November, looks at the queen’s relationship with Prime Minister Harold Wilson, the first leader from the opposition Labour Party she’s had to work with during her tenure. But much of the season focuses on others in the royal family struggling to find their place: her son and heir apparent, Prince Charles, as he comes of age in his unique position; her husband, Prince Philip, as he deals with his traumatic past and a midlife crisis; and her sister, Princess Margaret, as she searches for purpose while her marriage falls apart.
Most fascinating is how the show tackles the topic of Christian faith, specifically through the character of Prince Philip. Earlier seasons showed Queen Elizabeth’s devout faith as she meets with a young Billy Graham and takes seriously her role as the head of the Church of England. Yet Philip described his faith as “dormant” when asked by his estranged mother, Princess Alice. Alice lived a difficult life: Despite being born in Windsor Castle, she was forced into exile, sent to an insane asylum where she underwent torturous treatments, and separated from her family before becoming a nun in Greece. When a coup led her to reunite with her son, she said her faith in God was what sustained her: “It’s everything.”
Later as Philip faces his midlife crisis, he scoffs at a clergy support group as “navel-gazing underachievers infecting one another with gaseous doom.” Instead he obsesses over the American astronauts who had just pushed the limits of human achievement by landing on the moon. After meeting the astronauts in person and finding them insipid and uninterested in the grander implications of what they had done, he admits to the priests the emptiness of unbelief. He asks them for help finding God.
The show is flush with beautiful shots, opulent set pieces and costumes, powerful retelling of real-life events (with a touch of dramatic flourish), as well as a stellar cast: Tobias Menzies infuses Philip with both cockiness and pathos. Helena Bonham Carter is fantastic as the mercurial and attention-loving Margaret. The Crown is a delightful watch for commoners interested in the strange and surreal world of the royals.