"The Crown," the latest original drama series from Netflix, chronicles the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. It is part history lesson and part soap opera, with a dashing, restless prince, a power hungry prime minister, an angry would-be king and a free-spirited socialite princess. At the center is Elizabeth Windsor (Claire Foy), who must assume the burden of monarchy while still a young wife and mother. The message is: Heavy is the head who wears the crown and the series makes it both a thoughtful and entertaining one.
Focusing on the early years of her rule, the action begins with the death of the king and Elizabeth being recalled from a tour of Africa in order to assume her duties. She apologizes to her husband Philip (Matt Smith), saying she thought they would have more time. It's a poignant moment because she is mourning them as the couple they were, deeply understanding that her coronation, more than anything else, means that her marriage will forever come second to her duty to the nation.
So too will her individuality, as Elizabeth Windsor must take a backseat to Queen Elizabeth II, a message that Winston Churchill (John Lithgow) reminds her with impassioned monologues about her duty to represent the crown and all its symbolism, no matter the personal cost. Lithgow plays a gruff, aging and defiant Churchill who craftily manipulates opportunities and routinely offends his party to hold onto power. But he also gives this complicated man a heart.
Less sympathetic is Elizabeth's uncle, the Duke of Windsor (Alex Jennings), who commits the most grievous sin of all when he gives up his throne to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson. Edward is depicted as a bitter, angry man who detests his family but underneath his disgust is a longing for everything he left behind. It is again, the pull of the crown that defines his life and Jennings plays this dichotomy with skill.
The demands of the crown impact everyone around Elizabeth including her sister Margaret (Vanessa Kirby), a fun-loving and popular princess who is forbidden from marrying the divorced man she loves because her sister, as the queen, is the head of the Church of England. The scenes between Foley and Kirby are some of the most intense of the series as their sisterly bonds are stretched and eventually broken by Elizabeth's role. Their story is also a commentary on the struggle of the monarchy as an institution to come to terms with changing social values, an issue the series is sure to cover more in-depth if it continues into the Princess Diana years.
Elizabeth, as a character, is handled with respect but the series does suggest her marriage, at least in its early years, was difficult as Philip resents his diminished role. It also hints that she was a distant mother in both a scene when she confronts her own mother and in several where she fondly observes her children playing with Philip from a distance and never joins them.
Foley does a great job capturing the central theme of the series as she portrays Elizabeth's frustration over her inability to express any form of independence. In several scenes, she comments that her job is to stay silent and have no opinion. This queen is a mirror who reflects the image of a nation.
"The Crown" is streaming on Netflix.
-- Melissa Crawley is the author of "Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television's 'The West Wing.'" She has a Ph.D. in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.