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The Crown’s third season premiere offers a new queen and a weird tangent

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If any other TV show ever decides to recast its entire ensemble between seasons, the showrunners would do well to study the first act of this premiere. In its opening minutes, “Olding” elegantly shifts from one era to the next while reassuring us that The Crown is still the same opulent, beautifully shot, corgi-filled series. As the episode digs into later, one of the most surreal aspects of being a British monarch is having your face appear on things like money and stamps. Writer/creator Peter Morgan uses the idea of an official image update to comment on Elizabeth’s transition from “young woman” to “mother of four and settled sovereign.” Or “old bat,” as she puts it.

Director Benjamin Caron keeps Elizabeth’s face out of focus at first before contrasting a portrait of our original Elizabeth, Claire Foy, with our new one, Olivia Colman. The camera finally cuts to Colman as she acknowledges that a great many changes have occurred since she first inherited the throne. “One just has to get on with it,” she notes matter of factly. It’s a meta statement of purpose that also sets up age and aging as one of the big themes of the season. The Foy years covered 1947-1963, taking Elizabeth from a 21-year-old to a 37-year-old. Now Colman is here to take Elizabeth into early middle age and beyond.

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While it’s been two years since The Crown released its previous season, it’s only been one year within the world of the show. It’s hilarious to think about what must have happened in 1963 to so fully and suddenly transform our leads into whole new people. Still, for the most part, I didn’t find it too difficult to accept these new actors as the people we’ve come to know and love (or hate, as the case may be—I’m looking at you Philip). We only get a few scenes with Helena Bonham Carter’s Margaret, but I’m already dying to see more of her. And John Lithgow’s brief appearance as an ailing Winston Churchill provides a little bit of continuity and an official passing of the torch from one cast to the next.

On the whole, the first half of “Olding” is a strong intro to the new season. Though Elizabeth may be comfortably settled into her role as Queen, the latest general election offers a major shift to her status quo. For the first time since Winston Churchill’s re-election in 1951, the Conservatives are out of power. That means Harold Wilson (Jason Watkins) is the first Labour Prime Minister Elizabeth has had to work with in her 12-year reign. She’s understandably a bit nervous about striking up a relationship with a man who doesn’t seem thrilled about the existence of the monarchy. (Philip has the French Revolution on the brain.) Things get even more tense when Elizabeth starts to hear rumors about Wilson’s potential KGB connections.

The “Elizabeth thinks Wilson is a Russian spy!” subplot is awfully goofy, and it almost threatens to become a full-on farce when she and MI5 Director General Martin Furnival Jones (Angus Wright) have a protracted conversation without realizing they’re talking about two different people. It’s an unexpected tone for the series, although it fits well with Colman’s slightly goofier take on Elizabeth. She’s much lighter and more self-deprecating than Foy’s serious, somber portrayal. It still feels like the same person, but it’s also clear that Colman isn’t trying to precisely replicate Foy’s performance either, which is definitely for the best. You don’t hire Olivia Colman and not let her comedic instincts shine through at least a little.

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The goofiness of the MI5 conversation eventually gives way to the episode’s big reveal: The Russian spy isn’t Wilson, it’s… a random art historian we’d never met until this episode! That Buckingham Palace unknowingly (and later knowingly) employed a former Russian spy as Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures is certainly a fascinating historical factoid. But The Crown doesn’t quite know how to turn it into compelling drama. It seems like it would’ve been far more effective to weave Anthony Blunt (Samuel West) into the season for a bit, so that the eventual reveal of his KGB connection is as much of a shock for us as it is for Elizabeth. As is, it’s hard to feel Elizabeth’s betrayal on a personal level when we only have one quick scene of her friendship with Blunt.

Photo: Sophie Mutevelian (Netflix)
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The combination of Wilson’s election and Winston Churchill’s death (which is oddly sidelined) probably would’ve been more than enough to sustain this premiere, while saving the spy story for later, where it would’ve benefited from more room to breathe. As is, the metaphorically heavy discussion of “pentimentio”—the art world term for the trace of an earlier painting seen beneath a finalized one—feels like a lot of pretentious blustering to cover up a story that doesn’t fully land. The final title cards about Blunt’s lengthy employment at Buckingham Palace stop the episode dead in its tracks rather than enticing us into the rest of the season.

In terms of potential season-long themes, the most interesting aspect of the Blunt subplot occurs on the margins. The MI5 director asks Elizabeth to keep Blunt’s spy past a secret because he doesn’t want to lose whatever remaining credibility they have with the Americans. The idea that Elizabeth is ruling a superpower on the decline has always been a cornerstone of The Crown, but that will only become more and more relevant as the series goes on and Britain’s power on the world stage lessens. Coupled with the rise of Labour and a new, very different type of Prime Minister to deal with, “Olding” still has me excited about what the rest of the season has in store. I just wish the second half of this premiere felt like a cohesive, exhilarating launch to a new era rather than an episodic tangent.

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Stray observations

  • Welcome back to coverage of The Crown! I’ll be publishing two reviews a day for the next five days.
  • I loved the scene of Wilson receiving instructions on all the royal protocol of meeting with the Queen. It really drills home how intimidating yet also surreal the monarchy is.
  • Blunt threatens Philip about his involvement in the Profumo sex scandal, which The Crown explored in its second season finale. It’s an unexpectedly direct bit of continuity, and a weird reminder that one year ago Tobias Menzies was Matt Smith.
  • Speaking of which, I’m not quite sure I’m sold on Menzies’ decision to so directly copy Philip’s clipped accent, especially because it feels like he’s pushing it just a little too far. (For comparison here’s an interview with the real-life Philip from the early ’80s.)
  • This is a historical question rather than a critique of the show, but why did Buckingham Palace keep Blunt employed for so long rather than finding some other excuse to have him leave the position without revealing his spy past?
  • I’m realizing the cast changes that are going to hit me the hardest are the supporting characters I wasn’t prepared for. Like, of course Victoria Hamilton couldn’t go on playing the mother of two women who are her own age, but I’m really going to miss her as the Queen Mother!
  • I definitely got some Phantom Thread vibes from Elizabeth loudly buttering her toast in front of Philip.
  • Elizabeth kissing Churchill on the forehead was very sweet.
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About the author

Caroline Siede

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. Her interests include superhero movies, feminist theory, and Jane Austen novels.