When Netflix announced back in January that it would spend $6 billion on new content in 2016, minds boggled. But that figure is already making a lot more sense in the run-up to its ambitious new series The Crown, the first season of which cost upwards of $100 million.
Here are eight things to know about the elegant, richly detailed The Crown, a character-driven drama chronicling the adult life of Queen Elizabeth II from her 1947 wedding onwards.
1) This is not a soap opera.
Don't look to The Crown to fill the Downton Abbey-shaped hole in your heart. All 10 episodes are written by Peter Morgan, known for his nuanced, deeply researched portraits of British royals and politicians in movies including The Queen and Frost/Nixon. Picking up in a post-war Britain where prime minister Winston Churchill has declared, "mankind stands on the edge of catastrophe," the show's focus is on flawed human beings in an incredibly unique and strange psychological position, and how the burden of royal duty impacts them all.
2) The first three episodes are essentially a sequel to The King's Speech.
The Crown begins with King George VI, played by Mad Men's always-lovable Jared Harris, on the throne. There are a lot of King Georges in British history, but this one has already been memorably brought to the screen before by Colin Firth in the Oscar-winning The King's Speech. Eight years on from that film's solemn conclusion, George's health is faltering, and he spends a lot of the first episode coughing up blood which his manservant bullishly attributes to "the cold."
Spoiler alert, for anyone who isn't up on their British history: it's not the cold. (Geoffrey Rush did try to warn him.) George's death in 1952 forced his 25-year-old daughter Elizabeth onto the throne, but Harris gets a decent chunk of screen time here before that happens, and offers some important commentary on Elizabeth's situation. George was a reluctant monarch himself, forced to take over when his elder brother Edward VIII abdicated the throne in order to marry American divorcée Wallis Simpson. The fallout from that scandal is still being felt when Edward comes back into the picture in Episode 3. His actual abdication—without which Elizabeth would never have been in line for the throne in the first place—is shown in flashbacks later in the season.
3) Elizabeth II may become your new feminist icon.
Regardless of your feelings about the monarchy, Queen Elizabeth—now Britain's longest-serving ruler—is objectively a woman to admire. Claire Foy's performance emphasizes the stoicism, modesty and no-nonsense attitude that have defined her reign, and they're highlighted in contrast to the people (chiefly the men) around her.
"I have seen three great monarchies brought down through their failure to separate personal indulgences from duty," she's warned early on. "You must not allow yourself to make similar mistakes." Her new husband Philip (Matt Smith) is more concerned with the trappings of monarchy than the actual responsibilities; her uncle Edward squabbles with the rest of her family over his inheritance; she's surrounded by people who make no secret of their belief that they're better suited for the throne than her. Amidst it all, Elizabeth quietly endures and gets on with business.
Episode 2 also features a reminder of what might be the best badass QE2 factoid. During her royal visit to Nairobi, the then-Princess Elizabeth casually mends a broken-down car, reminding her male companions that she served as a mechanic during World War II.
4) The show is as much about politics as royalty.
The closest Netflix counterpart to The Crown is probably House of Cards—not because de facto power couple Elizabeth and Philip share anything in common with the ruthless Underwoods, but because of the way it uses the dynamics of British Parliament to drive drama. The Queen has famously seen 13 prime ministers come and go during her reign, and her relationship with John Lithgow's aging Winston Churchill is a lynchpin for Season 1. Future seasons will explore her relationships with Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and others.
Morgan had the idea for the series while working on the West End play The Audience, which transferred to Broadway last year. Starring Helen Mirren in the role she previously played onscreen in The Queen, the play centers on weekly meetings between the Queen and various prime ministers over the years.
"I got to the Churchill scene," says Morgan, "and thought, 'Here is a 77-year-old prime minister and this 25-year-old new Queen and what a fantastic relationship between a man at the end of his life, a woman at the beginning of hers . . . and she has to outgrow him.'"
5) There are no fairytale princesses here.
As the world's ongoing obsession with Kate Middleton makes clear, we're still enraptured by the idea of becoming royal—being made a queen or a princess in particular. But here, Elizabeth's ascension is portrayed as difficult at best and traumatic at worst, as she's forced to put aside her grief for her father and become a stoical leader. Her father even describes his own coronation as a kind of death: his former self, Albert Windsor, was "murdered by his older brother when he abdicated."
Later, one of the season's major conflicts arises when Elizabeth's younger sister, Princess Margaret, learns she needs to seek permission from a disapproving Parliament in order to marry a divorced man. As The Crown makes clear, even the reality of being a princess is far from a fairytale.
6) Claire Foy probably has Emmys in her future.
Her restrained, subtle performance is fascinating to watch, as Elizabeth is forced to rapidly evolve and develop her emotional armor. Surrounded as she is by louder, more demonstrative characters, some of her most important moments are silent reactions as she learns to navigate her new surroundings. Alongside her, Matt Smith is appropriately foppish and goofy as Philip, but it's made very clear why she's in love with him—his spontaneity and lack of tact are like a breath of fresh air in contrast to her upbringing.
One of Foy's (and Elizabeth's) standout scenes has featured heavily in Netflix's trailers. Already feeling emasculated by Elizabeth's new position, an indignant Philip is asked to kneel before her. He asks, "Are you my wife or my queen?" Her reply—"I am both, and a strong man would be able to kneel to both"—will inspire some unusually literal usage yet of the "YAS, QUEEN!" gif.
7) The Royal Family is nervous about the show.
Though the Palace has been aware of the show since its pre-production, Morgan preferred to keep their involvement limited for objectivity's sake.
'There is a sense that they are both very, very nervous and very, very excited," Morgan said at the TCA Press Tour this summer. "I think they don't like not having control, but I think they also understand that dealing with this subject matter with some degree of respect, you know, even objective scrutiny is a rare thing." The distance between the show and the Royal Family was necessary in order to "protect both sides," Morgan added.
8. There's a six-season plan.
Given the record-breaking length of Elizabeth's reign, there's no way to tell her full story without committing. Netflix and Morgan have planned out six seasons for The Crown, each ten-episode chunk covering roughly a decade, with Season 1 ending in 1955. What's not clear is whether Foy will continue to play her throughout with aging prosthetics, or whether the role will be recast for subsequent seasons.
The Crown season one will be released on Netflix on November 4, 2016.
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