Regarding the title: I am of course referring to Republican in its ACTUAL meaning. That is, believing the State should be organized around a Republic, ran by people democratically elected into office by a sovereign, free and equal people, built around the cornerstone values of Freedom, Equality, and Solidarity. Also, a State that rejects any association between itself and any Church or Creed, when not providing freedom from churches and creeds. In other words, the diametrical opposite of what the GOP has been standing for since at least the 1890s. One of these days I need to write that article about why we need to steal the word Republican from those fascists. So, let me restate: Republican in the Frenchiest sense of the word. Or
UP THE RA!
Dustin, very kindly, had invited me to write something about season five of The Crown. I, timely as ever, ended up not knowing what the hell could I write about, considering everyone else in my orbit had already written their insights weeks beforehand. Kayleigh enjoyed Season 5 better than most of us, while having to remind the monarchist press that this history is inevitably fictionalized, it’s not personal. Roxana didn’t mince any words about how awfully Peter Morgan treated Diana in this season (fun fact: My mum also said “they killed her” when she received the papers the morning of her death). Finally, Sarah Marrs made it clear that this season was a monumental flop, from the miscasting, the acting direction, pacing, production design, etc.
What is there for me to review? I fully agree. This season only covers five years, but it feels rushed. They were guilty of doing this in season three, where they pretty much skip the most relevant and interesting period in British History (mid-60s to late-70s), but watching this one, you would think that nothing happened in Britain during the first two-thirds of the 90s. Not even a mention of BritPop?
Then there’s the terrible casting. We can all agree Dominic West is not just too hot and too … wide at the shoulders to play Charlie. He got the role on fancasting logic: His most famous role so far had been as a roguish cheater, and he was involved in a notorious “escapade” with Lily James. That’s good enough to have him play the most famous unfaithful man of the 20th Century (also, that episode about Tampongate being all about his work with the Prince’s Trust … disgraceful). Lesley Manville is simply too stunning and vibrant to play Margaret in the last decade of her life. Imelda Staunton as Lizzie is pretty good but she cannot capture what Claire Foy and Olivia Colman managed to capture so well: That Elizabeth Deux was a nice woman, but not a kind one.
And then we have Elizabeth Debicki as Diana. What more can I say? That this might be the biggest waste of Human Capital since … the entire History of Argentina? Peter Morgan failed Diana and Elizabeth, and I have a weird theory about why: He fell prey to a subsection of the male gaze I’m going to call Pedestalizing (just rolls off the tongue, don’t it?). Many straight, male directors, when working with actresses as … historically beautiful and talented as Elizabeth Debicki become unable to direct them in a way that captures the breadth of their skills. They are unable to portray them as human, so they have them lounge about in dramatic lighting, mostly being melancholy. Christopher Nolan does this all the time.
Still, all of this is just the parts of the whole rash that is this season. A whole that would read something along the lines of “Peter Morgan, you yellow, Christian Democrat, flip-flopper! You chickened out right when you could’ve delivered the finishing blow to these people!” That’s how I actually feel, but that would be intellectually dishonest towards who Peter Morgan has always been, as well as dishonest about my fixation with monarchies in general. The fact is that I’m not the only person from a Republic (and a mostly healthy one at that) who is obsessed with the Windsors and monarchies in general, so much so that I keep rewatching this bloody series and countless documentaries about these people, year after year. This forces me to come up with a better working question, one that can actually explain why I and so many others feel like this season of The Crown felt worse than a disappointment, and more like a betrayal. And that question is obvious:
Why, if I’m living in a functioning and (for the most part) Democratic Republic, having been raised in the values of the Republic, am I so obsessed with this unimpressive group of elevated people, part of an institution that represents everything I despise?
I know I’m not the only one.
It’s not just this season. Even at its best, The Crown leaves you with the aspartame taste of monarchist propaganda. You watch this grand, beautiful, and pseudo-epic soap about real people and you have to wonder … all this grandeur for this unimpressive bunch? All this IMPORTANT historical framing, Hans Zimmer arrangements and heavy-handed metaphors for a family whose only job is to perform basic biological functions on a public forum (mostly eating, resting, giving birth and the implication of fucking)? Why are we trying to frame these people as Great Figures of History when their sole contribution to it, at least since the Georgian era, has been the performance of said biological functions? How could anyone think this dour collection of dysfunctional people is something around which you can build your sense of National Identity?
Also, why are all these Prime Ministers bothering with the comings and goings of the Windsors? There is this scene in season five where the Queen asks John Major to broker the divorce between Diana and Charles (in the National Interest!), as he was so successful in negotiating peace in Northern Ireland, with the same energy of a granny asking the grandkid who went to Caltech to set up her Alexa.
And it’s not just an issue of The Crown being the imperial propaganda of a zombie empire. Churchill gets a fawning portrayal in media every two years, but at least the bastard did stuff. He lived an interesting life! But when compared to Republican Figures, whatever we might think of Great Figures History, I’m sure Churchill or Queen Victoria alone have had more media depictions than, say, most of the United States’ Founding Fathers combined.
That’s a lot of words to say the Windsors (and all the cadet branches they spread over Europe) are just too small and too useless to deserve an epic, big-budget soap. And yet… we Republicans are still obsessed with them, with The Crown, in particular, being the … sigh, “crown jewel” of the monarchist industrial complex. What is our problem?
Is not institutional envy, as some of those bootlickers at the Sunday Times or The Telegraph might claim. We can do Pomp & Circumstance way better than the Brits. Case in point, any Bastille Day. Or the official funerals for poets in Chile or Formula 1 racing heroes in Brazil. Or Eva Perón’s funeral … that’s a funeral for a queen. We don’t lack National Epics, rituals, and mythologies, even when we cleanse them through the lens of critical theories, which we’ll get to in a moment.
We have everything and more to feel superior to most monarchist countries, and yet, we sell ourselves short.
We sell Republics short regarding their legacy. As if Republics and Democracies were just latecomers, without tradition and identity, and not something as old as … Human Culture. We sell our Republican values short, as if defining your country on strong institutions settled in written law meant becoming binders on a filing cabinet, while living in a monarchy means being drizzled by the trickle-down of its magic and of a sacralized mystery you can’t explain with words, which is just a cop-out from the lazy to avoid acknowledging the evident: it’s all an artifice for people who, otherwise, are just regular.
So, why do we enjoy their dramas so much? My first guess would be that we Republicans devour things like The Crown because these monarchies have zero power, because everything they go through is, in reality, a low-stakes affair, politically at least. European monarchies can afford to have family drama because it will have null implications over the ruling of their countries (for some reason The Crown tries to convince us otherwise). Meanwhile, as US citizens discovered with the former guy, family drama in a Republic can actually corrode its institutions. Everything the Royals and the peerage system represent is, quite literally, the very things that corrupt and undermine the Republic.
Ironically enough, it is Democratic Republics that have to constantly work for their reputation and relevance. Monarchs can just get through thanks to a gaggle of bootlickers, extended families, social climbers and a hierarchical mindset they have cultivated in among some of their subjects. Because for as old as Republics are, there have never been as many Republics, Democratic or not, as there have been over the last 80 years. Is our consumption of their dramas a long-winded exercise to prove ourselves, in the long run, as superior and rational?
What I feel we Republicans get wrong is that the history of these contemporary Royals is somehow grander, more interesting, sexier and more glamorous than our Republican history. The thing is, we are just consuming their propaganda.
They might whinge about how Peter Morgan is portraying them, but The Crown is as sympathetic as they can aspire to, being portrayed by beautiful actors bravely toning down their glamour to approach their relative homeliness (yes, even Elizabeth Debicki as Diana), speaking with the right words every time and always aware of their role in History; mainly, that of being observers.
Consider how Pablo Larraín portrayed them in Spencer, or what Marie Kreutzer achieved with her deliberately anachronistic portrayal of Empress Sisi in Corsage (shameless self-plug). Aside from the originality of their proposals, they are both children of Democratic Republics. Coincidentally, they actually achieved a more honest, truly sympathetic and humane portrayal of their subjects.
Peter Morgan is too enamored with Britain’s propaganda about itself to actually humanize the Windsors. If Morgan is trying to convince us that Britain is the finest example of a Constitutional Monarchy, I’m afraid to inform him and the entire UK that The Netherlands and Nordic Monarchies have mopped the floor with everything you claim to have achieved.
In a Great video essay by James Woodall called “I Hate The Royals But I Can’t Stop Watching The Crown,” he states that Morgan’s biggest failure as a storyteller is portraying everything that happens in the UK’s history through the eyes of the Windsors; that is, how those events made them feel, as if somehow that could make us, the Audience, develop empathy and nurture that institutional bond.
But how could we? These are people whose very role in life is that they never have to interface with History. And Politics. And Economics. And Culture (seriously Peter, not a single mention of The Beatles?). Meanwhile, living in a Republic, and in particular, leading a Republic means having to interface with those four systems every. single. day. Whether you do it as best you can or you wholly fuck it up, it can only make for a more compelling, more profound, and more complex story than whatever these contemporary monarchies can offer.
As I said before, I have a suspicion we Republicans were gaslit into thinking our Republican histories are somehow less interesting. But we are confusing Interesting with Inspiring. Peter Morgan also makes this same mistake with the Windsors. Many times, our histories have been nothing but a collection of heartbreak and disappointments, everything but Inspiring. And at the same time, our Republican History is also an accumulation of tiny epics. And that’s what ultimately puts us over monarchies: Our Histories can feed a History that can examine itself. Republican History is not free from uncritical approach, all the contrary, just consider what people in the US are taught at school.
But unlike Great Character History, as attempted by Morgan and the vast majority of media portrayals of British Royalty, Republican History can survive Critical History. It improves it, it deepens it, it expands it. Because say it with me: Critical History is just History. The fact that we can go over the wounds of our past and be truthful about it is, in itself, the most Republican and Inspiring thing we can do. It pains me to paraphrase the worst part of the worst episode of the worst season of TV ever … but Weiss and Benioff had a good point, they just conveyed it poorly: A solid Nation is not built around a designated group of people but around an Honest History. If The Crown is any proof of it, seems only we Republicans can actually tell.
Alberto Cox would like to apologize to any American readers who felt whiplash every time they read the word Republican here.