At the exact same time as most of my social media feeds were gushing over Yuri on Ice (which I saw coming two years ago, so self-high five), I was gushing over what is the best original Netflix series to date: The Crown. Beyond the phenomenal cinematography and sublime acting, one thing that drew me to The Crown is its thematic undercurrent that apparently runs diametrically opposite to YOI. The fact that these two programs are becoming popular at the exact same time feels like providence to me and while I haven’t seen YOI, from what I’ve heard it’s clear why I’ve hesitated to queue it up and, instead, proclaimed my fealty to the cold, yet awe-inspiring world of Elizabeth II.
And it also highlights a sad reality with fiction right now: stories like The Crown are rare. Why? Well, let’s take a look, shall we?
Again, I haven’t seen Yuri on Ice. So I know I’m in for a good, old-fashioned decapitation by the end of this paragraph. But from all the gushing, I’ve gleamed a few thematic threads to help make my argument. The main thrust (insert your own jokes here) of the narrative seems to be a story of self-discovery, but that self-discovery is tied to our protagonist’s psychological liberation. He’s good at ice skating, but his skill is tied to the form he studies which is traditionally meant for female skaters.
This is where I got lost in the technical weeds because all I know about ice skating is that if I tried it, I’d break my neck in short order. The key here is that by embracing his feminine side, the main character can be more honest with himself. This leads to him being more confidant and giving him the strength to go after his crush: a Russian skater whom I would no doubt gleefully lambaste if I started watching the show. And while I can see how it cut out its fandom, I cannot help but to have some pause on the series just based on my cursory understanding of it. Really, you can only read/watch/hear a story about someone embracing ‘their true self’ and ‘following their heart’ so many times, especially in this genre, before your eyes roll out of your sockets.
I’m not here to tell anyone Yuri on Ice is bad. I haven’t seen it so I cannot say. However, based on the reactions of those who have seen it, it seems YOI exist in its own idyllic sphere to showcase the all-conquering power of the human heart and the joys that come by embracing your inner self: regardless of genders and sexualities. It may be in a different setting and coming from a different set of mouths. And, of course, the romance between the main character and the swishy Russian guy adds its own distinctions. But, the reality is that by his very construction, the only option our protagonist will ever have when faced with any sort of challenge is to act on his emotions and not give his predicaments any actual thought. Why wouldn’t he? ‘Following his heart’ has worked for him so far. Because of this, there is no greater goal for our protagonist to achieve: nothing deserving of any actual personal sacrifice. All he has to do is skate and remain true to his emotions, continue to explore and embrace his true self, and the rest will work itself out just like it has been.
Meanwhile, over in decidedly darker world of The Crown, the major arching theme is also self-discovery. However, instead of being tied to emotional liberation, it’s connected to something completely foreign to this generation of writers: emotional denial. The main conflict of the first season isn’t between Elizabeth and Philip or Elizabeth and Margaret or even Elizabeth and the government. Those are all minor conflicts tied to the larger war of Elizabeth versus Elizabeth. This is hinted at in the first episode, but is spelled out clearly when King George VI dies and Elizabeth ascends to the throne in episode two. In a foreboding scene shot in tune with Elizabeth changing from the clothes she wore on her excursion to Africa into a black dress to take on her new role, the Queen reads a letter from her Grandmother that provides the following warning;
I have seen three great monarchies brought down through their failure to separate personal indulgences from duty. You must not allow yourself to make similar mistakes. And while you mourn your father, you must also mourn someone else. Elizabeth Mountbatten. For she has now been replaced by another person, Elizabeth Regina. The two Elizabeths will frequently be in conflict with one another. The fact is, the Crown must win. Must always win.
The only way her reign is going to succeed is if Elizabeth denies her desires and, instead, does what is necessary to be Queen. This, understandably, is difficult for her. After all, she is still human. She has a close family, a husband who she fought to marry and children. The first episodes give the audience the sense that all this Elizabeth wants is to be with her husband and not have to think about anything else but the people who love her and who she loves in return. It’s a very romantic notion that fits someone of Elizabeth’s age at the time, which is why the first season is wholly devoted to ripping it apart and showing the second Elizabeth, Elizabeth Regina, gaining form and control over the first.
Now, I can be cynical when it comes to matters of the heart, but I have got nothing on the creative team behind The Crown. The Crown treats Elizabeth’s early romanticism with a level of condescension I can only hope to imitate one day. Elizabeth does try to maintain some sense of homeostasis between her heart and her head: especially in the first half of the show when she tries to fight her advisers and cabinet on her husband and sister’s behalf. However, the story never gives its viewers the false hope that Elizabeth is or will ever listen to her heart. It feels more like she’s buying time: building Elizabeth Regina for the moment when she must put her foot down for the good of the monarchy.
The first season ends with the formation of Elizabeth Regina complete, but her personal relationships decimated. It’s tragic, but also framed as necessary. Denying yourself, being willing to sacrifice your own desires and wants to reach a higher calling: it all comes with the package for those who find themselves in a position of power. There is no compromise here: what the Queen went through in her early reign is what it takes to be a successful leader. Her willingness to make that sacrifice, to forgo her desires and build strength she didn’t know she had through a personage she probably would have rather not existed, all for the good of the United Kingdom: that is what makes Elizabeth II such an awe-inspiring leader.
Now, tell me; how many stories have you read recently with that as its narrative focus?
It’s understandable why The Crown is so rare. While humanity is an emotional creation, we also worked overtime recently to justify our emotional natures. Popular culture has picked up on that and the majority have chosen to validate the natures of its chosen audiences. This gives us, in turn, emotionally-driven characters who all, inevitably, fail to become anything more than base. Their only purpose, after all, is to reflect a stand-alone moment: how we would feel at that moment in time and nothing else. Anything beyond that can be seen in another series, representing another moment of emotional validation with its own characters standing still in time: damned to forever repeat the same mistakes to produce the same feeling of emotional validation.
The Crown has an emotional arc, but it is a piece of a larger philosophical argument about duty and power. That is a story that, yes, needs you to feel. But, mostly it needs you to think. What would be the consequences to the monarchy if Elizabeth had followed in the footsteps of her uncle instead of her father and only followed her heart? What is the role of an order like the House of Windsor in a society with a constantly evolving definition of ‘modern’? Could you do it? Could I do it? Could any of us do what Elizabeth did? Could we deny ourselves our every want and risk all our future happiness to represent something more? It isn’t an easy train of thought and it isn’t one easily achieved. It means peeling back the romanticism and showing the audience not only the high glory but also the high cost of power.
This type of story with this type of character doesn’t require a real-life focus like Queen Elizabeth II. What it does require are the things that are becoming more and more foreign with fiction. Its why we get shows like The Crown once in a blue moon and why it’s so hard to replicate whatever success they find. However, it’s also why we must learn from it and appreciate it while it’s at its current level of quality. Just as much as we need stories of love and happiness, we also need stories of honor and duty. We need stories that show us we’re more than what we think we are and aren’t afraid to show us how hard the path of becoming that something ‘more’ is. We need to see sacrifice and pain and loss and denial, especially self-denial, because at some point we will be called to do the same. Maybe not for a monarchy, but for something equivalent in our own lives.
I recognize that with this audience, that argument may be DOA. But, I am seeing more people try to create something beyond simple emotional details. It’s a small step, but a positive one nevertheless. If you, for whatever reason, haven’t seen The Crown yet; I highly suggest you do so. Not only is it a fantastic series to watch, it’s an excellent series to learn from. I hope its future is just as glorious as its starting point. JP3: OUT.