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Since November 4th 2016, I have been a die heart fan of the Netflix Original Show simply titled: The Crown. While it appears simple, Peter Morgan’s creative storytelling, which often balances between fact and fiction, more often leaning into fiction, is a show about the most famous royal family in the world: The Windsors. It is critically acclaimed and deeply complicated. The viewer is not introduced into the fairy tale so many of us would want to believe of how the life of royals look like but it is about the system, the institution and the struggles of these individual people running, as they call it, ‘The Firm’. It’s one of the last constitutional monarchies in this fast changing world. 

If you have met me, some of my readers have, you would know that I am the most anglophile person you can possibly find and a show about, first, the early life of Queen Elizabeth II, her rise to the throne and life as wife, sister, daughter, mother and Queen of the United Kingdom appeared to be a show just made for me. And so it was and so it is. However, the further we leave Post War Britain behind in the show, the further the period drama evolves into very contemporary, almost present history, one realises that one has not begun to watch a fairy tale period drama but a show of nightmare and terror. Welcome to the royal house of Windsor.

There have been very dark and strange moments within the first three seasons of The Crown. We discover Prince Philip’s unfaithfulness to his wife Queen Elizabeth II, how personal interest and individual love was brutally wiped out, as we follow the love life of Princess Margaret. How the Royal House of Windsor had a very close and sometimes sympathetic relationship with the Nazis. And how everything evolves around Queen Elizabeth II, not the person but the Queen who is in constant battle with herself, a battle between two Elizabeths, Elizabeth Mountbatten and Elizabeth Regina. The latter is the one that must always win the day, as her grandmother, Queen Mary, writes to her in a letter when she becomes Queen at the beginning of Season 1: The Crown must win, must always win.

And The Crown Season 4 does win on every level. The period drama has reached a quality which surpasses the previous three, acting, storytelling, drama, costume, music, everything is on point. In the fourth instalment of the show, the 80’s commence and with them comes the terror reign of Margaret Thatcher, and of course Lady Diana comes into the lives of the royals.

Every episode is built up like a short story within a bigger drama, similar like in the first three seasons. However, especially in season four, every episode serves as a reflection and as a bigger picture of the history of Britain and its society through the lens of the royal family. One episode tells the story of the IRA, the second one cleverly portrays the royal’s disconnection to average life, some others describe the consequences of Thatcherism. There is an especially dark one on the royal family’s conviction of their blood superiority to all other people and their subjects. And of course, as the season progresses, it shows us the rise and slow fall of Lady Diana and how she ultimately becomes the woman the world fell in love with. At the same time the show clearly states how within our society, and not necessarily just within the royal household, a woman can and is portrayed as the problem in a marriage, described as hysterical rather than a mother with problems, described as crazy rather than emotionally troubled.

All of this is narrated in a very smart way, as not a single time only one perspective is shown but always multiple ones. The viewer understands why the IRA reacted in the terrorist way they did, why Thatcher was the woman she was, why a lot of people wished her dead, why Prince Charles chose Diana but loved Camilla. Why Queen Elizabeth II has to side with the commonwealth against her Prime Minister. Why Lady Diana evolved into the love of the nation and why the royals, in contrast to her, are cold hearted and responsible for her growing discomfort and deeply troubled life. It is a narrative of many different sides. It is a multilingual narrative so to say. The viewer develops the feeling that there is no black and white, no good and bad within the story but all of them live deeply tragic but privileged lives. A history, a narrative is being forced onto them which they have to live out and there is no escape from it. And although, so many things are being told through amazing dialogue and strong images, the one character who, in my opinion, takes the stage of season four is no one else but Lady Diana impersonated by Emma Corrin.

It feels very much like, that this season belongs to the women of the story. There is of course Queen Elizabeth II, Princess Margaret, Princess Anne, Margaret Thatcher but their story lines are all outshone and outdone by the Princess of Wales. It is as if Peter Morgan cast a spell and resurrected the young Diana and her ghost has come back to haunt the royal family in original but also fictional looks, like having fun on skates, or dancing emotionally in a giant ball room. And then there are the most powerful images when Diana becomes the Princess of Wales like in her extravagant wedding dress. Her blue dress, when dancing with Prince Charles in Australia, her infamous look in New York City, a white pearl dress, or  her coral costume when cheered to by the masses, outshining Prince Charles and the Crown itself which made her more than she was ever supposed to be. It is in that scene of episode six where she then does not become a part of the royal family but a sensation, so much more and ultimately an enemy to ‘the Firm’.

The real Lady Diana understood how to wear her dresses, wear her costumes like armour in an environment which became more and more hostile towards her. And she had to start wearing armour every day, for her fairy tale slowly turned into a nightmare which has been dramatized on the show but speaks the truth at the same time.

It is episode one and two of season four where the supposed fairy tale begins, and The Crown pretty much describes a straightforward love story of two young people. However, when the viewer reaches episode three, the already dark atmosphere throughout the season turns darker and darker by the minute. The dramatization of the process of the rehearsal wedding, Diana slowly realising what she is getting into, is then confirmed by the voice over of the bishop at St Paul’s Cathedral:

Here is the stuff of which fairy tales are made. A Prince and a Princess on their wedding day. But fairy tales usually end at this point with the simple phrase: They lived happily ever after. As husband and wife live out their vows, loving and cherishing one another, sharing life’s splendours and miseries, achievements and setbacks, they will be transformed in the process. Our faith sees the wedding day not as a place of arrival but the place where the real adventure begins.

Throughout the rest of the season these lines are being challenged and ultimately fail for Prince Charles and Princess Diana. Because the atmosphere that is being established in episode three is far from being a fairy tale wedding. Love and affection are being overshadowed by the royals’ track record of unhappy love. In the show, Princess Margaret, who experienced a similar love life, is the only one realising what the royal family is once again getting into. It is a marriage not out of love but a forced one where on the outside the match appears perfect but behind closed golden gates and silk curtains the fairy tale turns into a nightmare. The adventure Prince Charles and Lady Diana set out on, is one that will end in despair and hatred, and as we know, ultimately in death.

So the grand love story, the wedding, a life in, not only one but multiple castles, is not a fairy tale but slowly evolves into a nightmare. However, the image of the fairy tale lives on throughout season four and most interestingly the very idea of what a fairy tale is and what it means is being tested. The show represents Prince Charles madly in love with Camilla, deeply unhappy with Diana and becomes hostile, insensitive and ultimately abusive towards her. Despaired and in love, he does not understand what is at stake by ending his marriage to Lady Diana. It is a woman, Camilla, who takes the stage in season four again to explain to Charles quite simple and in a very powerful way what it would mean to wake from the nightmare with Diana and commence a fairy tale with Camilla.

Camilla to Charles: But I want to be humiliated and attacked even less. That what’ll happen if you put me in a popularity contest against her. I am an older woman. Nowhere near as radiant, someone like me has no place in a fairy tale. That’s all people want. To be the protagonist of a fairy tale you must first be wronged, a victim. If we were to become public, we would make her. In the narrative laws of fairy tales vs. reality the fairy tale always prevails. She would always defeat me in the public opinion. It’s the reality of things. She is the Princess of Wales, a future Queen, the mother of a future King.

Prince Charles would not enter his fairy tale with Camilla but would slide into another nightmare. And this explanation really brings the situation straight to the point and we, the audience, know from real life history that Camilla is absolutely right. Prince Charles does not follow her advice and Diana becomes the very embodiment of a fairy tale. Who knows what would have happened if things had played out different? But by the abandonment of Prince Charles, she seeks comfort in the public and receives compassion a billion-fold. Due to the coldness of the royal family she does not necessarily rebel but is forced to find her own way outside ‘The Firm’ and transforms into a force to be reckoned with. She not only becomes the beautiful Princess that had been wronged by the evil stepsister and stepmother impersonated by Camilla and the Queen. But she metamorphoses into a member of the royal family who becomes more than the royal family, outshining the Crown. And therefore, she becomes an enemy of the Crown.

Because ultimately, no one within the circle of the royal family is allowed to shine brighter than the Crown itself. For the Crown must win, must always win. And looking even further within the story, Prince Charles’s and Camilla’s fairy tale image will always be outdone by the simple fact that Princess Diana, because of her death, has become not only a national but an international saint. An icon, a figure of history who has been wronged by tradition and the conservative institution that is the dusty royal family. By dying, she might have paid the ultimate price, but gained immortality, being superior within history than any other royal, any Queen or King of house Windsor will ever be. One day, whenever that will be, when Queen Elizabeth II dies, she will be remembered by English history, but Diana will be remembered by the world as Lady Di.

So the royal family and marrying a Prince are not the stuff of which fairy tales are made. They are the opposite. Through the nightmare Lady Diana had to go through, a woman of the 20th century being wronged, not being listened to, without allies living in a hostile environment, she manages to write her very own fairy tale. She breaks away from the royals and commences a new life. Something, Princess Margaret for instance, was never able to do. The sister of the Queen continues to live and die within the golden cage of Buckingham Palace, whereas Lady Diana manages to break out and, although dying in the process, she had a free life, making her own decisions.

The question that still remains of course is where the roots of nightmare and fairy tale lie. Because within the history of the royals the story of unhappy love, as can be seen with Prince Charles and Princess Diana, is not a singular one. Princess Margaret is another, King Edward VII’s love story is the very reason why Queen Elizabeth II is now Queen. And the Queen herself and Prince Charles appear to have a strong marriage, but it is far from a fairy tale. Similarly, Princess Anne and Prince Andrew too have divorced from their partners in the course of the history of the royals. Considering the track records of divorced marriages since the first divorce (Princess Margaret) within the inner circle of royal family members, there is a 50 per cent chance that a royal marriage will be divorced. Funnily enough, in terms of divorce statistics the inner circle of the royal family is just as modern in its ways as most Europeans are, as every second marriage is being divorced these days.

This time though, the explanation for the roots of fairy tale and nightmare does not come by a woman in season four, but it is Prince Philip’s haunting conversation with Princess Diana that makes this concept clear to us:

I was an outsider the day I met a thirteen year old Princess who would become my wife. After all these years I still am, we all are. Everyone in this system, lonely, outsider, apart from the one person, the only person that matters. She is the oxygen we all breathe. The essence of all our duty. Your problem, if I may say, is you seem to be confused of who that person is.

And here we return to the beginning of this opinion piece, back to the fact that the Crown must win, must always win. Because the Crown is the very reason why the Windsors are all living this life. Why they are celebrated, privileged, famous, criticised and why they cannot do whatever they want to do. It is a business contract this family has made and one they appear unable to get out of or want to. Because the comfort of knowing what life one will lead is far more agreeable, than living a life of uncertainty and the unknown. When history, tradition and ceremony are the pillars of the Crown, then emotion, sensation and change are their enemy and that is everything Diana was.

What is also being shown brilliantly at the same time in the Crown are the many moments when Diana enjoys being cheered to and being more than the royal family is supposed to be. No one has explained to her up until the scene with Philip what she was supposed to be doing. It is almost as if ice, the royal family and fire, Lady Diana, come together and have not yet exploded. However, the bomb is ticking.

And when Lady Diana was a warm fire, a force that needs oxygen to live and thrive, the Queen was not the oxygen to give her life. The Crown was not a place for two Queens to rule, for their can only be one Queen, one Crown and that was Queen Elizabeth II. So, ‘the Firm’, the constitution, that system, as Prince Philip has put it, was the one who tried to kill the fire that was Lady Diana. Ultimately, they are living all toxic lives, breathing in poisonous air, given to them like a golden oxygen mask set with diamonds until eventually it suffocates them all.   

When the Crown is toxic oxygen and Lady Diana was one of the many casualties, others getting away with their lives but living a rather unhappy and depressed one, what is the Crown for? Maybe it simply is the epitome of what the UK has become and turned into in a post-world war world. Like a rotten cherry on a maggot eaten cake. The Queen is tired, Prince Philip is almost dead, and the UK’s future King is already old and has lived his life. The same pretty much describes the state of the United Kingdom. The young and hopeful are tired of the country they live in. Their economy is almost dead, Scotland wants to leave yet again, and the future of the young people holds less options than ever before. The only beauty within this nightmare is, that the Crown and the outdated United Kingdom create a sort of symbiotic metaphor for each other. One cannot exist without the other one. The Crown shows us a marriage and a love story between Buckingham Palace and 10 Downing Street. Whether Tory or Labour government is in charge, their love for a constitutional monarchy has sometimes had its ups and downs, like with every marriage, but never would or could there be a divorce.

The final question, this balance I have tried to describe though remains. Where is the fairy tale and where is the nightmare? The answer probably lies within the ongoing debate that has been unleashed within the last three weeks since The Crown has aired. Newspapers, online magazines, fans of Lady Di, critics of the royals and royalists fight a battle over what is fiction and what is reality within the Netflix show The Crown. And I believe, like the ancient Crown and the dying United Kingdom have a symbiotic relationship, so does fairy tale and nightmare and so does truth and fiction. Because ultimately no one lives happily ever after because when you wait long enough, every love story turns into a tragedy. Fairy tale and nightmare always hold each other by the hand waiting for the other one to let go.

The same can be said about truth and fiction in The Crown, although nearly all dialogues are made up. Some scenes, outfits and moments were staged the exact same way as historical footage of the Windsors show, the truth undeniably speaks to us in every scene of the fictional Crown. With everything said above, the Neftlix show acts almost like a very unflattering mirror, reminding loyal royalists and conservatives of what has happened in the past, which they would prefer to forget. They are confronted with the fact that the fairy tale they thought they had lived has never existed in the first place. The Thatcherism of season four is the latest of many prominent examples on The Crown. Victorious, they came out of two world wars but since then have declined in power, lost their colonies, economic, political and military influence around the world.

And the show reminds the next generation what has horribly gone wrong and is still going wrong within their country. Fiction does not tell the truth in detail, but it tells a universal truth, one that is simple and unbreakable, one that is beautiful and terrifying. Like the loving mother and beautiful woman that Diana was to the people of the world, unbreakable, she was a nightmare and terrifying for the royal family, yet unbreakable. Sometimes the truth is so uncomfortable to face and does not want to be heard, however remains unbreakable and so it must be told through fiction.

The Crown, Season 1-4 is available on Netflix

Title Picture: Courtesy of Netflix

One comment on “The Crown’s Toxic Oxygen: How Fairy Tale and Nightmare prove the Power of Fiction

  1. Gerhard sagt:

    Großartig geschrieben

    Gefällt mir

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