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'The Crown' ends as pensive meditation on the most private public family on Earth

Imelda Staunton as Queen Elizabeth II.
Imelda Staunton as Queen Elizabeth II.

(Hear ye hear ye – Be warned the following analysis reveals details from the final batch of episodes in Netflix's The Crown.)

It makes a certain kind of sense that Netflix's The Crown is ending now – as criticisms for the series' depiction of Britain's royal family have grown and its status as one of TV's most acclaimed dramas has eroded.

Indeed, the final batch of episodes dropping in the show's sixth and last season – four episodes depicting the death of Diana, Princess of Wales were released last month – feel like a slow-moving, if thoughtful, conclusion, after all the controversy and emotion detailing Diana's untimely end.

These new episodes show us how a college-age Prince William wooed Kate Middleton, the lengths then-Prince Charles had to navigate for his mother's permission to marry Camilla Parker Bowles, and Queen Elizabeth literally debating herself over whether she should step aside after the wedding and allow Charles to become king before her death.

"Admit it...you sometimes think there's a difference between you and the rest of the family," she says to herself, in a scene that underscores a major theme running through the entire series.

"It comes naturally to you," she adds. "They all seem to make such a mess of it ... shouldn't you stay for every single day that you can?"

The story of duty vs. personal fulfillment

Imelda Staunton and Jonathan Pryce as Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip.
Justin Downing / Netflix
Imelda Staunton and Jonathan Pryce as Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip.

History tells us how that decision turned out; The Crown shows the Queen scratching out lines in her speech prepared for Charles' wedding reception in 2005, eliminating the sentences which would have presumably announced her retirement.

It is also fitting that the final episode would linger on the Queen's meditation about her own duty, the longevity of her rule and whether continuing on would be best for the monarchy and Britain itself. The Crown has always been an extended love letter to the woman who would become the longest-serving British monarch in history, while continually wrestling with the implications of her reign.

Over the series' broad sweep, we've seen Queen Elizabeth challenged in any number of ways, from learning to channel the nation's grief after a disaster in the Welsh mining village of Aberfan, to handling husband Prince Philip's frustrations at always coming second, to facing down the ways her own emotional distance affected her children or how she felt threatened by Diana's popularity and unwillingness to accept a loveless marriage to Charles.

Creator and showrunner Peter Morgan has always kept the same themes front and center, asking potent questions while keeping his finger on the scale, tilted firmly toward the Queen. What role does or should a monarchy have in a modern, changing democracy? How much should duty and tradition bind the royal family serving as the embodiment of a nation's spirit? Where is the line between leading a family which heads a nation and simply being a good wife, mother and grandmother?

Telling the story with three different Queens

Claire Foy and Matt Smith as Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip.
Robert Viglasky / Netflix
Claire Foy and Matt Smith as Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip.

Along the way, the show deftly deployed an inspired strategy, casting different collections of performers to play the royal family in different decades, leveraging an astonishing lineup of talented names.

From Claire Foy, Matt Smith and Vanessa Kirby as Queen Elizabeth, Prince Philip and Princess Margaret in the first two seasons, to Olivia Colman, Tobias Menzies and Helena Bonham Carter as the same characters in seasons three and four and Imelda Staunton, Jonathan Pryce and Lesley Manville for the last two seasons – each trio presented a different chemistry while maintaining a continuity with those who came before.

Imelda Staunton and Elizabeth Debicki
/ Netflix
Imelda Staunton and Elizabeth Debicki

Some performers, like Elizabeth Debicki as Diana, manage the feat of looking like carbon copies of the figures they are playing, while bringing serious acting chops to their scenes. Others, like Dominic West as Prince Charles, don't necessarily resemble the characters as much as embody what's needed for the story – in West's case, he's an actor skilled at playing sympathetic cads, capable of keeping audiences invested in a character who often acts terribly, envying both his mother and his ex-wife for their popularity and power.

Each season unfolds with the lush production values of a feature film, with inspired supporting performances from names like Jared Harris (King George IV), John Lithgow (Winston Churchill), Gillian Anderson (Margaret Thatcher) and Emerald Fennell (young Camilla).

More than propaganda for the monarchy

Critics say the series often seems like a six-season advertisement for the royal family — at a time when public support for the institution is at historic lows – and they have a point. But there is a subtle difference between lionizing characters and humanizing them; by showing the inner workings of a family which has worked so hard to keep such things from public view, the impact is bound to produce sympathy, even when they're acting awfully.

Of course, that also means the show is constantly re-creating conversations and scenes which few outside the royal family have ever seen; backlash from major names like actor Dame Judi Dench led to calls for a disclaimer highlighting the speculation involved. The show has often called itself a "fictional dramatization" — isn't that what most scripted TV shows are? — as if a bit of fine print could overcome the power of seeing disputed events, like Dodi Fayed proposing marriage to Diana, given life.

Over six seasons, The Crown has emerged as a high-quality melodrama centered on the most famous family on the planet. The final six episodes strain under the weight of that legacy a bit, with heavy-handed foreshadowing of things we know are coming, from the rift between Princes William and Harry to the death of the Queen herself – who closes out the series working with her aides to plan a funeral which wouldn't happen for another 17 years.

In the end, Morgan doesn't fully answer many of the questions his show has raised, particularly the big one: whether a monarchy with a hereditary sovereign even makes sense for the United Kingdom, anymore.

That may be the criticism which stings most. After such close dissection of the Queen's 70-year reign, The Crown ends with important questions left unsettled – even those asked by monarch herself.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.