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James Martin, S.J., actress Emma Corrin as Princess Diana of Wales in Netflix's “The Crown” and Kerry Weber. (Composite image/Des Willie/Netflix/IMDb)

As 2020 rolled on toward its end, and with the pandemic still going strong, many people found a shared distraction in a surprising source: Season 4 of “The Crown.” In fact, America interviewed five prominent Catholic religious leaders on what got them through 2020, and all five confessed to binge-watching the hit Netflix series—including James Martin, S.J., America’s editor at large.

What makes this show so appealing? It could be the acting or the ornate sets, but it might also have something to do with the deeper questions it poses: What does it mean to uphold one’s duty? What does it mean to be free? Why on earth do all the characters seem so miserable? Executive editor Kerry Weber and Father Martin sat down to spill the tea about the palace intrigue depicted in the new season.

Kerry Weber: In past seasons, it felt like the lives of the royals were difficult, but they had been able to maintain some kind of sense of self, some kind of inner steadfastness. This season, it feels like everyone is falling apart. The duty they have is beginning to undermine who they are at the core, or who they want to be. What do you think?

James Martin: Except for the queen. She seems stable. She’s struggling, but she has a sense of who she is and what she’s supposed to do. I always go back to the first season, where her father, King George VI, imparts to her this great sense of duty, and of course her famous radio broadcast: “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family.”

The duty they have is beginning to undermine who they are at the core, or who they want to be.

KW: Very Ignatian. Though he would be pledging to God, not the Commonwealth.

JM: Elizabeth seems to have a sense of who she is. But you’re right, I think the other characters don’t. They seem very unhappy. It really is a dark season, but very well acted and quite engrossing.

KW: The queen remained steadfast in her sense of duty, but her role seems to have eaten away at parts of her that you’d hope would grow. As a royal, she has been forced to be detached from so many things that require demonstration of deep emotion, like her children or her family. The episode in which she realized she doesn’t know her children that well was heartbreaking. She’s learning about them as almost a third-party observer.

JM: She had to have her secretary bring her the briefing with “talking points” about her children! I always go back to that line that Queen Mary says to her, at least in the series: “Whenever it comes to a conflict between the Crown and Elizabeth Windsor, the crown must always win.” Which means, in her life as a mother and sometimes even a wife, she loses. In this season what’s most frustrating to her is that she feels like the crown is losing too, because things seem to be on the decline in the country.

KW: Because if the crown diminishes, then you have to ask yourself, “What has this all been for?” If your entire life has been to preserve this lineage and the dignity of the crown and the monarchy—if the shine starts to come off of that, you have to start asking yourself some real, hard questions.

One of the things I like best about “The Crown” is when they show that “shine” coming off.

JM: One of the things I like best about the show is when they show that “shine” coming off. One of my favorite scenes is where Queen Mother is in a room having a drink, as usual, and a little mouse scurries across the floor. Even Michael Fagan, who breaks into Her Majesty’s bedroom says something like, “Boy, this place really needs a paint job.” It’s a great metaphor.

KW: Exactly. It is, and I know that the show paid so much attention to the actual detail of those sets and the costumes, which makes it feel extremely realistic. As a viewer, it is easy to believe the producers paid the exact same attention to truthfully portraying the details of the royals’ lives, as well. But as we have seen in the press—the real-life royals are not thrilled, to put it mildly, about how they’re being portrayed.

It’s seductive because watching the show gives you the feeling that you have been given the key to understanding this mysterious family.

JM: Peter Morgan, who also wrote the film “The Queen”—is a brilliant screenwriter, who is basing it as much on facts as he can muster—but in the end he has no idea what happened behind those closed doors.

For example, in Season 3 when the queen goes to Aberfan, the Welsh village where a terrible mining disaster happened—you can read about that story and her response, in real life. But there’s that scene where she says, “Well, I dabbed a dry eye for the benefit of the cameras.” It’s so artfully presented that you don’t know if she actually cried or didn’t cry. You’re right, it is very seductive, because you think if they got Margaret Thatcher’s royal-blue suit right, then of course they must have gotten the details of what went on right, but in reality we have no idea.

KW: The episodes about more modern history are fascinating because so much of what is depicted might be remembered by a large portion of the show’s viewers. The events can be backed up by easily accessible interviews with Princess Diana, for example. It also brings up ethical questions of what is owed to people that are depicted in this series, who are public figures but have obviously not publicly shared every aspect of their struggles. Do you think there’s an ethical dilemma there in how these figures are portrayed?

JM: I think so. Did Prince Charles really say, or shout, “I will no longer be blamed for this grotesque misalliance”? (Which is probably my favorite crazy line of the season.) Did he scream at Diana like that? How many times did he secretly meet up with Camilla? On the one hand, they are public figures. So there’s a sense that you give up your right to a good deal of privacy in public life. But by the same token, they’re human beings, too. Should you make things up about people who are still alive and who can’t defend themselves?

Should you make things up about people who are still alive and who can’t defend themselves?

KW: Prince Charles comes out looking particularly terrible, and rather unsympathetic. And while we don’t know his private conversations, we do know that some of the actions portrayed that make him look unsympathetic are historical.

JM: I actually sympathize with Queen Elizabeth at the end of this season, where she gives Charles a dressing-down and says, about him and Diana, more or less, “You are two privileged people who have everything in life, and you’re complaining.” You wonder why they couldn’t both have just stuck it out, from a sense of duty, but of course they do seem miserable.

KW: She says some version of “buck up” quite a bit during the series. But you’re right that this was a very pointed one: You’re acting well below the level of what your maturity should be.

JM: That’s in line with the cruel thing she says to him after he comes back from the investiture as Prince of Wales: “No one cares what you think.” Is there any shred of evidence that she would have said or even thought something like that? It’s quite manipulative really, because it’s such an appealing and dramatic scene, as the whole series is. But it is also manipulative; you feel like you’re getting the behind the scenes view—and you may not be.

For example, the fellow who was the press secretary who was basically told to fall on his sword after a public relations disaster. Did it really happen like that? Who knows? They don’t talk. It reminds me a little of the Vatican. What little I know of what happens behind the scenes in the Vatican—and about who does what and who said what—makes it seem just as opaque.

Did it really happen like that? Who knows? They don’t talk. It reminds me a little of the Vatican.

KW: It’s seductive because watching the show gives you the feeling that you have been given the key to understanding this mysterious family. And the answer the show seems to offer, at least from my interpretation, is also seductive: No matter how miserable our own lives are at times, it feels like the royals are worse off. It squelches any envy that one might have about the lush life that they lead on the surface.

On some level, yes, they are remarkably privileged, as even Queen Elizabeth points out. But on the other hand, there appears to be a deep internal unhappiness in the family. These characters—on the show, anyway—make you recognize that nobody’s life is perfect.
JM: Let’s talk about Margaret Thatcher. How great was Gillian Anderson? What did you think of her performance?

KW: I didn’t have a vivid mental picture of Margaret Thatcher, so I definitely googled around for comparisons. The show is a clickbait minefield for articles about truth versus fiction. I was always eager to find out what was real. I was fascinated by the fact that Margaret Thatcher really did cook dinner for her cabinet.

JM: On the one hand, it seemed sexist. On the other hand, it was a kind of a power move. “I’m in charge, I’m making dinner for you. I’m telling you what to eat. I’m putting it on the table.”

I think Gillian Anderson’s an amazing actress, and so is Olivia Colman. The scenes with the two of them, Margaret Thatcher remembering her working class roots, and the queen her long-lasting sense of duty, are extraordinary.

Thatcher’s take on the Good Samaritan was unbelievably chilling. The Good Samaritan, she says, wouldn’t have been able to help—except he had money.

I also thought Thatcher’s take on the Good Samaritan was unbelievably chilling. The Good Samaritan, she says, wouldn’t have been able to help—except he had money. I’ve never thought of that particular exegesis on that parable! That is part of the parable—he does have money—but it was a shocking thing to stress, and you could see it register on Queen Elizabeth’s face. She looked appalled.

KW: I thought each served as an interesting foil to the other. I would imagine it’s very difficult to be either of those women in power. They don’t want to oversimplify their views and paint over differences simply because they both face opposition from patriarchal figures at times. But it was interesting to see them grow in respect for each other at the end, because I think they do recognize that despite their many differences they have a common cause as women just trying to do their jobs in a world that scrutinizes their every move.

JM: And they have wildly different views. Fascinating for me was Queen Elizabeth’s support for the kind of Britain where people were helping one another, looking out for one another. Margaret Thatcher was all about laissez-faire economics and “people will help themselves.” I could see that both of them wanted to have a closer relationship, but—in a good way—they were pretty wedded to their ethical stances.

KW: I would love to know what each thought of the other in real life, behind closed doors, a glass of whiskey in hand. The show gives you a little glimpse of where they ended up, but I’d love to see a little bit further down the road.

The show often feels like royal mythology. All the characters are there, the bones of the stories are there and it gets at this deeper truth about their relationship to each other and the crown. Even if the details are not all accurate, the struggles that they’re having feel very true and real. And I do find myself wondering whether the show would be getting the same push-back from the royal circles today if it didn’t hit so close to the truth.

No matter how miserable our own lives are at times, it feels like the royals are worse off.

JM: By the same token, what is frightening is that line from “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”: “When you have to choose between history and legend, print the legend.” Imagine the fear in the royal family of having this narrative take over, of not being able to dislodge it from the minds of the British public. And we have two more seasons. Imagine how hard it would be for Charles and Camilla, if Charles is ever made king, to govern. Think of how they might fear that this fictionalized narrative will become accepted.

KW: There’s a whole generation of people who are coming to this story for the first time through this series. I would imagine it’s going to get increasingly difficult for people like Prince Harry and Prince William to watch this play out. It has to be painful enough for them to have gone through what they went through in real life, but to watch someone else interpret your most painful life experiences has to be really tough.

And, despite his depiction in the show, I do find some sympathy for Charles, if you view the story from a wider lens: He found someone that he loved; he wanted to marry that person, and then was forced into this entirely different relationship. I feel like a lot of problems in the monarchy—at least the version in the show—would have been solved if everybody had just been allowed to marry who they wanted to marry in the first place.

JM: I’m sure you’re doing this unintentionally, but that all comes down to critiquing religion, because it’s about divorce in most of the cases. Edward can’t marry a divorcee. Margaret can’t marry someone who’s divorced. And the queen is “Defender of the Faith.” There’s a cost there, too.

KW: The yoking of a political leader and a church leader in that single role is very complex and comes with a lot of ramifications.

There’s an analogy with the church, too. People think that everything that goes on in the Vatican is “holy” because it's the Vatican.

JM: There’s an analogy with the church, too. People think that everything that goes on in the Vatican is “holy” because it's the Vatican. I mean if you’re a cardinal, archbishop, of course people think you’re living this holy life. And as we know, that’s not always the case.

For those on “The Crown,” I think one reason they’re miserable is that the grass is always greener. Charles thinks that if he were with Camilla, everything would be perfect, which of course is false. It’s a fantasy. But you’re right, Kerry, a lot of them were just denied the people they loved.

KW: At its core I think the show is about what happens when we feel called to do something but don’t have the freedom to follow that path. You see it in big and small ways, including the allusion to Princess Margaret considering converting to Catholicism, which she had considered in real life. What a crazy scandal that would have been, for her to convert to Catholicism when her sister is the head of the Church of England.

It made me think of Ignatius’ suscipe prayer. He prays about turning everything over to God. And sometimes it feels like these characters want to do that, but instead they have to turn their lives over to the crown. That’s not to say that the real-life royals are not holy people or that they don’t have robust relationships with God. But the show demonstrates the problems that come when we develop idols that distract us from that relationship. The characters have to submit to the monarchy and let go of their wants in a way that doesn’t allow for the kind of freedom you get when you turn your life over to God.

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