I have seen the third season of “The Crown,” which will be available on Netflix on Sunday, and it is dazzling and excellent. It’s extraordinary historical TV, as it takes one of the more colorless British monarchs, Queen Elizabeth II, and turns her life into a lens through which we can watch a busy century unfold. It’s also a profound look at what it means to be royalty, and how that meaning changed — and didn’t change — across the 1900s.
This time, Olivia Colman plays the queen, and she brings a darker and more distant energy to the role than Claire Foy did. Her Elizabeth is far more confident wearing the crown, and she comes across more like the Elizabeth we now know — almost painfully restrained. As Philip, Tobias Menzies amplifies the arrogance and, at times, brooding. And as Margaret, Helena Bonham Carter is a drunken, louche trendsetter whose relationship with husband Lord Snowden (Ben Daniels) is tortured and fascinating.
All three of them impress, of course. The big surprise for me was Josh O’Connor as Prince Charles, whose superciliousness masks some deeper feelings. O’Connor does what Colman does and what Foy before her did: turn dullness into something more complex. We don’t meet Diana this season, but we see Charles developing a strong attraction to Camilla.
I’ve loved the way showrunner Peter Morgan tries to make each episode stand alone, to some extent. Each hour has its own themes and focus. One episode gets into Philip’s obsession with the moon landing; another has Elizabeth reconnecting with King Edward (Derek Jacobi); and yet another finds Charles spending a semester in Wales in preparation for becoming the Prince of Wales. Within the long, ongoing story of the royal family, there are these smaller arcs. Often, streaming series feel more like season-long blurs than a series of distinct episodes. That is not the case with “The Crown,” as it tells its story as precisely and lavishly as anything on TV these days.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.