'The Crown' Season 3: TV Review

Series transitions are rarely this big or this smooth.

Olivia Colman, Tobias Menzies and Helena Bonham Carter join Netflix's decades-spanning chronicle of Queen Elizabeth for a third season covering the period from 1964 to 1977.

Returning to Netflix after a hiatus of nearly two years, The Crown was always going to be a show in transition for its third season.

Not only was creator Peter Morgan fulfilling a promise of replacing the entirety of his award-winning ensemble cast, but the reasonably dry time period of the season — the ascension of Harold Wilson as PM in 1964 through the Silver Jubilee of 1977 — leads mostly to the cusp of a juicier future fourth season promising the introductions of Margaret Thatcher and Princess Diana among flashier developments.

Even in transition, though, these 10 episodes mark a welcome return for a reliably thoughtful, gorgeously produced drama that, if anything, suffers from sticking a bit too closely to our traditional concept of prestige. Austere and immaculately polished, The Crown remains a model for carefully crafted episodic storytelling, a trenchant examination of the nature of power and, remarkably, now features a new ensemble that proves every bit the equal of the first.

It's not a season without significant events. Elizabeth (Olivia Colman, in for Claire Foy) learns of a spy in her inner circle and faces questions about her sympathies in the aftermath of a mining disaster in Wales. Princess Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter, in for Vanessa Kirby) becomes a sensation on an American tour and copes with the erosion of her marriage to Antony Armstrong-Jones (Ben Daniels, in for Matthew Goode). The moon landing causes Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies, in for Matt Smith) to, once again, examine his life. And Prince Charles (an excellent Josh O'Connor) finds himself in a love quadrangle involving a conflicted aristocrat, Camilla Shand (Emerald Fennell), while struggling to define himself as a future leader.

New faces to the cast include Jason Watkins as Prime Minister Wilson; Erin Doherty, a spirited addition as Princess Anne; Charles Dance in fine imperious form as Louis Mountbatten; and the great Derek Jacobi replacing Alex Jennings to chart the last days of the former King Edward VIII. Mark Lewis Jones has a great one-episode guest turn as a Welsh nationalist and Clancy Brown makes for a very unlikely, but highly amusing, LBJ in another one-episode turn.

Continuing an evolution begun in the second season, Morgan's interest is more and more on the nature of the British monarchy as embodied by Elizabeth and its shifting perception on a world stage. The imagery of royalty is front and center from the season's opening scene, in which Elizabeth stares down two postage-stamp versions of herself, the old one with Foy's visage and an updated Colman portrait. Being the opposite of sensationalistic, finding regality in stability, is the thing that sets Elizabeth apart from Margaret — and from a young Charles' theatrical aspirations — and that difference will presumably only deepen as we move forward.

Capturing Elizabeth's provocative banality has always been Morgan's most difficult task and this season is a string of nearly stand-alone one-hour plays in which the writer layers in internal parallels — most expertly in the moon landing episode in which Elizabeth recognizes her own plight in the clean-cut, personality-free heroism of the Apollo 11 crew, while Philip wishes they had the dynamism he simultaneously longs for himself. I loved the voice-finding episode "Tywysog Cymru," in which Charles' pre-investiture semester abroad turns him into a substantive character for the first time, and also the voice-repressing "Aberfan," which finds Morgan working in similar thematic terrain as The Crown, as Elizabeth ponders how much of her aching humanity the kingdom truly wants to see.

It's all a good way of covering for how little Elizabeth really does during the season. The most conspicuous, though non-egregious, low point is an episode that finds the horse-loving monarch on a mopey global tour trying to catch up on the latest advances in animal husbandry. And even that episode is well-structured, despite being an uneventful lamentation about things being uneventful, and anchored by Colman's ability to sell the delicate emotions behind the face Elizabeth must present to the world.

There are few actresses as comfortable going both "big" — see her Oscar-winning The Favourite turn — and "small" as Colman and this finds her closer to the latter mode, as she follows Foy's lead in keeping Elizabeth inscrutable-yet-human. Much of this season's undercurrent is Elizabeth realizing the Queen she felt she needed to be isn't perfectly aligned with the tumultuous times outside her various palaces and Colman conveys that almost wordlessly.

There's a new, more mature, chemistry that she and Menzies share and Menzies thrives as Philip makes a transition from immature whelp to maturing, occasionally disappointed man. It's a shift that Bonham Carter has to illustrate as well, showing us Kirby's rebellious, charismatic Margaret only in glimpses, but more often foregrounding a burnt-out resignation. The new performances all fit perfectly into a space where they seem halfway between the real figures and the actors who played them in the first two seasons, and it's fun looking for shared mannerisms and guessing whether they were taken from the prior performer or the historical figure.

The Crown is well situated for an eventful fourth season after Morgan successfully steered what could have been a difficult transition into a robust chapter in this still top-notch regal saga.

Cast: Olivia Colman, Tobias Menzies, Helena Bonham Carter, Josh O'Connor, Erin Doherty, Ben Daniels, Jason Watkins, Charles Dance

Creator: Peter Morgan

Premieres Nov. 17 on Netflix.