“The Crown” (2016-), Margaret Thatcher, and Gillian Anderson’s Unyielding Power

During my first semester of college I met  an English exchange student named Mabel. I have many fond memories of conversations  with her, and one in particular rose to the top of my mind recently as I watched season four of Netflix’s The Crown (2016-) and Gillian Anderson’s performance  as Margaret Thatcher. Somehow Mabel and I stumbled onto the topic of Thatcher. As a budding anglophile who still did not fully understand the complexities of British politics and history, I was happy to get a schooling on the subject from her. The conversation  devolved into talking about England’s reaction to Thatcher’s 2013 death, a time when The Wizard of Oz’s (1939) “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead” peaked at number two on the United Kingdom’s charts. Mabel told me about  a friend of hers whose parents had purchased a bottle of champagne during Thatcher’s time in 10 Downing Street with the express intent of keeping it locked away until she died. The one problem was that when Thatcher did finally die, the parents were on vacation. So, they did the only logical thing one could possibly do in this circumstance: cut their vacation short and flew home.

I include this anecdote because it is emblematic of the way that I have come to feel about Thatcher in the years since. I read about her opposition to sanctions against Apartheid South Africa, about  her staunch anti-LBGT policies, and the targeted way that she made life worse for the economically disenfranchised when she rose to power.  In this way I view her reign through the same lens as Reagan’s: a blight that has negatively impacted a nation for decades after their removal from office. It is why I still shake my head at Meryl Streep’s Oscar win for portraying Thatcher in The Iron Lady (2011), a film and performance that softened and sterilized the Prime Minister’s time in power and lasting legacy. Therefore, I was skeptical upon the initial news that Anderson would portray Thatcher in the fourth season of The Crown, a show that I love deeply but also think has made missteps when attempting criticism of major British figures (I’m looking at you, Edward VIII). As I sat down to finally watch the season last week after nearly a year of chewing on the casting, I was steeled to continue hating Thatcher no matter how much I love Anderson. Now, having finished the full season, I’m left with two separate but undeniably connected ideas. 

The first is simply that, against my wishes and better judgment, The Crown somehow made me feel the slightest touch of empathy for Thatcher. Some of this is due  to the structure of the show, and the choice to make “The Balmoral Test” the second episode of the season, an hour of television that posits Thatcher as the “everywoman.” A figure stuck in the insular and entitled world that is spending time with the Windsor’s at one of their many estates, here of course being Balmoral Castle. We see how Thatcher and her husband DT (Stephen Boxer) are turned into the butt of jokes as they try to be proper guests at Balmoral. Yet the Windsor’s do not welcome them warmly. Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman), Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies), and the rest of the family insult and belittle the Thatcher’s at every turn, whether it be for their wardrobe choices or dispositions. The structure results in the odd switch of suddenly siding against the family that we have spent the majority of the past three seasons siding with. Even when it came down to picking one family member against another as certain arcs played out, the show has almost always kept the scope tied to the family members. Never before have Peter Morgan and co. pulled back in such a distinct narrative way to critique the Windsors for their egregious elitism and condescension.  Normally, it is left up to our own bouts of criticism for the extreme privilege that they exist in. Having a whole episode structured around aligning with one of the show’s antagonists just to emphasize how out of touch the family is truly signals a new register of critique.

Such a shift of perspective is, of course, made all the more possible by Anderson’s show-stopping work as Thatcher. Yes, she has perfected the voice, the lip curl, and the slightly hunched-over way Thatcher walked. More than that thought, she succeeds in bringing Thatcher to life as a stubborn and vindictive leader. Anderson’s Thatcher is every inch the ‘Iron Lady’ who stormed the halls of parliament tearing her opponents down with a stunning appetite for political bloodshed. Nonetheless, she is the audience avatar in “The Balmoral Test,” which complicates viewers relationship to her. She makes all the same mistakes the rest of us normal humans would when asked to do the impossible of understanding how to interact with the Royal Family. Thatcher may have already shown us her aptitude for cutting economic benefits, but how can we not empathize with her when Elizabeth berates her for not having brought a pair of hunting boots? The Crown goes on to be far more critical of Thatcher and her politics as the season goes on, but because of “The Balmoral Test,” there is a lingering sense of humanity in the woman that I could not shake no matter how hard I tried. I still hate the real Thatcher and everything that she stood for. However, Anderson and The Crown have forced me, as most great historical television does, to amend my opinions to account for compassion. 

Secondly, I am left once again in awe of Gillian Anderson. It is not a new feeling for me, but rather one that has built over now nearly a decade of watching her in projects new and old. I first encountered her, as I think most of the American viewing public did, when she starred in The X-Files (1993-2002, 2016-2018) as Special Agent Dana Scully. Scully was the brilliant medical and skeptical mind poised in opposition to Special Agent Fox Mulder’s (David Duchovny) enthusiasm for the supernatural. Her work normalizing the idea of a woman being an adept medical mind and all-around crime-fighting-badass resulted in “The Scully Effect,” a documented phenomena that saw women and girls flock to STEM and cite Scully as their inspiration. For many, Anderson’s work is defined by The X-Files and stops there, but for those who think that way, they have missed out on decades of work after the end of the show that have continued to reveal Anderson as one of the most talented television actresses of her generation. On The Fall (2013-) she took the intelligence and badassery from Scully but turned it cold and violent to play DSI Stella Gibson. The show pits her against a serial killer and rapist in a pitch black game of cat and mouse without any of the humor or quirkiness that defined The X-Files, and shows a whole new side of her range. Her work on Hannibal (2013-2016) as Dr. Bedelia du Maurier, where she was criminally underutilized, extends Gibson’s qualities and showcases Anderson as a blistering counterpoint to Hannibal Lecter (Mad Mikkelsen). 

For all of this, it is pairing Anderson’s work on another Netflix show, Sex Education (2019-), with The Crown that displays to me the full power of what Anderson is capable of. On Sex Education she portrays Dr. Jean F. Milburn, a sex therapist and mother to bumbling teenager and budding sexual psychologist Otis Milburn (Asa Butterfield). While there is so much to commend Sex Education for, it is Anderson’s work that continues to bring me back to the show. This is admittedly in no small part because as the child of two therapists, not sex therapists mind you, the way that she tries to support Otis as a mother while struggling not to jump in as a health professional is relatable and quite hilarious to me. More than that, the role showcases Anderson’s enviable ability to cycle between side-splitting humor and tender drama. Even when the writers sometimes seem like they’re not quite sure what to do with Jean in a given scene, Anderson locates the necessary tone or mood to elevate every bit she is given. Jean is a supporting character, but she remains the definition of a scene-stealer in my mind because of Anderson’s ability to own the screen. 

It is this idea of scene-stealing that brings me back to The Crown and Margaret Thatcher. It should come as no surprise that in a show called The Crown, everyone is secondary to Queen Elizabeth and the Royal Family. Even so, it has become a tradition at this point that supporting characters brought on for a season become as integral to the show’s success as the regular cast. In a season that also introduces Princess Diana (Emma Corrin), it would make sense to expect Thatcher to float in and out as a necessary but largely overshadowed villain for Elizabeth to do battle with. While Morgan’s considerable talent as a showrunner and writer make sure Thatcher is well used at all times, I truly do believe that it is Anderson who turns her into the most momentous supporting figure since John Lithgow dominated the screen in season one as Winston Churchill. Anderson brings her full arsenal of acting talents to her portrayal, and as a result helps to cement season four as the most accomplished of The Crown’s run so far with its masterful balance of politics, tabloids, and a family in freefall. She also has hopefully reminded viewers everywhere that she is criminally underrated and under-considered as an actress. While I hope against hope that this season does not inspire any widespread uptick in sympathy for the Wicked Witch of Grantham, I do hope that by delivering such a gobsmacking performance on another signature show, Anderson will finally be entered into the pantheon of legendary performers that she so deeply deserves to be a part of. 

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