Atlantic Crossing, MASTERPIECE’s newest drama, has a lot of elements that would ordinarily be highly appealing to PBS audiences. World War II-centric dramas such as World on Fire, Churchill’s Secret, and Home Fires were all very successful shows for the network. However, the story of Crown Princess Märtha of Norway (Sofia Helin) being offered refuge by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Kyle MacLachlan) is arriving at a time when current events may make the plot a harder sell to many loyal PBS viewers.
Most reviews would focus on analyzing the strong ensemble cast and the cinematography that carefully recreated 1940’s Norway, America, and the UK. However, Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s recent interview with Oprah Winfrey has resulted in a firestorm of debate on both sides of the Atlantic over the UK royal family’s role in perpetuating racism and colonialism. Some have even gone as far as to say that they can’t enjoy British period dramas, or at least dramas where the royal family is featured. Atlantic Crossing is still an enjoyable miniseries for critics of recent events because neither the screenwriters nor the lead actors are British. The series captures the spirit of what PBS fans have come to enjoy from MASTERPIECE’s biographical dramas, while decentering the British monarchy and elite society.
Episode 1 features Crown Princess Märtha and her husband Crown Prince Olav (Tobias Santelmann) being served by others and living in relative wealth compared to others in Norway. Later episodes feature Martha’s parents and extended family in neighboring Sweden living in a grand castle. Buckingham Palace and the Norweigan embassy in London become a shelter for Olav and other members of the Norwegian government. Where does their wealth come from? Do they benefit from the UK’s riches since Olav is a direct descendant of Queen Victoria?
Some may desperately want the answers to these questions before beginning Atlantic Crossing, but it is important to note that the show can be enjoyed without knowing everything ahead of time. The goal of Atlantic Crossing is for Norwegian screenwriters to center their nation’s World War II history on screen. The miniseries is a perfect thematic follow-up to last year’s now pandemic delayed World on Fire, because both series revolve around depicting historical points of view ignored by previous biopics and fictional retellings. Many previous movies and TV shows focused exclusively on the US, British, or German political leaders and battles, leaving the smaller European countries behind.
Since the Norweigan royal family is the main focus, the script is designed to portray their position in the world in a positive light in relation to the history of the war. In fact, King Haakon gained his position because he was democratically chosen for the role after Norway gained independence from Sweden in 1905. The main areas of critique of King Haakon, Crown Prince Olav, and Crown Princess Märtha are based on family relationships and where their political loyalties lie. Their views of the other royal families shift over the course of the series as the characters grapple with protecting Norweigan independence and how much their contemporaries are willing to directly help Norway fight the Nazis.
The series is the most critical of Märtha’s Swedish royal relatives for pandering to the Nazis. German agents went as far as infiltrating the opulent Swedish palace which challenged the perception of the grounds as an idyll away from the war. On one level, the show is a critique of neutrality, and on another, it illustrates Märtha’s personal anguish over her parents’ divided loyalties. In later episodes, the series takes a more distant and at times critical view of the British royal family. Although Kensington Palace offered the Norweigan government shelter in exile, the British monarchy are minor characters in the show compared to the various members of the British armed forces who oppose the Norweigan plans to land a counter-invasion force. More than anything else, the series critiques King George VI’s inability to sway these military decisions.
This outsider view on the British royal family and government extends to not mentioning Edward and Wallis Simpson and others with Nazi leanings during this era (a story featured on The Crown). Prime Minister Winston Churchill is also little more than a footnote in the plot. This is another factor separating Atlantic Crossing from other period dramas which focus solely on glorifying Churchill’s leadership. Setting him aside could count as a point in favor of those who believe his legacy of imperialist violence should be discussed.
If the British Royal family and UK politicians aren’t the objects of worship, does that translate to excessive praise for President Roosevelt and other American politicians? No. Later episodes in the miniseries reveal tensions between FDR’s outward foreign policy decisions and how his friendly conversations with Crown Princess Märtha affect other members of his inner circle. His flaws in navigating competing ideologies towards the war, as well as his personal relationships, are just as obvious as his strengths.
Acknowledging the optics of the period dramas we watch is not an inherently negative thing. Not every viewer can separate entertainment from current events and politics. Watching MASTERPIECE shows can and should be a gateway for intellectual analysis of pop culture and historical narratives. Atlantic Crossing is coming out at a time of increased scrutiny of royalty and that can be acknowledged alongside enjoying a well-acted and written historical drama.