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A Unified Theory of Gillian Anderson, Our New Netflix Iron Lady

Season 4 of ‘The Crown’ drops on Sunday, but in an arc that was supposed to be defined by Princess Diana, it might be Anderson’s Margaret Thatcher that steals the show

Ringer illustration

When The Crown debuted in 2016, starting a six-season run across more than 50 years of British history, the climax was always expected to be Season 4. That installment, which premieres on Netflix on Sunday, shows the courtship of Prince Charles and Princess Diana—the story that, through a perfect fusion of fairy tale, politics, and celebrity, captivated the English-speaking world for 20 years.

But when the time came to promote this season, Netflix relegated Charles and Diana to the second half of the trailer. The first voice we hear, in fact, does not belong to anyone from the royal family. Instead, it’s the breathy alto of Margaret Thatcher, played by Gillian Anderson.

Cable and streaming services are packed to the gills with big-budget dramas about events of recent history, from The Right Stuff to The Comey Rule to Ryan Murphy’s various anthology series. Part of the thrill of such shows is seeing famous (or notorious) historical figures depicted on the small screen and examined in depth. The Crown is no different, particularly when a famous and well-credentialed actor, like Olivia Colman or John Lithgow, steps into the role.

But within that universe, no combination of actor and historical figure carries such potential, such import, as the combination of Anderson and Thatcher. It’s not just that The Crown is introducing its most important political character since Lithgow’s Churchill, or the excitement that a fantastic actress like Anderson is getting her chance to play in the sandbox that has kept every actor in the U.K. working for the past five years.

It’s the unique variety of possibilities this performance offers: What can this actor, one of TV’s most beloved figures of the past 30 years, do with this role?

Anderson took on her career-defining role at just 25, when she was a near-total newcomer to film and television. The X-Files premiered in 1993, and told the story of two FBI special agents—Anderson’s Dana Scully and David Duchovny’s Fox Mulder—who solved mysteries that straddled the line between the criminal and the supernatural. Visually, the show was very much of its time, what with Scully’s ‘90s hairdo and tent-like overcoats. But it also formed one of the most beloved and culturally influential working partnerships ever depicted on TV. Mulder’s impulsiveness and tenacity blended perfectly with Scully’s cautious rationality from the pilot, and both actors imbued their characters with heart, humor, and charm, transforming them from ordinary TV cops to Kirk and Spock for Gen X.

Over nine seasons, a feature film, and two revivals, The X-Files turned both Anderson and Duchovny into superstars and cult heroes for fans of sci-fi and speculative fiction. The words “Dana Scully” will, without a doubt, feature in the first line of Anderson’s obituary.

Very few actors get to play a character as popular and enduring as Scully, and fewer still play such a role without it filtering into the background of every TV and movie appearance that follows—including, and perhaps especially, shows that dramatize recent history. These programs tend to build big, detailed universes and populate them with big-name actors. And sometimes it’s hard to totally separate an actor from their definitive role: David Schwimmer’s Robert Kardashian-by-Ross Geller in The People v. O.J. Simpson, or Patrick J. Adams inviting “Space-Suits” jokes as John Glenn in The Right Stuff. The Crown is by no means immune; Matt Smith was fantastic as Prince Philip in the show’s first two seasons, but that’s how long it took for Smith to show up on screen without inviting the Doctor Who theme into viewers’ subconsciouses.

If Anderson came into this role with little but Scully in her bag, that wouldn’t be the end of the world. That effort required as much precision, range, and subtlety as most actors will ever have use for. But Anderson has spent the past decade in TV roles that allow her to exhibit her skills while leaving her iconic character behind entirely.

Anderson returned to the world of TV cops for The Fall, a three-season British-Irish crime drama that premiered in 2013. The Fall is certainly flawed—it’s relentlessly gloomy, frequently overwritten and obvious, and clumsily plotted—but it’s worth watching because of a pair of absolutely entrancing performances by its leads: Jamie Dornan as Belfast serial killer Paul Spector, and Anderson as Stella Gibson, the police investigator charged with hunting him down.

Stella is the anti-Scully: arrogant, cutthroat, and disdainful of rules. She bounces in and out of bed with several different colleagues over 17 episodes and delivers weighty monologues about sex, gender, and violence. In the hands of a lesser actress, Stella might’ve been a one-dimensional superheroine, an indomitable ice queen who saves the day. But Anderson plays her with incredible warmth and finesse.

On the other end of the spectrum is Jean Milburn of Sex Education, a show that is as madcap and lighthearted as The Fall is dark and self-serious. Jean is a sex therapist and mother of the show’s lead, Otis (Asa Butterfield), a precocious-but-awkward high school student who’s trying to understand love and sex on his own terms, while his mother is mortifyingly frank about both. Jean Milburn is every bit as unrelentingly urbane and captivating as Stella, capable of a hilarious deadpan delivery worthy of Monty Python. But she’s more vulnerable and emotional—appropriately so, as on Sex Education Anderson plays a single mom, rather than a hunter of serial killers.

Characters like these are the foundation of Anderson’s post-X-Files image: They’re incredibly intelligent, competent, and charismatic. They have strong perspectives on gender roles. And more than anything, they’re cool.

In the past decade, Anderson has shown herself capable of tackling roles that require not just skilled and nuanced acting, but those ineffable qualities of watchability and charm. It seems she can do anything.

So what’s she going to do with Margaret Thatcher?

The Crown has won two Emmys for acting: one for Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth in Season 2, and another for Lithgow as Churchill in Season 1. Lithgow is a legendary actor, and he played a legendary figure well, but he didn’t discover or reveal anything particularly new about a historical personage who’s been portrayed on screen more times than anyone can count.

We know Churchill: determined, pugnacious, spherical. An inspirational figure to those who supported him, a selfish racist to those who dig below the surface.

By contrast, Thatcher is conspicuous by her absence in popular TV and movie drama. The obvious exception is The Iron Lady, for which Meryl Streep won an Oscar, but the film itself has shockingly little to say about such an important and provocative historical figure. The Iron Lady is a showcase for Streep and the film’s makeup team, but beyond that, all it says about Thatcher is that she existed, she was surrounded by men, she detested labor unions, and she suffered from dementia late in life.

Thatcher, along with Ronald Reagan, was one of the leading neoconservative figures of the 1980s, and the first woman to become head of government in the U.K. She went to war against Argentina over the Falkland Islands in 1982, and fought just as ferociously against working-class people back at home. In domestic politics, she enacted massive campaigns of deregulation and privatization, broke strikes, and championed regressive tax reforms. As the European Community took its first steps toward becoming the EU it is today, the nationalist and Eurosceptic Thatcher laid the rhetorical groundwork for leaving it.

(In 2013, Eric Andre, on his eponymous talk show, asked former Spice Girl Mel B if Margaret Thatcher had girl power. When Mel B said yes, Andre followed up by asking if she thought Thatcher had “effectively utilized girl power by funneling money into illegal paramilitary death squads in Northern Ireland?” The exchange doesn’t completely encapsulate Thatcher’s polarizing legacy, but it gets you most of the way there.)

In her personal life, Anderson has championed liberal political causes. Hundreds of bad parodies of George W. Bush and Donald Trump on contemporary TV testify to the risk that an actor’s disdain for a character could undermine the performance.

But when Yvonne Villarreal of the Los Angeles Times asked Anderson how she found compassion for Thatcher, Anderson pointed out that she’s only playing what The Crown screenwriter (and her partner) Peter Morgan has written. And Morgan was apparently just as interested in Thatcher’s personal life as a political figure.

“I think that you get a good sense of all aspects of her in the series, seeing a much more three-dimensional characterization of Thatcher than one might in a political documentary or one might have thought about her historically,” Anderson said.

That would be in line with The Crown’s portrayal of other prime ministers, from Churchill to the socialist Harold Wilson. Because the show’s perspective is that of the royal family, and because it’s not strictly about political history, these prime ministers are viewed primarily through their relationship with Queen Elizabeth. We weren’t in Anthony Eden’s hip pocket through the Suez Crisis in Season 2, and we likely won’t be in Thatcher’s for the Falklands War, or the “The Lady’s Not For Turning” speech, in Season 4.

Even if Anderson’s assigned task is to play a three-dimensional Thatcher, that doesn’t preclude the possibility of her going somewhat off the beaten path. Thatcher’s introduction in the trailer is not only jarring because it kicks things off, but because the first image of Anderson as the Iron Lady is almost Tarkinesque. All the warmth and empathy we’re used to seeing from Anderson looks like it’s been drained, and in its place is left a stark imperial (and imperious) persona. It’s a jarring first impression, whatever comes after.

Because of the paucity of the cultural portrayals of Thatcher, whatever Anderson brings to The Crown has the potential to become that definitive depiction, like George C. Scott’s Patton or Daniel Day-Lewis’s Lincoln. Never has The Crown had an actor capable of saying so much about a character—or a character about whom so much needs to be said.