There’s a moment in the latest season of “The Crown” where Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) attempts to comfort her daughter Anne (Erin Doherty) by saying, “You have so much to make you happy.” Anne can only respond, “Then how come none of it does?”
That’s the question that dominates the fourth season of Netflix’s “The Crown,” which takes a firmer stance on criticizing the monarchy than ever before. Following the Queen’s reign from 1979 to 1990, the season underlines the monarchy’s inability and unwillingness to adapt to modern society. And there’s change aplenty, with the season featuring the introduction of Princess Diana (Emma Corrin) and Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson).
Therefore, it’s no surprise that as the show’s buzz has skyrocketed, so too has the controversy surrounding it. (Your annual reminder that “The Crown” is NOT a documentary and that nothing can ever claim to be historically accurate! Moving on.) After all, it’s hard to think of two other figures from the late 20th century whose legacies still ignite such intense and emotive debate, or whose influences are still so embedded in Britain’s cultural and political history. Thus, the audience is all too conscious of their presence on their screen.
It’s impossible not to be aware of Anderson’s Thatcher, who draws you in yet repels you whenever she appears. She’s perfectly captured Thatcher’s physicality from her walk to how her mouth moves when she speaks. It’s less nuanced than Corrin’s Diana but does the most important thing in reminding everyone how awful Thatcher was. Showrunner Peter Morgan clearly had a blast writing her relationship with Elizabeth, with Thatcher giving Elizabeth’s character more to do. Yet, while I appreciate that Morgan wanted to write a multi-dimensional Thatcher, some of the attempts to humanize her were more successful than others. If I was supposed to feel any sympathy for Thatcher at the end, Morgan was looking in the wrong place.
The People’s Princess
Yet this season really belongs to Corrin, who gives the best on-screen portrayal there’s ever been of Diana. You have to hand it to the show’s casting department: Corrin’s mannerisms and vocal intonations are so like Diana, it’s scary at points. Yet the show does well to flesh Diana’s character out, not holding back in depicting the struggles she faced physically and mentally. Corrin’s strongest in reminding us how young and hopeful Diana was at the beginning.
One of the season’s strongest episodes, “Fairytale,” perfectly charts Diana’s youth and innocence fading away after her engagement to Prince Charles (Josh O’ Connor). When Diana celebrates with her friends in London, leaning out of a car to relish her happiness, her freedom is evident. Soon enough we follow her journey in Buckingham Palace, the complete lack of exterior shots increasing Diana’s isolation. Her warmth and vulnerability stand in stark contrast to the coldness of her in-laws. This is encapsulated when Diana desperately hugs Elizabeth, who can’t get out of the room fast enough. In a family defined by emotional repression, Diana has nowhere to express her feelings.
A Pathetic Prince
She certainly can’t express them to her husband. Despite a sympathetic turn last season, “The Crown” argues that Prince Charles has become his own worst enemy. I’ve seen criticism that O’Connor’s Charles does a 180 this season, which I disagree with. Yes, he’s unsympathetic this season, but the show sets this development up. It does this well by first underlining how incompatible Charles and Diana are. Both require an amount of love and attention they can’t give to each other. But in such an emotionally dysfunctional family, Charles hasn’t grown from his childhood struggles. Instead, he wraps himself in self-pity, sensitive to how everyone’s behavior affects him. He has no concern about his behavior. Diana, consumed by misery too, channels this pain through connecting with the public. Charles once wanted to humanize the crown, yet now he deceives himself into thinking garden design makes him “wild and unconventional.”
Daylight Upon Magic
Delusion begins to define Colman’s Elizabeth too, as her steely determination to ‘do nothing’ begins to have consequences. Morgan has always expressed admiration for his protagonist, so seeing Elizabeth at fault this season is an interesting turn. What’s most noticeable is her lack of self-awareness around her history. She fondly reminisces on her and Philip’s (Tobias Menzies) 1954 Australia tour, conveniently ignoring that they fought all the time (she threw a tennis racket at him!). Elizabeth notes the wisdom she learned from Lord Altringham in season two about the importance of meeting her subjects, even though she had to be forced into it. Most crucially, 25 years on, her approach to connecting with the public hasn’t progressed beyond making small talk at a garden party. No wonder the world finds Diana so refreshing.
Once again, the production and design of the show can’t be faulted, with the costumes and sets suitably jaw-dropping. The show’s attention to detail is continually above and beyond anything else on television. The writing, while still captivating, repeats the same weaknesses from earlier seasons. Morgan’s scripts are far from subtle (he likes his stag metaphors), and the writing does enjoy emphasizing any symbolism again and again. There’s still too much show and tell in scenes.
What’s tricky about the limited episode count is that you can’t help but ponder the potential alternative storylines (more Princess Anne!). Morgan doesn’t seem interested in early motherhood, which is fine, but it means there have been missed opportunities when developing the women on the show. (What happened to Margaret’s (Helena Bonham Carter) children? How has Anne raised her children? What was it like for Elizabeth to rule while pregnant?) The story of Elizabeth feeling unable to hold baby Charles was incredibly affecting; only the show could have done the moment themselves. In the same scene, Elizabeth admits she had Andrew (Tom Byrne) and Edward (Angus Imrie) to prove she could be a better mother. Yet we only get scenes with Elizabeth and the children when they have grown up.
End of An Era
Regardless, I’m nitpicking. What the show does cover, it does it extremely well. Ultimately, “The Crown” creates its most watchable season yet, with the episodes being addictive and gripping throughout. Netflix can rest assured that the show will continue its reign as one of the most masterful dramas on television. I’m going to miss this cast, who all brought their own strengths to their characters and were instantly watchable. Josh O’Connor, Erin Doherty and Emma Corrin were strokes of casting genius; here’s hoping they follow in Claire Foy and Vanessa Kirby’s footsteps and have the careers they deserve. Overall, this season paints a darker picture of the royal family, leaving the viewer with an important question: Who would want to be a royal in the 21st century?