Wellit is the 90s after all. After four seasons of ceremony, scandal and endless hand-wringing about the future of the monarchy, the episodes House of Windsor-obsessed have been anticipating since The crownthe premiere will arrive on November 9. Charles and especially Diana undertake Center stage as theirs marriage unraveled in shockingly public fashion. Camila, Dodi, Panorama, Tampongate—creator Peter Morgan delves into it all. What he doesn’t spend much time on in the show’s fifth season is the queen herself. And frankly, that’s for the best.
Like the guards at Buckingham Palace, stars of The crown spin in and out at regular intervals, with lots of choreographed fanfare. Claire Foythe hesitant, disillusioned young Elizabeth relented Olivia Colmanheadstrong, horsey middle-aged girl – both compelling images. Imelda Staunton, doyenne of stage and screen, so accomplished that her awards list has its own long Wikipedia page, seemed a solid choice to represent the monarch in her golden years. In practice, however, Staunton’s Elizabeth is impassive to the point of opacity. A stiff upper lip comes with the royal territory, but Foy and Coleman have access to layers beneath that surface. The Staunton’s performance isn’t embarrassing, but it lacks interior. Even in an emotional episode framed by the Queen’s infamous 1992 “annus horribilis” speechthe character doesn’t feel fully present.
To be fair to the great actress, this aloofness seems to reflect Morgan’s inert vision of Elizabeth in her fifth decade on the throne. Season 5 is full of episodes that draw parallels between the Queen and an increasingly derelict royal yacht Britainwhich made her maiden voyage just a few years into her reign and was decommissioned, over her objections, in 1997. Mentions of “Queen Victoria Syndrome” haunt the corridors of the palace. In a rare moment of self-awareness, as a young Prince William (Sennon West, the real-life son of Dominic West, who takes over the role of Charles) tries to fix the old, plain TV that his grandmother prefers to the newfangled cable and satellite options, she quips, that “even televisions are metaphors of this place.” As if all the comparisons to objects and dead people don’t paint a clear enough picture, at one point Elizabeth comes up with her own interpretation of the season’s events: “Charles is angry because the Crown has many of the functions of an inanimate object . He’d rather be alive. But there is a danger in this. One can run out cancellation more than doing.”
Either way, the storm surrounding Charles and Diana saves a show that has spent most of its run in limbo, as the Queen has reliably chosen tradition over change and allowed anyone who wants to live differently, to be crushed by the Company. Morgan does not lose sight of these victims in Season 5. The extent of the damage is quite clear as the once vital Princess Margaret (a magnificent Leslie Manville) takes stock of a life derailed by her sister’s refusal to evolve. One of the series’ most poignant and sad storylines follows Elizabeth’s perpetual failure to understand the suffering she has caused Margaret over the years.
But one of the reasons Diana, portrayed here with an exquisite combination of grace, courage and vulnerability by Elisabeth Debicki, remains iconic a quarter of a century after her death is that she was the first major player in this royal saga to break the cycle of repression and self-sacrifice . Two insightful episodes dedicated to her a soul-baring interview with Martin Bashir (Prasanna Puwanarajah) on BBC One’s Panorama illustrate just how much courage this requires. Instead of rehashing much of the telecast that everyone in the world seems to have watched when it aired and that remains viewable on various platforms today, Morgan wisely focused on adding context. Bashir walks out looking completely evil. More artful and thoughtful is the show’s snapshot of the BBC as an institution in the 1990s, where journalists clash with aristocrats determined to protect the Queen and debate rages over whether the Welsh family’s split is serious news or tabloid rubbish.
From the very beginning, when Emma Corrin played the devil-may-care teenager Diana Spencer, The crown there is resisted portraying the People’s Princess as something as simple as a worldly saint, a narcissistic media manipulator, or the spiraling martyr of the rampant Pablo Laraine Spencer. There are glimpses of all these Dianes in Debicki’s performance, a highlight of the season, but mostly she comes across as a sincere, kind-hearted and lonely, if socially ambitious, woman who married too young to a man whose heart belonged to someone else. as cameras rolled and guards circled, and the people who cut her off from any vestige of her former life expected her to pretend she was fine. In one grounding scene, Diana continually dials back a TV debate show to register a few no vote on whether the British monarchy is worth preserving. Pettiness in the face of powerlessness only enhances her likability.
A maximalist actor with an imposing physical presence, West is miscast as the aloof Charles. (Also, at 53, he’s significantly closer in age to Staunton than to Debicki.) But his predicament is compelling enough that by the middle of the season I’ve come to believe he’s some sort of fictional prince whose biography bears a striking resemblance to that of the new King of Great Britain. Here’s a man pushing a much-needed vision to modernize the monarchy – to make it more progressive, humane for the royal family and good for society – but no one will take him seriously because he’s made a mess of his marriage. “I have great sympathy for a man in his position” Morgan recently said of Charles. This is, if anything, all too evident in an episode that turns into an advertisement for his charity work with the Prince’s Trust.
More than half of the season’s episodes center around Charles and Diana, which might sound like pandering if you prefer The crown in the sublime mode of historical drama. Yet Morgan often uses them as a means to do what the show does best: interweave the lives of the Windsor family with stories that take place far outside the palace walls. A full episode dedicated to the history of rags Dodi Fayed(Khalid Abdallah’s) father, Mohammed Al-Fayed (Salim Daou, excellent), feels refreshed after the difficult start to the season that follows Britain an extended narrative saga about Prince Philip (Jonathan Pryce) who finds a new friend. (The show really seems too eager to dismiss Dodi as a depraved playboy. A scene involving sex and cocaine on a private jet could have come straight from Entourage.) When Charles and Diana finally divorce, the episode is peppered with exit interviews of regular couples splitting up in the same courtroom on the same day. Their everyday problems—money, breakups, disagreements over whether to have children—put the rare problems of royalty into perspective.
The crown has always been both a joy to watch, thanks to its lavish production design and soapy undertones, and a more mixed success artistically. Season 5 is the same, but for different reasons. While the acting is no longer stellar overall, and the vividly provoked Queen Elizabeth no longer dominates the story, the narrative itself becomes richer than ever. It works on a macro level, connecting the generational tensions in the family with the youthful rebellion of Tony Blair’s New Labor and in small moments, such as Diana’s tearful speech to her lover Dr Hasnat Khan (Humayun Saeed): “You forget I already had a prince . He broke my heart. I’m just looking for a frog to make me happy.” Her loneliness reverberates throughout the season, echoed by that of Charles, Margaret, Philip, Camilla (Olivia Williams) and the rest. Ironically, it is in isolation that she truly becomes Windsor.