The Crown, Netflix’s lush and lavish detailing of Queen Elizabeth II’s rein over the United Kingdom, parks its historical tour bus in the late 70s and 80s for its fourth season, primarily tracking the rise and fall of Margaret Thatcher and Lady Diana Spencer. As Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies) tells Diana (Emma Corrin) late in the season, everyone and everything in their lives revolves around one woman—but that Diana seems to be confused as to who that woman is. It’s not a surprise. Throughout its run thus far, Peter Morgan’s series has always made a case for the crown and for Elizabeth specifically. But Thatcherism, and to a much larger degree Diana’s celebrity star power, so fundamentally changed the way they are perceived that one leaves Season 4 wondering what, exactly, the future of the crown should be.
This new season follows the established pattern of oscillating between matters of state and personal drama, but this time around its far more scattered in regards to both. In many ways, Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) has started to feel sidelined. Though things kick off with tragedy and unrest surrounding the IRA, and move quickly into the early days of Margaret Thatcher’s (Gillian Anderson) election as Prime Minister, it soon turns all of its focus—other than its requisite one episode about what Helena Bonham Cater’s Margaret is up to—toward Charles (Josh O’Connor) and Diana. There are an increasing number of Windsors to talk about now, which in some ways dilutes The Crown’s impact. It has been, and remains to some degree, a wonderfully episodic series in a sea of Netflix binge. But while each chapter has in the past had a specific scope and story, the results are more muddled this time around. Marketing and storytelling both seem to focus on the three women in power at the heart of the season, but it’s very uncertain what Morgan is really looking to say about them or their connection to one another.
Despite this, and some unforgivably heavy-handed visual juxtapositions throughout, The Crown is still an engrossing chronicle of House Windsor—most especially when its scope is small. That is thanks largely to the exceptionalism of its cast; this season’s Margaret episode is one of the most bafflingly plotted, but watching Bonham Carter work is a dream, and helps land one of the more emotional reveals. The same is true across the board, even for those who don’t get their own showcases, including Erin Doherty as Princess Anne and a quietly scene-stealing Tom Byrne as Prince Andrew. You also can’t help but want to slap Charles, and while I can’t vouch for the accuracy of Anderson’s portrayal of Thatcher, she certainly is curious and mesmerizing.
And that really is key, once again, to enjoying The Crown. The less your familiarity with the details of the royal family and things like Michael Fagan’s palace break-in (a standout episode), Thatcher’s relationship with the Queen, or a fateful tour of Australia, the more enjoyable it can be (and pausing to read Wikipedia is half the fun, right?) It’s when you can’t help but compare the images you’ve seen or the information you know in real life to those portrayed here that it becomes a distraction. That is especially true of Diana; but Diana did, of course, become the monarchy’s main distraction—for better or worse.
Playing Lady Diana from a waifish teen to a young wife to a miserable princess, Emma Corrin nails the head tilts and shy smiles, effortless glamour, and inner turmoil. The Crown has always tried to be somewhat balanced in its portrayal of even the most controversial figures (it manages to make Thatcher sympathetic when pitted against boorish royals—the worst the Windsors have ever looked), and as such Diana is neither a pure angel or self-obsessed demon; heartbreakingly, she’s damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t regarding almost every possible action. Diana primarily comes across as a young woman tricked, in some ways, into a sham marriage with devastating consequences that the show delights in detailing. But how many times can we go over Charles’ true love for Camilla (Emerald Fennell), how she won’t leave her husband, and how jealous Charles constantly is at Diana’s popularity?
Endlessly, it seems, which may well have been the dynamic throughout the entirety of their marriage. It consumes the royal family, much like it does the show itself. Elizabeth’s most major moment in the season is dipping a toe into rebuking Thatcher before hastily retreating, and otherwise spends most of her time watching TV and trying to avoid her family. Relatable, but not in the same way that Diana became. As Britain struggled through high unemployment and civil unrest, the role of a removed, out-of-touch monarch clearly became more questionable. Diana was a saving grace in a way—a royal who connected with the people again. And yet, she also set an impossible standard that no other royal could meet. It leaves one wondering what the role of the monarchy is in this modern age; as the show acknowledges for the first time, it seems ill-equipped to meaningfully change with the times and make a case for itself.
And yet, the soaring ambitions of Thatcher and Diana fall away when pitted against the crown. Ultimately Elizabeth remains, steady and stoic, horrified by the various personal dramas unfolding around her, and seeing the rules on which she built her reign—silence, mainly—becoming increasingly less effective. When Philip tells Diana that everyone is an outsider in the palace except the one woman around whom everything revolves, we see the profile of Colman’s impressively placid Elizabeth. But despite Philip’s admonishments that Diana is making everything about herself, The Crown follows suit. In its parting Season 4 shot, of a forlorn princess staring out into the abyss while surrounded by that fickle family, we see the first major fissure in the previously unquestioned purpose of a modern sovereign—one that we know will only grow larger with time.
The Crown Season 4 premieres Sunday, November 15th on Netflix.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.