Near the end of The Crown Season 5, in an episode titled “Couple 31,” a wearisome Princess Diana (Elizabeth Debicki) reflects on the end of her disastrous marriage to Prince Charles (Dominic West). “It’s like that moment when the coffin’s brought into a funeral,” she says, wiping tears away. “And you realize that it’s all real.”
That could be the epitaph of the latest season of Netflix’s hit historical drama, which, now more than ever, is interested in grappling with grim realities and reflecting on mistakes. Characters survey a monarchy in crisis, multiple royal marriages in shambles, and roles in British society in fluctuation. And yet, even with a story that’s just as turbulent as last season, the new episodes are more subtle and nuanced; gone is the bombastic camp of Gillian Anderson’s Margaret Thatcher, or the controversy of the Royal family’s relationship with the Bowes-Lyon sisters. Instead, Season 5 explores the Royal family’s faults and struggles as one century ends and another begins.
The result is quite beautiful. This is the most interesting season of The Crown yet, even pensive in its attitude and approach. The cracks are clear, the pieces fully shattered. The show is eager to look at the mess and at the past, and figure out how we got to where we are.
The season kicks off in 1991, with a focus on the new decade. As is tradition, the cast has changed to reflect the aging of the characters. And this time, we couldn’t have asked for a more all-star roundup. Queen Elizabeth II (Imelda Staunton) and Prince Philip (Jonathan Pryce) are now in their senior years, and both incredible actors build off the work of previous portrayals, giving lived-in performances while still bringing new spark to the material. That’s especially true for Pryce. He’s easily the breakout star of this season and, in many ways, the core of every scene he’s in.
The same can be said for both Charles and Diana, now fully grown adults. West is more charismatic and handsome than one would expect from Charles, while Debicki is a revelation as Diana. She captures a shyness and quirk that other recent portrayals of the icon have often missed. Everyone looks the part, too, but at this point, we expect nothing less than incredible costuming and production design from The Crown. But ultimately, it’s a now-teenage Prince William (Senan West) who makes the transition in casting so startling. It’s clear from the moment he shows up that the series is officially catching up with modern times after spending so long retelling history.
And that’s what the first few episodes grapple with: Modernity and history. In “Queen Victoria Syndrome,” polls and public perception of Elizabeth are low, determining her and much of the Royal family outdated. Contrastingly, there’s warmer feelings towards Charles and Diana, especially the former, who much of the public wants to be king sooner rather than later. Charles uses this divide as fuel for his agenda, sharing his hope for a radical change to the monarchy and a future Royal family that’s more like the world around them. It sets up a fascinating conflict between the old guard and the newcomers, creating some moments of exciting drama.
This also comes with a season-long parallel between Elizabeth and Britannia, the former royal yacht commissioned in 1954. Once a symbol of British colonial power and immensity, the yacht is now in disrepair, needing costly fixes. Elizabeth tries to convince Prime Minister John Major (Johnathan Lee Miller) to get the government to foot the bill, but Major isn’t convinced that’s the right decision in a stormy economic climate—or if the yacht is even a necessity in modern Britain. His concerns lead Elizabeth to see herself in a similar light. Is she, and by default the Royal family, obsolete? What is the role of tradition as we progress on?
The Crown asks those questions through a series of impactful scenes and events, ranging from the exhumation of the Russian Imperial Romanov family remains to the messy divorce of Charles and Diana. In season highlight “Annus Horribilis,” Elizabeth comes to terms with her fallibility and faces the rather symbolic Windsor Castle fire in 1992. And in “Gunpowder,” Diana’s explosive BBC Panorama interview shakes the foundation, destroying any potential for a resolution to Charles and Diana’s dilemma.
They are all, like previous historic events told by The Crown, incredibly memorable and emotional, even if some elements are fictionalized. But in Season 5, the storylines are handled with impressive precision and a clear goal to draw a meaningful throughline that reflects on where the show has been and where it’s going. That’s perhaps most recognizable in how the new episodes explore the Royal family’s various marital problems, which have been a constant point of contention since Season 1.
Throughout these 10 episodes, the Queen and her family become painfully aware of how their actions must fulfill employment duties, not personal desires. Princess Margaret (Lesley Manville) reunites with Peter Townsend (Timothy Dalton) and laments the love they could have had if not for Elizabeth’s interference. It leads to a long-awaited confrontation, where Margaret furiously recounts what she’s sacrificed for Elizabeth and the Crown. Princess Anne (Claudia Harrison), a recent divorcee, hopes to remarry soon, much to Elizabeth’s dismay. And later, Prince Andrew (James Murray) asks Elizabeth for a divorce because of his wife’s unhappiness and infidelity. It’s handled with some humor—Andrew makes a point to note that the tabloids will run pictures of his wife’s paramour sucking on her feet—but the seriousness of another broken marriage is all too real.
And it becomes even more harrowing with Charles and Diana. The latter half of the new season focuses heavily on the ins and outs of their time separated from one another, building the blocks for Diana’s eventual romance with Dodi Al-Fayed (Khalid Abdalla). But her loneliness is highlighted often and quite well; here, The Crown excels at showing us a Diana who struggles with divorce and just wants to receive the love she gives. Debicki transitions from charismatic to broken in the same scene, sometimes in the blink of an eye, all to a captivating effect.
The moments we get alone with her often point to a lot of interesting thoughts on marriage. Diana ponders how a union can work if two people are so irrevocably different, something other characters think about often, too. Elizabeth notices her and Philip growing apart as they get older, and questions if the key to a happy and long-lasting Royal marriage involves some form of coldness, independence, and self-reliance. It’s a fascinating topic, one The Crown peruses with interest.
Interest, and criticism. In one of the season’s most poignant scenes, Andrew questions why the Royal family, dubbed “the system,” tries to introduce new members who won’t fit in. Members, like Diana, who the Royals hope will be refreshing and modern, but ultimately suffocate in the stuffy castles and under the weight of tradition. This comes across as a pointed critique, but it’s also a welcomed assessment, one that The Crown took its time to get to. For four seasons, the show wove plots and emotions together to get to a point where it could thoughtfully dissect the meaning of all of it. Now, we’re here, and it has been well worth the wait.
The Crown Season 5 premieres Wednesday, November 9th on Netflix.
Chris Panella is a journalist covering entertainment, news, and pop culture. You can follow them on Twitter @chrispanella__ for funny thoughts and hot film and television takes.
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