The air is thick with metaphor. The new season of The Crown, Netflix’s lavish series about the perpetual reign of Queen Elizabeth II, is not subtle. Prince Philip and his daughter Princess Anne spend a meal jousting over a stag they want to mount in the great hall of their castle. The Queen stomps up Scottish hills in muddy boots seeking the big beast. Lord Mountbatten manfully yanks blue-flecked lobsters from Irish seas. Meanwhile Charles, Prince Of Wales, stands by a river in Iceland, a pole in his hand. In a family of hunters, he’s merely fishing.
The compliments he longs for — and Charles is depicted as agonisingly needy — are provided by Diana Spencer, a young lady so kind to the gawky monarch-in-waiting that she calls him gorgeous. Season four (arriving November 15) introduces the ‘People’s Princess,’ so even non-viewers may tune in to see Lady Di. They may be disappointed, since Charles and Diana are written and performed too feebly to belong to this majestic series.
It falls to another woman with a distinctive hairstyle to salvage this season’s narrative. We begin in 1979. Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first woman Prime Minister, takes her place opposite the Queen. Lines are drawn immediately. Elizabeth, who ranks parliamentarians like racehorses, studying odds and analysing their futures, tries to predict Thatcher’s cabinet. She gets most of them right, but Thatcher is unimpressed. Cabinet may be a game to the Queen, but Thatcher — for whom work is play — can’t possibly empathise.
Thus we seesaw between compelling Thatcher episodes and soap-operatic Diana episodes, the Queen appearing inconsequentially on the sidelines — mirroring the monarchy’s increasing irrelevance. The Crown has always had cinematic, standalone episodes: the exceptional season three episode about the Aberfan colliery disaster where the Queen confronted her inability to grieve, and the powerful season one episode about the portrait of Winston Churchill. This year’s top episode is about a man who breaks into Buckingham Palace, personifying the perils of Thatcherism.
Despite that self-contained triumph, the overall season is disjointed and bereft of nuance. We are used to a mightier show. The production and costuming remains beyond reproach, but the storytelling feels unsatisfying, caught in a melodramatic and repetitive Charles-Diana tailspin.
Created by playwright Peter Morgan, The Crown balances the history of England with an ambitious attempt to make us empathise with the least relatable family on the planet. We have witnessed Elizabeth step reluctantly on to her father’s throne and take on the challenges of the crown, with individualistic family members—her uncle, her husband, her sister, her daughter—forced to fall in line. Ordained by blood to rule, this family is its own church and has made up its own gospel. Or, as one of the younger princes describes a family gathering, its own “ghastly politburo”.
In the other corner stands a self-made leader, a woman who believes women are unsuited to positions of power because they can be “too emotional.” Gillian Anderson plays Thatcher with a peculiar stiffness. All cruelty and cheekbones, all hauteur and hairspray. Yet while visually wooden — she appears afraid to smile, unlike the real Iron Lady — Anderson makes this marionette performance affecting, playing it so precisely that minuscule changes of tone and pause prove telling. The show doesn’t lionise or lambast Thatcher’s divisive politics, but is guilty of playing up rumoured conflicts with the Queen, most pointedly when the Prime Minister and her husband are ragged mercilessly by the royal family.
It is at this auditioning ground, Scotland’s Balmoral Castle, that Diana Spencer shines with her youth and her outdoorsy shoes. The royal family applauds louder, relieved to divert Charles from Camilla Parker-Bowles, the married woman he loves. Charles is characterised as pathetic, and Diana as both naive and manipulative, complete with eerie theme music underscoring her scenes. The royal family cruelly abandons the young Princess, while Charles carries on with the woman who finishes his jokes and explains his quirks.
Olivia Colman, despite having little to do as the increasingly impassive Queen, makes her conflicts apparent. At peace only with her horses, she looks torn as she appraises her disappointing children, takes on Thatcher, and saves her beastliest side for Diana. Tobias Menzies continues to charm as Prince Philip even as he is noticeably quieter (having fallen in line). Helena Bonham Carter’s Princess Margaret remains defiant and intriguing, leading an accusatory episode which shows how shockingly the royal family, believing its bloodline to be compromised, covered up its own members.
Young actors Josh O’Connor and Emma Corrin prove too insipid to bring alive the tempest of Charles and Diana. Diana, in particular, never seems impressive, even when dancing to Billy Joel’s Uptown Girl. This is criminal. The show presents a simpering ninny, forever on the verge of tears. Where is the effervescence, the charisma of this princess who once made John Travolta blush on the dance floor, and once dressed as a man to sneak into a gay bar with Freddie Mercury? Where is the woman who made charity fashionable?
Diana’s impact is best illustrated by an episode set in 1983, where the Prince and Princess of Wales visit Australia. Under a new prime minister, the vast country appeared eager to forsake its colonial yoke and exit the shadow of empire. Diana struck Australia like a whirlwind, leaving the country besotted en masse. She gleamed in the spotlight. It was a merciful win for England, but not for the man who wanted to be its king. Charles was shoved aside as the country jostled for a better view of Diana.
For the crown prince, England’s monarchy required an attractive, appropriate princess who could look stately as she waved from a distance. Someone to be admired in family pictures and processions. He needed a butterfly, pinned prettily under glass. He married a Beatle.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.