[Co-published with Geek Vibes Nation.]
It’s impossible to watch the fifth season of The Crown without thinking about the passing of Queen Elizabeth II.
Her death in September inspired a complex wave of feeling: ranging from grief to jubilation. It also inspired renewed criticism of The Crown from monarchists, who accused the Netflix series of unfairly characterizing the royals. (Including Dame Judi Dench.) Why? Because this season covers the ’90s, the Windsors’ most tumultuous period since the abdication of Edward VIII. Three royal marriages ended, a fire nearly gutted Windsor Castle, and Charles and Diana engaged in a public relations war that deeply wounded the monarchy. With King Charles III awaiting his coronation, it isn’t great timing to remind everyone about his worst years.
Indeed, Elizabeth’s death and the new Charles III casts a surprising pall over The Crown. In previous seasons, creator Peter Morgan mined key and obscure events for scintillating drama about the world’s most famous family. He made them fallible, empathetic, and deeply compelling. This season, to its detriment, Morgan pulls his punches. Despite the treasure trove of conflict, The Crown is startlingly disengaged, afraid to unpack the many controversies at its feet. The series dutifully hits its timeline marks but also shies away from their seismic impact. Morgan treats the royal scandals almost like inconveniences rather than potential cataclysms. Rather than dissect the consequences of, for instance, the Andrew Morton book, the series offers a relatively insignificant look at Mohamed al-Fayed’s tangential connection with the royals. (The episode is a blatant set-up for next season, which will concern Diana’s death.)
Alongside the distractions, the season suffers from a lack of imagination, insight, or emotional truth behind its most important moments. The Crown typically excels at contextualizing history with deeply personal stakes that, while imagined, ring true. That is missing this season, especially regarding Charles (Dominic West) and Diana’s (Elizabeth Debicki) crumbling marriage. Apart from an Italian vacation, the series doesn’t show how they went from cold to thermonuclear in three short years. We see how the Morton and Dimbleby books came to be, but little of the emotional causes and subsequent fallout. It doesn’t help that the couple is physically separate for much of the runtime. The explosive, passionate, and painful fireworks from last season are woefully absent.
Part of the problem lies with Charles’ story this season. While produced before his ascension, its imminence greatly influenced his arc. This season of The Crown depicts Charles as a popular, modernizing force, while justifying or diminishing his most egregious errors. It’s a sharp heel-turn from last season’s prince, an insecure, frustrated man, intensely jealous of his wife’s popularity. Now, he undermines Elizabeth three separate times, to the point of light treason, and gains support from prime ministers and family members alike. The “Camillagate” tape and the Dimbleby interview where he admitted adultery are humanizing triumphs, not humiliating embarrassments. The series heralds him as a paragon for a multicultural, multi-denominational Britain, even as he decries the decline of the English language. (Despite both points being in the same episode, there is no irony.)
This depiction of Charles is deeply generous at best and disingenuous at worst. It is also profoundly dull (and ahistorical). Morgan’s concerns about damaging Charles’ credibility are meaningless; he’s never been more popular than Elizabeth or Diana. The conflict of being the future king that inspired either hatred or ambivalence made him interesting and empathetic, even at his worst. The best thing the series could’ve done for Charles was engage with the truth and its repercussions. Dominic West performs well, but the script’s shallow and beatific interpretation leaves him with little to do. His best moment comes in the ninth episode, where Charles and Diana conduct a post-divorce autopsy of their marriage. The conversation is warm, nostalgic, funny, and painful, with the emotional gravity that was often lacking. It inspires empathy for Charles and Diana more than his breakdancing with Black kids or her obsession with phone tapping.
Charles’ corrective storyline also shortchanges Diana and Elizabeth. Elizabeth Debicki is shockingly underused, even though she looks and sounds uncannily like Diana. Like West, she has little to do, hamstrung by a storyline shaped by her paranoia rather than her charity work, affairs, and media savvy. (The same episode that valorizes the Dimbleby interview ignores the deliberate defiance of the revenge dress.) Morgan also oddly conceives Diana’s complications and faults; the insinuation that Diana fixated on Pakistani men is borderline offensive, while William’s tangible discomfort with her oversharing deserved more interrogation. With compelling material, Debicki is excellent, one of the best amongst this season’s cast. There just isn’t much of it to go around.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth, played warmly this season by Imelda Staunton, is primarily concerned with her obsolescence. It’s not a new arc for her, but the barrage of family crises hastens the fear that she can’t keep up. The concerns are mostly lip service. Elizabeth is mostly content, cracking a joke about the Duchess of York with Prince Andrew, or learning about satellite television with William. Meanwhile, the moments of conflict yield spotty results. The fourth episode is the season’s strongest, built around Elizabeth’s famous 1992 “annus horribilis” speech. Grounding that speech in her confrontation with Margaret (the splendid Lesley Manville) about Peter Townsend is one of the few inspired choices. Conversely, Elizabeth spares Charles a well-deserved dressing down for making overtures to Tony Blair in Hong Kong. Her marriage to Phillip (a miscast Jonathan Pryce) is also in trouble, again, because he’s become intellectually bored with her.
Apart from the fire at Windsor Castle, Elizabeth’s storylines all read as distractions from the pressing question: how did she survive Charles and Diana? While her life concerned more than them, it is bizarre that she would feel so removed from a crisis that threatened the institution to which she dedicated her life. How consequential are the remains of the Romanovs in Russia when the monarchy is battling its own extinction? (The Romanovs’ downfall could serve as a warning to the Windsors, but the show doesn’t make that connection.)
Therein lies the issue with this season of The Crown. It continues to be well-acted and beautifully produced, with sumptuous costuming and set design. (The glaring exception is, again, the revenge dress.) However, as it approaches Diana’s death, one of the most significant events of the 20th century, the series seems uncomfortable in conveying the monarchy’s precarious standing. This season fails to set the stage for the magnitude of that moment by ignoring Charles’ weaknesses, Diana’s strengths, and Elizabeth’s struggles to rein everyone in. The ’90s was a dynamic, emotionally fraught, and near-catastrophic time for the royals, brought on by their inability to acknowledge and support their greatest asset. (It was not Charles.) Instead of embracing that reality, The Crown chose timidity and stoicism and missed the mark.