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How Time Turned ‘The Crown’ Into a Netflix Gem

Season 4 is the best installment yet, in large part because of the series’ painstakingly laid foundation

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The fourth season of The Crown is arguably its best and inarguably its juiciest, a straightforward case of chronology as destiny. Each season of Peter Morgan’s Netflix drama corresponds to a decade in the extant reign of Queen Elizabeth II, a schedule Morgan follows with all the diligence and predictability of his central subject—and right on time, Season 4 cruises into the 1980s, an era of mass upheaval in the monarchy and the nation alike. The timeline stretches from 1979, which saw the grisly death of Lord “Dickie” Mountbatten (Charles Dance) in a bombing orchestrated by the IRA, to 1990, with a royal Christmas overshadowed by the wretched unhappiness of a pre-divorce Princess Diana (Emma Corrin). Not coincidentally, these years overlap exactly with the reign of Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson), the prime minister who brought militant austerity and a fetish for the free market to 10 Downing Street. That’s a lot of red meat for such a typically staid show to sink its teeth into, and a lot of hooks more enticing than That Time London Had Some Smog in 1952.

The sudden flashiness of an otherwise stolid mainstay begs the usual question of whether a curious neophyte can hop in midstream. (The answer, as always, is yes—all the more so when nearly every character’s life has been documented since the moment they were born.) But the strength of The Crown’s latest volume isn’t just a result of historical happenstance. It’s building on three years of ever-firmer foundations, a gradual ascent that brings into focus what makes The Crown increasingly exceptional—as a TV show in general and as a TV show on the platform that shells out a reported nine figures per season to bring Buckingham Palace to life.

When The Crown premiered in 2016, just a few days shy of Election Day, it was met with a healthy dose of skepticism, if not a little derision, from some stateside critics. How was Morgan supposed to make a compelling protagonist out of a woman whose most remarkable trait is how adamantly unremarkable she is? What did the Brits’ outdated, offensively classist mode of government have to teach us enlightened, small-d democrats? Why was duty, constancy, and an ardent passion for protocol supposed to be not just pretty to look at, but interesting? The concept, announced up front as a six-season enterprise, felt like an overreach—of Morgan’s intense interest in the monarchy as expressed in works like The Queen, and of Netflix’s then-infamous need to throw its weight around with expensive moonshots.

Many of The Crown’s naysayers have come around in more recent years. Part of that shift has to do with factors outside the show’s control; given subsequent developments in U.S. politics, mundane leadership and minimal conflict were suddenly selling points, and we Americans weren’t in much of a position to brag about the perks of self-determination either. Yet the thaw was also a reflection of The Crown itself. Over time, it’s become clear that The Crown is a show built for the long haul, growing into its golden years as Elizabeth ages into her own authority. In retrospect, Season 1’s weaknesses are more understandable: The Crown’s story simply hadn’t caught up to The Crown’s true interests, both historic and thematic. That slow burn could be frustrating. It’s also evidence of a patience and long-term thinking that’s at once unique to television and increasingly rare to find within it. As Diana’s and Thatcher’s twin meteors make their crash landing, that patience is finally paying off.

With due respect to Claire Foy’s star-making performance, The Crown was never built to be a show about young Elizabeth. (Claire, if you’re reading this, your line reading of “thank you” still lives rent-free in all our heads.) The show had to establish itself but also set up a story about steadiness and constancy with stories that were inherently glamorous and sensational: the sudden death of a king; the coronation of a young woman; the clashes of a new marriage. John Lithgow’s Winston Churchill also loomed over the proceedings like the ghost of World War II–borne nationalism. It was only in Season 2, with Elizabeth no longer new to the job, that The Crown could start tapping into some of its core ideas. A world-tour episode touched on the irony of empire in an increasingly postcolonial world; Charles’s wretched time at a Scottish boarding school showed how Elizabeth’s duties as mother to a nation could detract from her actual motherhood.

Crucially, The Crown lived long enough to see its simplified version of history repeat itself. Elizabeth and Philip’s squabbles over their power imbalance and his (implied, never portrayed) infidelity could seem frankly silly—not just a first-class problem but a manufactured one. What tension was there to be mined when we knew for a fact they wouldn’t split up? These are people who acknowledge mid-fight they can never get a divorce! But those early conflicts take on new resonance when Charles and Diana’s marriage starts fracturing along similar lines in Season 4: he feels entitled to power and importance; she’s the center of attention, which he resents. Elizabeth and Philip, now played in middle age by Olivia Colman and Tobias Menzies, have aged out of the role of protagonists and into that of hapless observers.

The Crown can be frustratingly on the nose about these shifts, as when Helena Bonham Carter’s Princess Margaret helpfully points out that she, too, was unable to marry the love of her life because custom deemed him unsuitable. (When Margaret tells the Queen Mother that her uncle’s abdication can’t explain everything wrong with the family, it feels like a self-aware wink at Morgan’s this-caused-all-that cosmology.) But those moments are also a reflection of how The Crown uses TV’s uniquely large canvas and extended length to tell a story about gradual, big-picture change. The tragedy of Diana is enhanced by having watched the fictionalized misery of her predecessors; Thatcher’s brash zealotry stands out against the admiring deference of past PMs. Through it all, Elizabeth is the singular constant, a role that by definition needs longevity to achieve its desired effect.

Beyond The Crown’s rarefied palace gates, the rest of TV is filled with “X-hour-long movies”—feature-sized ideas stretched beyond their limits by the contours of the industry. FX’s A Teacher, released last week, is exactly this: a 2013 Sundance film extended to a 10-part miniseries with mixed results. On streaming, there’s as much pressure to compress as to distend. By the time The Crown winds down its six-year run, it’ll be one of very few live-action Netflix shows to reach such a length. Even a smash like Ozark is calling it quits after just four seasons; everyone else is lucky to make it to three, now seen as the cutoff for all but the most successful shows. Nor is it very likely Netflix will order another period piece covering a half century of sumptuously decorated history to take The Crown’s place.

In its wider context, The Crown is basically a unicorn: a show that’s survived long enough to get to the good stuff, yes, but also one that’s earned its tenure with a subject big enough to merit 60 hours’ worth of space. (An experienced playwright, Morgan also has a knack for episodic structure that breaks up a massive effort into manageable bites.) A capsule history of the royal family is a capsule history of Britain itself, constantly generating new angles while never allowing one part to overwhelm the whole. The device of switching over casts every two seasons reflects how the show expands its point of view to include newly mature figures like Charles or Princess Anne, while older generations are subtly decentralized. Yet even figures as larger-than-life as Thatcher or Diana only stop by for a season or two, respectively; Diana-in-the-’90s will be played by Tenet’s Elizabeth Debicki, to reflect her transition from girlish aristocrat to global superstar. And events as seismic as Anne’s attempted kidnapping are skipped over entirely—there’s simply too much material to sift through, which means Morgan gets to pick his spots rather than scramble to fill time.

At the close of the Season 4 finale, Philip lectures Diana on the primacy of the woman she’s shrewdly called “the captain of the team.” “Everyone in this system,” he tells her, “is a lost, lonely, irrelevant outsider, apart from the one person—the only person—that matters.” As he speaks, the camera surveys the royal family’s emotional flotsam before alighting on our final glimpse of Colman before she’s replaced by Imelda Staunton. Any individual really is expendable when it comes to the monarchy. Four years in, The Crown has become established enough for its structure to reflect its central theme: there’s nothing bigger than the Queen, or the institution she stands for.