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‘The Crown’ Is Too Nice to Its Characters

After the high point of Season 4, the latest batch of episodes promised to delve into the vicious, tabloid-fueled divorce of Prince Charles and Princess Diana. Instead, it’s all pretty tame and cordial.

Netflix/Ringer illustration

As the latest season premiere of The Crown nears its end, newly elected prime minister John Major (Jonny Lee Miller) sums up the lay of the land. “The senior royals seem dangerously deluded and out of touch; the junior royals feckless, entitled, and lost,” he laments. “What makes it worse is it feels as if it’s all about to erupt.”

To Major, these impressions are an ill omen, both for the monarchy itself and a nation entering a new decade. To the audience, they’re more like a tease. The prior season of The Crown reached its highest water mark to date, earning critical hosannas and a slew of awards upon release in late 2020. In a saturated field, such an uptick in acclaim was unusual for a drama relatively late in its run. But given creator Peter Morgan’s road map, a six-stop tour of British history that proceeds decade by decade through the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, Season 4 was always set to be a point of interest. With the arrival of Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson) and Diana Spencer (Emma Corrin), both unlikely figureheads of antiestablishment ire, the 1980s planted the seeds of royal unrest. In the 1990s, we could finally see them bear fruit, to Major’s concern and our delight.

Or at least that was the hope. Headed into Season 5, The Crown was poised to bite into the juiciest of red meat: the vicious, tabloid-fueled divorce of Prince Charles and Princess Diana. But there were also reasons to curb our breathless enthusiasm for a House of Windsor divided. Not only would The Crown have to fill in the bite marks a prosthetic-clad Anderson left on the surrounding scenery; it would also premiere in a starkly altered context for a character study of the queen, who passed in September. Her death at age 96 was not a surprise, though Morgan could hardly work a response into a season already close to completion. It still looms over the episodes, which introduce Imelda Staunton as an older Elizabeth well past middle age—the image of her most familiar to even longtime observers of royal tradition.

Familiarity may be this season’s Achilles’ heel. Where earlier seasons of The Crown dramatized the more obscure corners of Elizabeth’s time on the throne, from her mother-in-law founding a convent to her son learning the Welsh language, the 1990s may be the most overexposed the monarchy has ever been. Even recent upheavals—like Prince Harry’s explosive Oprah interview and upcoming memoir—pale in comparison to the furor surrounding his mother, enhanced by the tragedy of her fatal car crash and endlessly relitigated through works like Spencer, The Diana Chronicles, and Diana: The Musical, to name just a few. (Even Morgan himself is back on familiar ground: His Oscar-winning The Queen imagined Elizabeth’s inner conflict after Diana’s demise, an early indication of where his sympathies might lie.) Against so many previous projects, even The Crown’s much-lauded MO proves more a handicap than an edge. At exactly the wrong time, the show retreats from thrilling sensation to muted politesse—and Major’s promised eruption fizzles into dour restraint.

It starts with the casting. Like Skins, a very different show about generational shifts in the British national character, The Crown swaps out actors every two seasons, allowing its characters to age and evolve. (Think of Vanessa Kirby’s “it girl” passing the baton to Helena Bonham Carter’s washed-up divorcée, both of whom represent essential sides of Princess Margaret.) As the younger Prince Charles, Josh O’Connor was an ideal mix of earnest and aggrieved, entranced by Emerald Fennell’s Camilla Parker-Bowles and strong-armed into an ill-suited match with Corrin’s Diana, then a sweet and bashful teen over a decade his junior. For Charles’s aged-up incarnation, The Crown has tapped Dominic West, a ruggedly handsome heartthrob who specializes in charming rogues. He’s immediately out of step with the fusty future king. Hollywood loves an aesthetic upgrade, but West’s presence goes beyond mere flattery. It’s an aggressive overwrite of Charles’s very essence, one all the more obvious considering how intimately known that essence has become. This is a man whose idea of phone sex involves a box of Tampax!

With Elizabeth Debicki’s Diana, by contrast, an ungenerous portrait starts to emerge. In Charles, The Crown chooses to emphasize traits that are largely positive: his genuine and enduring love for Camilla; his charity work, which earns an entire episode; his supposed interest in modernizing the monarchy, a questionable read on a man who now technically reigns over former colonies like Jamaica. In Diana, or at least the adult version of her accustomed to international fame, The Crown does the opposite. Her own advocacy for causes like AIDS and HIV care, a key source of her enduring appeal, is barely mentioned. This Diana is vain, vindictive, and desperately unhappy—a take that’s not entirely unwarranted, but also left unbalanced by her better qualities, just as Charles is skewed in the opposite direction. Like Charles’s glow-up, the hatchet job flies in the face of viewers’ shared, living memory.

The tragedy of Charles and Diana is that both are innocent and at fault, haplessly well-meaning and monstrously selfish. (This is what makes journalist Tina Brown’s writing on the royals so superb—she’s equally wary of sanitizing flaws and erasing human quirks.) It’s true that Charles has historically gotten less sympathy than the people’s princess, and perhaps deserves more credit for his character. But in working so conspicuously on his behalf, The Crown deserts its duty to craft a compelling story and starts to act as a de facto publicist. The obligation-obsessed Elizabeth would hardly approve. When incoming prime minister Tony Blair (Bertie Carvel) meets Charles in Hong Kong, he isn’t put off by the prince’s naked, self-serving ambition; instead, he praises him in private as “an impressive man.” Maybe The Crown’s case would be more convincing if it were slightly more impartial.

As conflict ramps up on its interpersonal side, The Crown loses an essential source of strife on its political side. Major may be Thatcher’s ideological ally, but he’s her temperamental opposite. Thatcher and Elizabeth’s outward similarities—two female world leaders, born mere months apart—brought out their stark differences, making their meetings more like sparring sessions. Major and Elizabeth’s seeming difference—a working-class South Londoner versus a born aristocrat—belies their kindred spirits. The queen praises her latest prime minister as a “calm, forthright, dependable presence,” a list of the very virtues she admires in herself. The camaraderie that ensues may be a balm for a monarch under siege, but it’s nowhere near as engaging to watch as Anderson butting heads with Olivia Colman, both performers at the peak of their powers.

Much of Season 4’s excitement lay in watching a stale institution be forced to open itself to the outside world. At its best, Season 5 continues this campaign. An episode dedicated to Egyptian businessman Mohamed Al-Fayed (Salim Daw), the father of Diana’s future love interest, is awkwardly placed; Diana and Dodi aren’t even involved by the end of the season. But the hour still touches on themes like the impossibility of assimilation as Mou Mou (his nickname) attempts in vain to buy the status the Windsors were born with, incorporating an outsider’s perspective into the show’s rarefied milieu. Martin Bashir’s ill-gotten interview with Diana prompts a look at the role of the BBC amid a changing media landscape, a question with far broader implications than the outcome of a single divorce.

But for the most part, Season 5 is a closing of the ranks. Just as the royal family rallies around its own when Diana turns from potential ally to outright adversary, The Crown adopts a defensive stance when its characters are at their most embattled. “Even the televisions are a metaphor in this place,” Elizabeth observes as her analog set gets a satellite upgrade, and the season’s central analogy links the sovereign with her soon-to-be-retired royal yacht. Headed into the final season, The Crown seems content to go down with this particular ship. “Reject modernity, embrace tradition,” the meme goes—highlighting at least one way this small-c conservative show keeps up with the times.