Welcome to Previously On, a column that fills you in on our favorite returning TV shows. This week, Valerie Ettenhofer reviews Season 4 of Netflix’s award-winning historical series The Crown.
The Crown has always been a tragedy. Beginning with its earliest episodes, the impeccably made Netflix series has worked to lay bare the British monarchy’s vicious cycle of antiquated traditions, unforgivable actions, and soul-crushing personal standards. It’s no surprise, then, that the season that finally introduces Diana (Emma Corrin), Princess of Wales, is one of the series’ strongest.
Season 4 of The Crown could’ve easily become the Princess Diana show, framing the young, ill-fated bride of Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor) as the protagonist. Corrin is phenomenal in the role thanks to both her grounded, complex performance and her uncanny likeness to the late royal; she has Diana down, from the wide, mascara-rimmed eyes to the ever-evolving personal style. It’s a shame that she’s only playing Diana for one season (Elizabeth Debicki will play her in Seasons 5 and 6), as it’s tough to imagine anyone else embodying Diana with the presence that Corrin does. Rather than put her front and center, though, The Crown opts for a more elliptical approach, with plots that veer away and circle back around Diana like a bird of prey closing in.
The Crown began to feel a bit unmoored after Claire Foy’s planned exit at the end of Season 2. It was as if the series’ writers weren’t sure where to put its focus once Queen Elizabeth (played now by Olivia Colman) had settled into her role as monarch. But whereas the third season’s uneven tone was likely accidental, Season 4 seems to be a bit off-kilter by design. This is a darker, more fractured picture of the royal family than we’ve seen before, and their anguish and infighting are mirrored on the world stage. South African Apartheid, The Troubles in Ireland, and the Falklands War all take place during this ‘70s and ‘80s-set season, which also somehow finds time to include a natural disaster, and several smaller palace scandals to boot.
At times, The Crown Season 4 is overstuffed, but whenever it returns to Diana, the series captures an aching, isolated quiet that balances out everything going on beyond the palace walls. The Crown has always been open enough to appeal to viewers who come to the show with little historical context, but it also frequently digs deep to deliver lesser-known stories that would intrigue even the most obsessive followers of the monarchy. With Diana, this approach is impossible. Sadly, everyone who lived through this period in history knows nearly every private detail of her short life.
Series creator/writer Peter Morgan seems to recognize this, and he accordingly imbues Corrin’s scenes with a sense of heartbreaking desperation for a fairy-tale ending that will never be. In fact, scenes between Diana and Charles — who doesn’t even attempt to hide his affair with married ex Camilla (Emerald Fennell) — are often so contentious that they make this season practically binge-proof. Just as Diana endlessly yearns for a safe haven, viewers will likely need some breathing room after a few hours trapped inside the couple’s claustrophobic marriage.
If The Crown Season 4 has a secret weapon to smooth over its rough edges, it’s Gillian Anderson as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. As with John Lithgow’s Winston Churchill, Anderson’s take on Thatcher is complex, thorny, and mostly absent of absolution. Her performance is a steady one befitting of Thatcher’s Iron Lady title. At first, it’s tough to get past her big hair and gravelly voice, but by the season’s later episodes, the characters’ subtleties have become clear. A microscopic break in the stone-faced woman’s composure is equivalent to an average woman’s — or as Thatcher and her internalized sexism would put it, a lesser woman’s — teary breakdown. As we watch her stubbornly grimace her way through a man’s world, it’s impossible not to be impacted by her story, even as her political and ideological failures remain on full display.
If the first few seasons of the series are connected by a through-line of reluctantly fulfilled duties, The Crown Season 4 marks a turning point by instead meditating on failure. Elizabeth has failed to raise well-adjusted children. Her sister, Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter), has failed to lead a happy life. Charles and Diana’s marriage seems to be failing from the start. The monarchy is failing to stay relevant, and the British government is failing to represent its people.
The Crown has always deftly created self-contained plots that hold a mirror up to the present day, reflecting our specific political and socio-economic issues back at us from a comfortable historical distance of half a century or more. But as it approaches the modern-day, The Crown has entered a dark night of the soul. Although the series itself remains untouchable among its contemporaries in terms of costuming, production design, and cinematography, by Season 4’s end, the monarchy itself has lost all beauty. The more damning Morgan’s historic retelling becomes, though, the harder it is to look away. God save the Queen.