I Will Now Review Season 5 of The Crown as a Work of Television
(And Tell You Why So Many of My Fellow Critics Seem To Have Missed the Point of Peter Morgan’s Drama)
The fifth season of Netflix’s The Crown has been the subject of a huge amount of criticism in the lion’s share of the reviews. I’ll be honest, I was expecting backlash for the series to start about now and am frankly amazed it’s taken this long — though not for the reasons I expected.
When any series is a success for a protracted period, drama, or comedy, inevitably there comes a time when critics and audiences start to turn against it, usually saying that it has passed it prime. Far more common in the era of network dominance, it is nevertheless a trend that one has found frequently in the era of Peak TV, almost inevitably after the series has had a great run at the Emmys. I can trace this back at least as far as the second season of The West Wing and there have been many similar examples, the second season of Lost, the sixth season of 24, the most recent season of Ted Lasso (even though it repeated at this year’s Emmys, there was a lot of pushback because of some of the storylines). Sometimes these critiques also come after series have immense waves of popularity — Glee after its first season is the prime example of that. These arguments sometimes are meritorious (the sixth day of 24 is by far the worst one); sometimes the thinking is flawed (the second season of Homeland took a lot of abuse even though I thought it was at least as good as the first). But it is an almost inevitable consequence of winning lots of awards and considering The Crown’s utter domination of every award show climaxing with a clean sweep at the 2021 Emmys, some backlash was to be expected.
And it’s not like there isn’t a better case for people to make complaints about The Crown then there are with many other series: given Peter Morgan’s then controversial decision to shift every two seasons to an older set of actors, I’m frankly it didn’t start when Claire Foy and the rest of the cast of the first two seasons weren’t replaced in Season 3. You could argue Morgan hedged his bets with most of the cast; given the track records of Olivia Colman, Tobias Menzies, and Helena Bonham Carter, one would have had to have been a true pedant to say they were inferior to them. But I know the fanbase of which I wallow in, and I know there was a learning curve. Now given how many of them walked away with nominations and awards and how favorably most critics thought of them, I would understand if the critical reception was based on the idea that all the actors were not living up to the benchmarks that Colman and Foy have set. But having read the lion’s share of the reviews, that doesn’t seem to be the cause of so much of the panning.
The lion’s share of the criticism reads like a Chinese takeaway depending on what critic you’re reading. Members of the British Press are angry that Season 5 make new King Charles III look like a simperer and power-hungry; The New Yorker review says that this Season 5 is essentially Prince Charles propaganda. The New York Times says that Imelda Staunton’s work as the older Elizabeth is pitch perfect and that there isn’t enough of her in the new season; Newsday argues that the current season doesn’t reveal enough of the true Elizabeth. Newsday says Diana remains a cipher in this season; The New Yorker says she’s now essentially turned from sympathetic to a harpy (they argue this is a positive by the way). The Times says that Morgan still hasn’t figured out how to write Charles and Diana at all. Only TV Guide has ignored the discussion of the historical accuracy of the series and is willing to review it strictly as a work of television, something none of the other critics seem to think is the point of their articles.
In a way, it really says a lot about the talents of Morgan and everybody connected with The Crown that they’ve managed to create a work of art so wondrous that every critic who sees can find a completely different and contradictory reason to hate it. What ticks me off, however, is that almost none of the criticism of the current season of The Crown has anything to do with The Crown as a work of art and almost everything to do with how it portrays history. I wish I could say I was shocked by this, but I’m truly not.
There is a much longer article to be written (and I think in the future I will write it) about how in recent years, so many film and television critics tend to critic docudramas and biopics as if they were criticizing the historical record first and the work of art secondary. As someone who has an appreciation of history, I can understand the desire to this. The problem is I fundamentally find this a violation of what a critic is supposed to do. I also find it annoying that so many New York critics in particular seem to think they are uniquely qualified to artistic depictions of history when many of them are barely qualified to criticize art.
I have gone out of my way to whenever I have watched a drama or limited series based on historical events to just the series on an artistic level first and on historical accuracy a very distant second if I do at all. Was The Dropout accurate about every minute detail about Elizabeth Holmes and how she created the biggest fraud in Silicon Valley history? Probably not. I didn’t care at the time, and I still don’t. Was Dopesick a true story of how Richard Sackler and his family created the opioid crisis? I knew more about it at the time, so I’m inclined to agree. And even if most of the most interesting characters were fictionalized, who cares? Liz Meriwether and her creative staff for the former and Danny Strong and his group for the latter project were both fundamentally trying to tell a larger story. Critics who fundamentally nitpick the accuracy of these details are, in my opinion, only more elitists versions of the online trolls who do the same about the canon violations in Marvel and DC stories. The creators are trying to tell a good story. If you care that much about it, go to documentaries and historians. (And if you truly believe those two groups aren’t biased, you clearly haven’t been engaging with the works of Michael Moore and Dinesh D’Souza, just to take the biggest examples.)
And of course the fact that most of these critics are focusing their ire on Morgan now is, of course, an irony considering the entirety of his body of work. Ever since he began doing his TV movies on Tony Blair for HBO and almost everything in the last two decades, he has been worshipped by critics and fans for his level of accuracy. He received countless accolades up to Season 4 of The Crown, almost certainly because he was focusing on the mostly distant past. Tell the world the ugly sides of Churchill and the British Empire, you are celebrated. Tell the story the world knows of Diana and Charles; you are accused of repeating yourself. Show Margaret as a victim of the monarchy, you are considered an artist. Do the same to Diana and your considered tawdry.
All of these critics, in my opinion, are missing the point of the series. Twenty years ago, while discussing his extraordinary The Wire, David Simon described his main character as Baltimore, and showed the decay of the drug war, the body politic and blue collar work, among many other subjects to show the decline of America. I would argue in The Crown, Morgan’s main subject has never been Queen Elizabeth, or Charles, or Margaret, but rather England, and how while looking at the institution that England is best known for — the monarchy — and how this institution is a symbol for the decline of Great Britain. One show looks at society from the perspective of the very poor; the other almost entirely from that of the most elite, but in both cases, they show how fundamentally broken the institutions in both countries are. An institution where it members fundamentally believe that the taxpayers should foot the bill for an immense royal yacht during a recession is just as indicative of a broken country as one where the drug war is fundamentally fought by locking up the dealers and letting the city officials who buy them walk away without a penalty.
Some critics have seen this yacht — central to the season premiere — as a heavy-handed symbol of the monarchy as a whole, as well as the fact that Elizabeth (Staunton) believes it is central to who she is as a monarch and therefore a person. I find it just is symbolic the way she views traveling on said boat — which takes three weeks to get anywhere — as the ‘ideal way’ to travel. The episode, titled ‘Queen Victoria Syndrome’, and how both she and Charles view Victoria show just how damaged the monarchy is. Elizabeth views Victoria as a subject of someone with determination, not to let judgment be hurried. Charles (Dominic West who, for the record, is superb) views the fact that she stayed in power too long and refused to let her son Edward VII show the judgment he could have when it power as a tragedy. Neither even remotely consider the truth of what Victoria stood for as a monarch — a bulwark of imperialism, colonialism and racism, something that her son did little to change when he was in charge. Everything the monarchy stands for is a look to a distant past where everything was rosy — for the British Empire and the royal family, anyway. As to what the common people thought in any country other then Great Britain, well, as the new PM John Major (Johnny Lee Miller, also superb) looks at a group of royal drunkenly celebrated as they no doubt have for decades past, it’s clear they never enter into consideration.
We get a clearer picture of the larger message at the center of The Crown in the second episode which focuses equally on the elderly Prince Philip (Jonathan Pryce, brilliant as always) telling a reporter about how thrilled he is with his hobby of Horse and Carriage. (No better way to show how far behind you are with the times by embracing a hobby that went out of style the previous century.) He spends much of the episode trying to teach a former relative to embrace the hobby while Diana (Elizabeth Debicki, another master class) begins taking her steps away from the monarchy by beginning to tell the story of her famous tell-all to Andrew Morton in which Diana revealed all her deepest secrets. In the final scenes, when Philip makes it very clear that personal unhappiness is acceptable as long as the system keeps going, our viewing of the series makes it very clear just how corrupted Philip has become. In the early seasons, he spent much of the time bitching and moaning about how the monarchy stifled both him and his personal wishes. In the third season and fourth season, he did everything to embrace those traditions as well as make it perfectly clear to Charles that what he wanted did not matter. Now in the second episode of the season, we see that Philip, who wanted so badly to change the status quo is an early days, is determined to keep it going. As a young man, he would have sympathized with Diana’s problems, remembering how the old guard stifled his. Now he is the old guard and he doesn’t seem to notice it.
The Crown is fundamentally the story of how the monarchy is an institution — like an asylum or a prison. Diana sees as such, but the other members have been in it so long they have become, to quote The Shawshank Redemption, ‘institutional’. To argue that Morgan is pro-Charles or anti-Elizabeth misses the point of the series entirely: he is pointing out very clearly how antiquated the monarchy is and how its refusal to change with the times is reflective of Britain’s demise in the world at large. In that sense, the comparison to The Wire is merited. Similarly, the fact that so many prominent figures in Britain are arguing the flaws in the series has little to do with respect for the memory of Elizabeth or Diana or anyone — these women are dead and immune from criticism hurting them, but the monarchy is still around and needs to be protected. The Crown is not a documentary and is in no need of a disclaimer telling us it is fiction. And it does not matter if any of the scenes in this series actually did happen. I expect that Morgan has taken dramatic liberties with several respects for dramatic license. Whether or not these scenes happened does not matter to him. What matters is the story he is trying to tell, and the fact that so many are protesting about dates and events make it clear that even now they are determined that ‘the system’ needs to be protected.
This has not been a typical review but The Crown has never been a typical series. Viewed simply as a work of art, it is a masterpiece and Season 5 continues to demonstrate that with the high quality of its acting, writing, and directing. It might be considered a work of history, but no more so than any of Morgan other works such as Frost/Nixon or The Queen. What The Crown is, more than anything, is a critique of British history and its institutions and it does so by putting emotions and feelings to so many of the people we only know from balconies and expertly staged media events. The Crown shows that everybody in the monarchy is capable of human emotions and feelings that have far too often been ground into dirt in the name of an institution. By laying bare the costs of the institution to the people within it and around it, Morgan may have committed a cardinal sin to the British Royal Family, but he has made a very clear comment on what those costs are and left the viewer to judge whether they are worth it. That is one of the larger mission statements of The Crown, and those who critique its historical inaccuracies would do well to remember that.
My score: 5 stars.