The Throne Has Chains That Not Even Its Holders See
Better Late Than Never: The Crown Season 4
Among the many, many achievements of Netflix’s magnificent series The Crown is that it manages something that very few series — even in the age of Peak TV — — manage to accomplish. It shows how the flaws in each generation get passed down from father to son, or as in the case of this season, mother to son. As the series progresses into the 1980s, the show shifts its focus from Elizabeth and Philip (Olivia Colman and Tobias Menzies are still extraordinary) to the troubled Prince Charles. I had doubts about Josh O’Connor being nominated as a Lead Actor in the Golden Globes and Critics Choice, but after watching the first two episodes, I have changed my mind.
As the heir to the throne, Charles has always been under tremendous pressure from his parents, finding only solace from his grandfather Lord Mountbatten (who, as in history, was assassinated in the season premiere) and his sister Anne. At first, one wondered if some of this was mere historical memory — Edward VIII was the last Prince of Wales, and they all remember how badly that ended. But as the series progresses, I have come to wonder: did his parents ever love him in the first place? I have seen almost no scenes where they respect his wishes or treat him with anything resembling love. Even in a time of great trauma, when his grandfather was killed, Philip offered the barest amount of comfort one could, and practically no affection. When you consider the first two seasons of the series, when Philip chafed at his role and the institutions around it by the protocols, and just how much Margaret suffered, having to give up the man she loved and being trapped in a disastrous marriage, you would think they would feel some measure of empathy for the situation Charles is caught in. But now that they are the elder generation, they not only see no problem in the same pressure to their children, they don’t even mention the irony in private.
Indeed, the longer the series airs, the more detached from reality the royal family seems to be. This was perhaps most magnificently portrayed in the second episode: ‘The Balmoral Test’. Margaret Thatcher has come to the power, and faces some of the greatest challenges with her new policies. Elizabeth seems to admire her achievements, and continues to demonstrate her own canny skill. (Thatcher is impressed in private as to how well she predicted her cabinet.) But Thatcher is the first Prime Minister who not only is not impressed with the trappings of royalty, but is actually appalled when she is invited to Scotland and watches the rituals that the royal family indulges in. For the past three seasons, the viewer has been so ingrained in the royal family’s behaviors that it’s a great feat of the series to look at it from Thatcher — who was of working class origin — and she just how archaic and out-of-touch it truly seems. When Thatcher has her final meeting with the Queen, it is the first time we have seen the Prime Minister look at the Queen as not something to be respected but as part of the problem. (Gillian Anderson, one of television greatest actresses, is so spot-on as Thatcher that she makes you realize just how much of a pastiche Meryl Streep’s work in The Iron Lady was.)
The great irony is, the next in line has realized as much as Thatcher just how behind the times his family and the throne are. Privately raging at the way his family has kept him away from Camilla, Charles finds himself (partially because of her urging) into reluctantly wooing Diana Spencer. In the same episode that Thatcher ‘failed’ the Balmoral Test, Diana undoubtedly passed it. We now realize just from appearances that Charles never loved Diana, but his parents thought she was ‘suitable’. He has objections that he relates to both Camilla and his sister, but he realizes has to go through with it. The fact that audience knows just how doomed the relationship is gives a new level considering that we now know it never had a chance. It was literally ‘a made for TV event’ from beginning to end.
I don’t think there’s been a series since the days of Mad Men to achieve what The Crown is doing now: reveal just how clear the generation and society gap truly can be. The fact that one did it in 1960s America and the other does it in English royalty makes even more astonishing. It is helped by the incredible work of the entire cast, which is astonishing considering we were so sympathetic to Colman’s portrayal just last season. Now the most empathetic performances are those of O’Connor as Charles and the incredible Emma Corrin as Diana. In the tradition of the series, Season 5 (whenever it happens) will feature a new cast with Lesley Manville moving in as Elizabeth as he approaches old age and Dominic West and Elizabeth Debicki taking the reigns as Charles and Diana. This may be Netflix’s single greatest achievement — and yes, I say this for a network that created Orange is the New Black and Stranger Things. One almost wishes that creator Peter Morgan wasn’t so determined to end the series at Season 6 — whenever I hear a story about Brexit or Harry and Meghan Markle, I can’t help but wonder: what could his writers do with it?
Note: Yes, it’s still rated TV-MA and no, I still don’t know why. There is some harsh language and nudity, but seriously, if James Bond movies are being released as PG-13, I can’t think of a reason a teenager wouldn’t be able to watch this without being corrupted.
My score: 5 stars.