REVIEW: The Crown, Season 4

The Crown S4 poster

The fourth season of The Crown explored the different dynamics of women in power as it introduced two key players who made a profound impact on the monarchy while also exposing more of the royal family’s fatal flaws.

The Crown season 4 teaserAfter spending the first three seasons trying to portray the royal family in a more sympathetic light, The Crown season four moves into new, darker territory by making them look almost villainous. It’s a strange shift of tone but one that could not be avoided given the storylines that were tackled this season.

The cracks beneath the surface of their carefully curated public personas begin to show more and more and while their country undergoes various historical shifts, the royal family somehow stagnates. But instead of being a symbol of stability and constancy, their determination to stick to the old ways and their privileged, outdated lifestyle only makes them seem irrelevant and unnecessary. The way they treat their own family members and subject each one to an oppressive suppression of emotion and individuality, all for the sake of maintaining the veneer of respectability and purity, makes them pitiable but, to a certain extent, despicable.

The fourth season focuses particularly on the introduction of two important female figures who, in different ways, shook the royal family to the core. First was Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and second was the young Diana, Princess of Wales. The episodes alternate between showing the impact of each woman and her relationship with Queen Elizabeth. As a result of these different perspectives, the season does suffer from less coherence in its overall story and some characters have to are sadly sidelined to allow for more screen time for these illustrious figures.

The Crown ThatcherThe Crown continues to have the sumptuous production design expected of a Netflix prestige drama and the best part of the show is still the performances of the cast. Although somewhat overshadowed by the two guest stars, Olivia Colman never falters in her role as Elizabeth, delivering the same brilliant performance as she did in the previous season. The queen does more reacting to the actions of both Thatcher and Diana but Colman does so amazingly. She still has her moments of subtlety and nuance but given how cold and distant her character is, Colman does her best to still make the queen appear human.

Gillian Anderson is amazing as Thatcher and manages to bring so much nuance to her controversial character that The Crown does sometimes make you feel sympathetic towards her, especially given the contrast of her working class background to the wealth and privilege of the queen who disapproves of her politics. The stronger episodes of the season are those that are focused on the growing rift between the Prime Minister and the Queen. Despite their differences in opinion and ideology, however, theirs is also a fascinating dynamic because they both recognize in each other the same struggles of having to prove themselves capable in realms dominated by men. However much Elizabeth may disagree with the policies of the prime minister, she does also feel sympathy for another woman who is sometimes vilified simply for being a woman in a man’s world.

Des Willie/Netflix

Picture shows: Princess Diana (EMMA CORRIN)

Emma Corrin is an impressive talent and manages to balance the struggles of the young princess with her radiant, public personality that had won the hearts of so many. The love triangle with Diana, Charles, and Camilla takes up a lot of the season and, despite the strong performances from the cast, is some of the weaker material of the show, coming across as more of a prestige soap opera than a thought-provoking drama. This is a part of the story that is also probably familiar to many so there are very little surprises or additional depth that can be included. The world knows by now how miserable this marriage was and the foreshadowing of Diana’s tragic fate does at times feel heavy-handed.

Despite the uneven tone and pacing of the season, there are still some standout episodes that make The Crowns one of the more compelling dramas airing in this age of peak television. There’s “The Balmoral Test” which shows both Thatcher and Diana undergoing sort of initiation rites with the royal family by staying with them in their estate in Balmoral Castle. While Thatcher’s uncompromising attitude prevents her from adjusting to the royals’ eccentric rituals and activities, Diana’s aristocratic background gives her a distinct advantage. Thatcher commits the unforgivable sin of leaving earlier than scheduled, having won no favors with the royals. By contrast, Diana ingratiates herself with her future family and even helps Prince Philip catch an elusive stag. The distinction between the tough, working class politician and the demure, privileged young aristocrat could not be starker.

Another fascinating episode is “Favourites” which zeroes in on Thatcher and Elizabeth as mothers and their different approaches to raising their children. For all her reputation as The Iron Lady, in this episode, Thatcher comes across as the more affectionate mother than Elizabeth, who has to set up individual lunch dates with her four children to try and get to know them better.

Helena Bonham-Carter as Princess Margaret is tragically sidelined this season and it also works in a meta way given that Margaret also felt her role and relevance diminishing as she grew older. Fortunately, Bonham-Carter does get a Margaret-centric episode, “The Hereditary Principle” which is one of the best episodes of the season but easily the most tragic. Stripped of her position as a senior member of the royal family after Prince Edward comes of age, Margaret falls into a depression and lives her life in an aimless manner. Encouraged by Charles to seek professional help, she reluctantly starts therapy. She inadvertently discovers one of her family’s darkest secrets and she is shaken to the core. Bonham-Carter is magnificent, of course, and the episode highlights how problematic the central family of The Crown is, more disturbing when you do your research and find out that these dark secrets are actually true.

But as excellent as the episode is, it also feels out of place in the greater narrative of the season, especially given that the other episodes put a spotlight on Thatcher and Diana. It works well as a standalone episode and a vehicle for Bonham Carter and this was probably the intention given that this is her last season in the role.

The Crown S4The season concludes on a significantly less triumphant note than previous installments. The family might be gathered together for the holidays but Charles and Diana’s marriage is falling apart and everyone is simply pretending not to notice. There is a tense moment when Elizabeth chides her eldest son for being whiny and entitled, reminding him to count his blessings and to make the best of his situation. But the younger generation is less inclined to suffer in silence. There will be a breaking point.

As The Crown moves closer to the modern era, it becomes more and more difficult to suspend one’s disbelief about these real-life figures. But one does still enjoy the drama as it plays out in the series, even if one already knows how everything is going to end. With shows like these, it’s really more about the journey, not the destination.