The Crown season 4 might be the most interesting season of the Netflix show yet, for one key reason: it seems determined to make us dislike, even downright loathe, every member of the House of Windsor, from Queen Elizabeth on down. Previous seasons of the ornate monarchy melodrama were not without judgment or criticisms for its main cast of flawed characters, but in season 4, Elizabeth II and family descend to their lowest point as the royals sets about destroying their newest member, Diana Spencer. It makes for a bleak, but fascinating, season of television.
The Crown continues to be one of the better Netflix originals because it continues to embrace stand-alone episodes. Like Mad Men – the show that seems to be The Crown‘s primary influence – the series does not take the eight-hour movie approach that so many other Netflix shows succumb to. Instead, every episode is like a short story. Some of the stories connect, but they also stand firmly on their own. And season 4 brings in even more familiar historical faces – not only is this the season that introduces us to Princess Diana, played sympathetically by Emma Corrin, it also introduces controversial, much-loathed Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, played by a nearly unrecognizable Gillian Anderson.
Have no fear: The Crown does not make excuses for Mrs. Thatcher. Does it try to humanize her a bit? Sure – and that’s fair; she was human, after all. But there’s no hagiography at work here – as the series progresses, Thatcher’s premiership brings nothing but trouble to the U.K., and she’s portrayed as dangerously out-of-touch. Anderson plays the character as disastrously aloof – a woman dead-set in her own destructive ways, consequences be damned. When Thatcher comes to power, Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) is optimistic about the idea of working with her first female Prime Minister. But the meetings between Queen and P.M. are cold, and it becomes apparent very quickly that the two women have nothing in common. The problems with Thatcherism spill over into one of the season’s best episodes, based on an incident in which a man named Michael Fagan broke into Buckingham Palace not once, but twice, in 1982. Down on his luck and suffering from the country’s decline, Fagan ends up having an unexpected audience with the Queen in her bedroom – one of the many events that turn the queen against Thatcher.
But the real overarching narrative of season 4 is devoted to the romance – or lack thereof – between Diana Spencer and Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor). Charles remains hung-up on the married Camilla Parker Bowles (Emerald Fennell), with whom he continues to have an affair. But everyone around the future king instructs him that the relationship is doomed. Even Camilla warns Charles that it just won’t work. Charles is encouraged to pursue a new woman to be his wife, and he finds her in Diana Spencer, who seems even younger than her age (she was only 20 when she married Charles). The relationship between Charles and Diana starts off seemingly warm, and Diana becomes a sensation in the country as the whirlwind romance captures tabloid headlines. Yet it becomes very clear very quickly that Charles doesn’t really love Diana, or even care about her in the slightest, and their marriage turns into a disaster.
That disaster is only exacerbated by the royal family, who aren’t exactly what you’d call inviting. At first, they’re all quite taken with Diana. The future princess goes on a hunt with Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies), and the man warms to her and encourages his son to marry. But Diana is soon cut off, not just from her friends, but also from the royals. They sequester her away and ignore her attempts at contact. Time and time again, Diana tries to reach out to the queen, only to be completely disregarded. They’re all quite aware that Charles is continuing his affair with Camilla, and when rumors begin to trickle out about Diana developing an eating disorder, it’s Charles they ultimately sympathize with.
And it’s here where The Crown begins to reveal the royal family’s true colors. They’re just as aloof as Thatcher – maybe even worse. Thatcher’s coldness seems almost accidental – she doesn’t appear to know any better – while the royals are far more calculating. They handle Diana with a startling lack of humanity, to the point where it becomes torturous. Charles, in particular, grows downright monstrous, allowing O’Connor to sink his teeth into the part. He makes the character downright loathsome, to the point of villainy.
There’s a hint of sympathy emanating from Colman’s Elizabeth, but in the end, her family – and her bloodline – are far more important to her than Diana’s suffering. Colman is as great as ever, and it’s to her credit that she manages to remain somewhat likable even in the face of all this nastiness. This is Colman’s last season as the character (Imelda Staunton is taking over the role, and I’m sure she’ll be great, too), and she will be missed.
As for newcomers Anderson and Corrin, they both inject new life into the series. Anderson, in particular, is quite striking, adopting a towering wig and moving about in a stiff, hunched manner that makes her seem twice her age. And Corrin’s Princess Di is inherently tragic – she seems all too human, and all too vulnerable, which sharply contrasts her with the stiff, cold monarchy. The fact that we know what terrible fate eventually awaits her makes her storyline all the more heartbreaking.
This impending darkness is ultimately what makes The Crown season 4 so captivating. We’ve spent three seasons with (most of) these characters, and in many respects, we’ve grown to sympathize with them. To suddenly cast them in such a negative light isn’t a cheap trick; it’s yet another way the series has conveyed the passage of time – and the moral rot that can take hold within the hardened hearts of those who wield power. Who knows how much worse the royals will have become by the time the series ends?
The Crown season 4 premieres November 15, 2020.
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