The newest season of The Crown has finally hit Netflix, and in my opinion, it is the best one yet. It marks the entry of two of Britain’s most famous women of the last century: Lady Diana Spencer and Margaret Thatcher. The former marries into the royal family, a wedding that British tabloids dubbed as the stuff fairy-tales are made of. The latter becomes Britain’s first woman prime minister and goes on to serve for three terms, simultaneously becoming the longest-serving British prime minister of the 20th century.
The series sees a return of Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth II, Tobias Menzies as Prince Philip, Helena Bonham Carter as Princess Margaret, Josh O’Connor as Prince Charles, Marion Bailey as Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, Erin Doherty as Princess Anne and Emerald Fennell as Camilla Parker Bowles. There are also new actors joining the cast, famously Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher and Emma Corrin as Princess Diana. The series has long been known for its lavish set designs and costumes, and this season too is a delight for the eyes.
The 10-episode season begins with Margaret Thatcher’s ascent to power in 1979 and spans the 11 years of Thatcher’s prime ministership, ending at Christmas 1990, a full two years before Princess Diana and Prince Charles would announce their separation. In between happens the most famous wedding of the century, Charles and Diana’s Australia visit, Michael Fagan’s security breach at the Buckingham Palace, the downfall of Princess Margaret, and the infamous rift between the Queen and Margaret Thatcher. As anticipated, creator Peter Morgan takes a break from making The Crown merely just a character study of Queen Elizabeth II. Instead, this season sees the royals, and Britain in turn, caught between two competing visions of the future by two very different, very headstrong women. And together, Thatcher and Diana give The Crown a renewed sense of direction that it lacked in the third season.
Emma Corrin Is Entrancing As Princess Diana
Since last season ended, the anticipation regarding the entry of Princess Diana into the series has been running high. And so we see her — Lady Diana Spencer as the newest member who is ‘welcomed’ to the royal family this season. What Emma Corrin accomplishes is pretty miraculous, for she successfully manages to imitate not just the eccentric fashion of one of the most beloved women of the last century, but also the famously unusual charisma of someone so thoroughly stamped within the cultural imagination. In fact, Corrin not only embodies the physicality of Diana — the slight tilt of the head, the soothing tonality of her voice — but she also captures her inner turmoil and loneliness: through her, we get to see both the ‘People’s Princess’ and a desolate woman struggling with mental health issues and eating disorders.
The fourth season itself begins with an evocative character introduction: as Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor) waits for his date Sarah Spencer at her palatial family estate, Sarah’s younger sister, a 16-year-old girl Diana (Emma Corrin) dressed as a tree for a school performance hides behind a pair of tall, decorative plants. The teenager has been strictly told not to show herself to the Prince, but Diana can’t help stealing the spotlight, even when she’s just supposed to be the background. Although Corrin doesn’t seem to make a deep impression until the third episode, she manages to give Diana a strength unseen before. Her Diana charms and disarms: here is a woman who marries into the most uptight of all families in the world, finds herself in a lonely marriage, craves for love, stardom and attention, and eventually fights to get it.
Corrin, like her character Diana, grows into power. In the earlier episodes, she’s constantly cornered like a prey, once even ridiculed for not knowing the order in which to address the royals. It is Diana’s very human struggles to navigate the royal labyrinth, a princess starstruck by her own stardom, that perhaps kept a viewer such as myself hooked and wanting more. And as for the show writers, one has to give it to them for creating such a balanced portrayal, one that doesn’t turn Diana into a victim or a perpetrator, but empathises with her situation.
A Well-Cast Margaret Thatcher
If there was any talk about Gillian Anderson being miscast as Margaret Thatcher, watching season four has done away with all such doubts. In fact, Anderson as Thatcher proves to be an inspired casting decision, as the depiction feels incredibly authentic, compelling even. The stoop, creaky voice and facial tics quickly gel into a woman as calculative as she is unassuming. This season is also the first in which the domestic tensions among the royals is anywhere near as interesting as the British history that unfolds outside the palace gates. Through Thatcher, creator Peter Morgan seems to make bold statements about contemporary politics, and the authoritarian figures who are in charge of it.
Dismissed as a “shopkeeper’s daughter” by Prince Philip, Morgan’s characterisation of Thatcher is at par with his Diana — a formidable woman who broke class and gender barriers to become Europe’s first female Prime minister, someone who was also on the wrong side of history on pretty much every important issue. Thatcher is seen cooking, ironing or doting on her favourite child, and hardly having any sympathy for a woman (the Queen, in this instance) who isn’t doing it all at all times. That is not to say that the makers have reduced the tensions between Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth to just petty misapprehensions, but even the viewers can feel the coldness each time both are put in the same room together. As for Anderson, she delivers yet another nuanced take that, in my opinion, manages to nudge even Colman’s performance to some extent.
As one might have guessed already, the fourth season belongs solely to Diana and Thatcher, and to them alone. It is an emotionally rich season as the writers manage to nail the balance between big events and intimate human drama. But apart from the nuanced character portrayals, the best thing about season four is the way it takes a less-than-impressed outsider’s gaze at the Windsor lifestyle. The most affecting sight therefore isn’t Australia, or Bronx, but that of the working-class London, which is being devastated by Thatcher’s austerity policies. The contrast shown between Buckingham Palace and glum neighborhoods just a few miles away is also quite jarring.
We learn of an exorbitantly expensive war going on in the Falkland Islands, but all that the monarchy can focus on is the marriage of Charles to Princess Diana, which in itself is a perfect example of how divorced from the modern world Buckingham Palace is. The nobility seems a lot less noble, as they are portrayed as cruel and neglectful people who are not only disloyal to one another, but also terrifyingly out of touch with the country. In fact, the season almost feels like Peter Morgan’s way of bringing the British monarchy down from its pedestal and showing us what mess of a family it really is. The issue of income equality hovers over everything, as the point of having a coddled family of Royals becomes even more questionable.
There’s also a feminist vibe in the air in this season, with the trifecta of female leads at the centre — equals, and in many ways superior to the men around them — a sight quite uncommon in TV series even to this day. “That’s the last thing this country needs, two women running the shop,” says Prince Philip in one of the scenes. To which Queen Elizabeth replies, “Perhaps that’s precisely what this country needs.” And that’s perhaps what the series needed as well. So whether you are a religious fan or an uninitiated binge-watcher, don’t miss watching it, for The Crown truly reaches its peak with this season, both in terms of characters and content.
Views expressed are the author’s own.