Early in the first season of Netflix’s “The Crown,” Queen Elizabeth II’s grandmother advises the newly anointed 25-year-old royal in a moment of uncertainty to remember that the monarchy answers not to the British public, but to God himself.
“Monarchy is God’s sacred mission to grace and dignify the Earth,” Queen Mary says sternly. “To give ordinary people an ideal to strive toward.” Elizabeth, inscrutable even in her younger years, gives her a long look.
If it was wishful thinking in Season 1, it’s a joke by Season 5. The new season, which premieres Wednesday, finds the royal family in 1991, in the thick of one of the ugliest periods of its recent history; almost everyone is up to no good. But in a major feat for creator-writer Peter Morgan and the third iteration of the show’s cast – keeping the tradition of replacing actors every two seasons as the characters age – “The Crown” nevertheless remains as sumptuous and compulsively watchable as ever. As the story creeps ever closer toward current events, however, storylines tread on recent-enough ground (read: the tabloid spectacle of Charles and Diana’s divorce) to potentially rankle some who lived through the original scandals.
As Netflix tells it, the royal family’s hobbies in the 1990s included sailing, carriage driving, watching horse races, having affairs, grousing about one another (in private and on television) and asking for favors from a Britain with which they share an increasingly strained relationship. Elizabeth (Imelda Staunton), now in her 60s, pesters one prime minister and then another about a £15 million repair job for her royal yacht. Her husband, Prince Philip (Jonathan Pryce), spends conspicuous amounts of time aboard private jets with the wife of one of Prince Charles’s friends. Charles (Dominic West) and Princess Diana (Elizabeth Debicki) squabble on vacations and sulk in separate castles while Charles carries on his years-long extramarital relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles (Olivia Williams) and Diana airs the royal dirty laundry to anyone who will listen.
Virtually every marriage in the family that’s still standing is miserable, and it is Prime Minister John Major – played with understated magnetism by Jonny Lee Miller – who gives the season its thesis early on when he meets the royal clan in all its sprawling, decadent chaos.
“The House of Windsor should be binding the nation together. Setting an example of idealized family life,” he remarks to his wife as they retire to their bedroom. “Instead, the senior royals seem dangerously deluded and out of touch. The junior royals, feckless, entitled and lost.”
And yet. As always with “The Crown,” the strokes of genius lie in the selection of anecdotes, and the new season finds compelling stories to tell even about characters it has soured on. One episode takes a fascinating detour into Philip’s pivotal participation in a 1993 effort to confirm the identities of bodies suspected to be those of the murdered Russian Romanov family. (As a descendant of the Romanovs, Philip gave a DNA sample that proved the link.) Diana’s brief post-Charles relationship with a British-Pakistani cardiac surgeon earns its short, sweet arc. And Princess Margaret – imbued with equal parts whimsy and dignity by the wonderful Lesley Manville – anchors a masterful episode about love lost and changing social mores: She shares a tender reunion with Peter Townsend, the royal equerry she was engaged to decades before but was forbidden by Elizabeth from marrying because he was divorced.
Curiously, while the show seems to have to dig deep sometimes to find affection for its characters, it seems to have the easiest time with Charles. Conveniently for the real-life king, who awaits coronation to officially ascend to the throne, the show’s depiction of the dissolution of his marriage to Diana presents a challenge to the version of events that has calcified into the American collective memory over the past three decades. Season 4 reinforced that version: Diana’s struggles with depression and self-harming behaviors were portrayed as outgrowths of the royal family’s chilly demeanor and tacit approval of her husband’s infidelity. But Season 5 presents a reversal. Charles? Less evil than you think, it seems to say. Diana? Kind of a little twerp, now and again.
Debicki, an Australian actress arguably best known for playing untrustworthy beauties (“The Great Gatsby,” “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”) and the often long-suffering wives and girlfriends of bad guys (“Widows,” “The Night Manager,” “Tenet”), is perfectly cast as a Diana whom the show seems to see as a little bit of both. Her pain at the betrayal of her husband and the subsequent failure of their marriage manifests itself as pettiness. She does a tell-all, “her side of the story” interview with BBC reporter Martin Bashir and informs the royal family only when it’s taped and well on its way to airing; alone at home, she watches a debate on whether Britain still needs a monarchy and repeatedly calls in to vote “no.” Sure, Diana visits a hospital here and there. But she also loudly complains throughout the 10 new episodes about the royal family’s “unsympathetic” treatment to so many near- and literal strangers that by the time she quips her famous “I’d like to be queen of people’s hearts” line to Bashir, it feels almost duplicitous.
Which leaves Charles (played winsomely here by the ever-winsome West) and his paramour Camilla at the beleaguered end of all this, seeking comfort in each other. Williams’s performance as Camilla may be the best thing to happen to real Camilla since Emerald Fennell’s portrayal a few years back: While Fennell offered a gregarious, entertaining (and occasionally mean) antithesis to “shy Di,” Williams plays Camilla as a likably no-nonsense woman with a few meaty scenes that remind the viewer that by the late 1990s, her enduring love for Charles had cost her dearly. As a result, even the famously filthy phone call between the two that caused a scandal when it was taped and released to the public feels surprisingly tender, a moment of idle romantic mischief between two middle-aged adults yearning for each other.
It doesn’t hurt that the show finds Charles continually fighting an uphill battle to modernize the monarchy. Or that it spends a good chunk of one episode on the Prince’s Trust, Charles’s charity for young people, as though emphasizing that Charles, too, did charity work and cared about helping people. “The Crown” even extends one of its rare epilogue sequences to it: “Don’t Sweat the Technique” plays over an outro montage of West as Charles laughing and clapping with a horde of diverse young people, a few of them break-dancing. Since 1976, the text reads, “The Prince’s Trust has assisted 1 million young people to fulfill their potential and returned nearly £1.4 billion in value to society.”
“The Crown” has always seemed to relish the opportunity to knock historical figures beloved by Americans down a peg or two. John Lithgow’s Winston Churchill in the first season was a press-savvy egotist; the Kennedys, in Season 2, boorish and rude. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin appear briefly in the third season after their Apollo 11 moon landing, their groundbreaking accomplishments conspicuously dulled by their boring personalities.
Diana, it seems – in the grand scheme of “The Crown’s” targeted iconoclasm – is next in line.
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