Okay, sit up loyal subjects. The Crown has spun sharply into the tabloid era.
The fourth season premiere of the hit Netflix drama is a brisk, hour-long episode introducing two of the most polarizing figures in Elizabeth the Second’s long reign: Diana Spencer, a.k.a. the former Princess of Wales (played by Emma Corrin) and Margaret Thatcher, a.k.a. The Iron Lady, The UK’s prime minister throughout the ’90s (Gillian Anderson).
These two step into executive producer Peter Morgan’s frothy saga like fictitious characters dreamt up to add a jolt to a fourth season of fiction. That they were such public figures, both under a media microscope, will help boost audience levels but will also add scrutiny to the storytelling. In past seasons, The Crown was a sumptuous history lesson from a fading, Cold War era, with far less audience inspection on a lot of the details. With Season 4, viewers may start to question the too tidy way things start to unfold.
For example, did Lord Mountbatten (Charles Dance) really write that last letter to Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor) and then go off and get (spoiler alert) blown up on a boat by the IRA? Clearly, Morgan, who wrote the episode, takes all kinds of liberties with timing and circumstance.
The Crown, of course, is not a documentary. The brisk storytelling is there first and foremost to keep audiences glued and entertained.
The new season gets to Charles and Di very quickly. The main members of the royal family, including the queen, are shown at dinner gossiping about the heir to the throne’s love life. Charles was wooing Diana’s sister Sarah at the time (while continuously carrying on with married Camilla Parker Bowles). Near the start of the episode, young Diana makes an enchanting entrance that seems such a brazen act of fiction one wonders if it could be what really happened.
Adding an air of fact are the real castles and estates, carriages and cars that serve as background to all the drama. The Crown remains historically compelling just to look at.
Thatcher’s storyline comes hard on Diana’s heels. Former X-Files agent Anderson is almost unrecognizable as a very flinty Iron Lady. She has the tinted hair and bent-necked scorn, but it all goes too far in spots, almost into Cruella da Ville territory. By the end of the episode you almost expect to see Thatcher in a coat made out of the Queen’s Corgi’s.
Morgan adds sizzle with some snappy dialogue. “The last thing this country needs is two women running this place,” sniffs Phillip, played by royal scene stealer Tobias Menzies. Later, when we see the Iron Lady at home ironing (!), we hear her husband echo the prince, going further to point out that the two women in question are both menopausal. Off with their heads!
Much more is packed into the premiere. Dance will be missed as ultimate royal troublemaker Mountbatten. He meets a very cinematic end in Episode One. If Morgan doesn’t resurrect the character later as a ghost I’ll be shocked.
The second new episode finds both Thatcher and Diana being tested by the royals at their summer castle, Balmoral. Here we witness HRH and her posse carrying on like Granny and Jethro and the Beverly Hillbillies, huntin’ varmits and at night smudgin’ up their faces and playin’ charades. The Iron Lady did not bring the right shoes and quickly retreats. Diana, on the other hand, bonds with Phillip and charms every member of the family.
Maybe it did happen like that, but, again, the fact that the real story played out for so many years under the glare of the tabloids makes it harder to settle into as drama, for me anyway, than earlier seasons of The Crown.
Not helping is some heavy-handed symbolism. A magestic buck is shot at, wounded and then wanders through the rest of this episode. The innocent being is seen as another crown to prize and put upon the wall by the Balmoral blue bloods. An episode later, it is Diana we see as the deer in the headlights.
At the centre of it all, of course, is Olivia Colman as HRH. She’s always worth watching, especially at the very start where she comes face to face with perhaps the one subject she trusts most in her realm. Good as she is, there are moments when Colman does seem to take the words of Elizabeth a little too much to heart, particularly the part where she tells other royals that, “we’re always most effective when we do nothing.”
There are ten new episodes to the season, after which this cast will hand off to a new palace full of royal stand-ins for two final seasons on Netflix. Loyal subjects will have a hard time making these ten last.