One of the true jewels in Netflix’s roster, “The Crown” has never struggled to attract attention. When you’re tackling the most famous monarchy on the planet, there’s no shortage of drama to mine. Now, however, things can’t help but feel rather different with the premiere of the series’ fifth season. It’s been almost two months since Queen Elizabeth II died, heralding the arrival of a new King, a new heir, and a whole slew of tabloid furore over how a television show could hurt the oft-sullied reputation of the Windsor firm.
As bad-faith voices among the British press decry the series for offering a lightly fictionalized dramatization of real-life events, and royalists fear that coverage of the Diana divorce years will tarnish the status of the new King Charles III, one wonders how much power a mere television show can have. Showrunner Peter Morgan, who has more than a few Windsor-focused dramas under his belt, has never seemed like the kind to rock the boat. Even in this new season, which tackles perhaps the most tumultuous period of Elizabeth II’s reign, while the drama remains gripping, it hardly tears the institution to shreds.
Perhaps fittingly, Season 5 opens with the Queen (Imelda Staunton) receiving a medical check-up, with her doctor warning her that she should be spending less time on her feet. As the ‘90s roll on, the Queen is experiencing a downward turn in reputation, decried as archaic and unfitting of the modern age. Charles (Dominic West) hopes to take advantage of the moment but is aware that his own popularity is tied to that of his wife Diana (Elizabeth Debicki.) The marriage, as always, is rocky thanks to Charles’ ongoing affair with Camilla Parker Bowles (Olivia Williams), and a slew of scandals, disasters, and economic disaster see the solidity of The Firm be put to the ultimate test.
At its best, “The Crown” is a workplace drama, a reminder of the highly specific and fraught personal labor of being a monarchy in the 20th and 21st centuries. When every promotion is hereditary and finances decided from a changing array of politicians, tensions are inevitable. By the ‘90s, a new economic recession hit Britain and the royals seemed more out-of-touch than ever, between demands for a lavish refurbishment of the family yacht and the endless divorces that made tabloid jokes of the monarch’s children. This is a company, for lack of a better term, constantly preaching its attempts to modernize while doing everything to quash such progress, and by Season 5, it’s all caught up to the Queen in nasty fashion. When Prince Andrew, of all people, notes that the family has a habit of blowing out the flames of those who are different, there are too many examples to give (and it’s hard not to draw parallels to today, as Prince Harry and Meghan Markle continue to be lambasted by the British press.)
The human cost is at the forefront of the season, the raw pain behind the glow of the divine that a monarchy brings. Princess Margaret (Lesley Manville in appropriately louche form) feels more alone and irrelevant than ever, tossed aside now that her status as a primary royal has long passed. Diana is scrambling for someone to love, to listen to her, as she faces divorce. Charles is harnessing his media savvy to improve his own image, even if it’s to the detriment of his own mother. In the advent of the 24-hour news cycle and with the younger generations less concerned with the royal philosophy of “never complain, never explain”, “The Crown” has plenty of material to mine for maximum impact. It’s far more restrained than the profane machinations of the Roy clan but the subtly scathing one-liners and generational back-stabbing are just as potent here.
This means that the season is perhaps more sprawling than those that have preceded it. There are more people to cover, but some are still not given enough room to be more than bit-parts. Yet this choice also offers a richer perspective for the royals, a fresher means to contextualize a family waning in the face of the changing times. Episode 3 is dedicated to Mohamed al-Fayed, the Egyptian businessman whose son Dodi briefly dated Diana before her death. His rise to the upper echelons of financial success, including his purchase of the famed Ritz Hotel, are seen as incomplete until he trains to be a “proper” English gentleman, complete with afternoon tea and golfing lessons. The ever-present conflict of class in Britain, old money versus new, comes to the forefront of the season. This diversion into a different kind of elite – cash over titles – is one of the season’s stronger aspects.
Its biggest weaknesses continue to be moments of clunky exposition to explain historical details or side characters for American viewers and non-royal buffs. Names and tidbits are shoved into conversation with the subtlety of a Wikipedia entry. By now, it’s something viewers will be used to but by five seasons, one would wonder if the audience had earned Morgan’s trust to keep up with history without the narrative equivalent of VH1-esque popups. It makes for clunky dialogue, particularly when so many of the most effecting scenes are built on conversations of brutal honesty between the Windsor siblings.
The casting of “The Crown” has always benefitted from allowing its vast and talented cast to play these ubiquitous people as lived-in individuals rather than impersonations. Some of Britain’s finest character actors are given room to inhabit a family about whom we simultaneously know too much and too little. The exception is Jonny Lee Miller as Prime Minister John Major, which is astonishingly generous to the politician once decried for his dullness. While Miller is talented, he never looks or acts like anything other than a handsome man in a curious grey wig.
Imelda Staunton plays Elizabeth as a woman keenly aware of how her ageing may conflict with her duties, and brings a steely spine to the cuddly exterior that became perhaps her most iconic image. She can’t help but feel like a supporting character this season, especially as her eldest son forces his way into the spotlight. Dominic West, who is altogether far too handsome to play Charles, nonetheless has the right balanced of smarm and charm to play the heir-in-waiting. There are moments where the cadence of his speech is near-identical to Charles’ upper-class nasal whine, although West shines best when he’s the scheming prince, perhaps the most adept one in a family full of them, and the only one who seems to support major reforms to the monarchy.
But it’s Elizabeth Debicki who steals the show as Diana. Equipped with the perfect doe-eyes, heavily lined in kohl, to play the late princess, she embodies the fragility and determination of a woman at her wit’s end. Her marriage in tatters and her paranoia growing over her future status in the family, Debicki’s Diana often seems like a wounded deer ready to gnaw off her own leg. Yet there’s nerve to her planning, especially as she allows herself to act as the primary source of a biography on her royal life. We see the tension dissipate from her tightly wound shoulders as she spills all in tape recordings to Andrew Morton. This is a more mature Diana than we saw last season, as played by Emma Corrin, one who’s a more experienced player of the game.
It’s intriguing as to how “The Crown” has been positioned, particularly this season, as some sort of slap in the face to the Windsors when its sympathies have always lain with the people at the heart of the institution. While Charles is portrayed as a Machiavellian figure, he’s also shown to be the smartest one of the bunch, with a postscript noting his work with the Princes Trust in one episode. There’s nothing here that will incite a new wave of republicanism across the commonwealth. Instead, what season five gives us is a savvy, if occasionally baggy, portrait of a family business trying to go the distance as a new millennium approaches. It may not reach the heights of Season 4, which benefitted from the more soapy tensions between the Wales couple and grander focus on the women of the time.
Still, as a representative of the ultimate embodiment of Keep Calm and Carry On, “The Crown” remains a sturdy piece of prestige TV with a strong, clear vision of its tangled subject.
“The Crown” Season 5 premieres on Nov. 9 on Netflix.