The Crown: season four reigns
I never expected to enjoy the first three seasons of Netflix’s The Crown. As something of a republican – and hardly a sympathetic to any members of Britain’s reigning royal family – to be drawn into Queen Elizabeth II’s family story was unexpected, to say the least. Claire Foy’s earlier brilliance – significantly aided by the stunning performances of Vanessa Kirby (as Princess Margaret) and John Lithgow (as Winston Churchill) – proved difficult to match in series three, with Olivia Colman sometimes struggling to match the fierce, passionate reticence that Foy had so convincingly provided. Nevertheless, the return of Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth is a welcome one: with the focus on new characters Margaret Thatcher and Diana Spencer, Colman’s Queen acts more as a spectator to the plot. It is a position she appears more suited for, and one that allows her to pull off a brilliantly restrained (and far colder) performance.
Another refreshing reappearance is seen in Helena Bonham Carter’s Princess Margaret, who – like Colman – takes up a role akin to that of a spectator in series four, contrasting with her frequent role as a ‘plot-catalyst’ in series three. This, too, allows her to shine: Margaret is shown as human – loving, even – in series four, a stark contrast with the growing inhumanity of Colman’s Elizabeth (Margaret’s sister) despite the clear familial closeness between the two characters. Admittedly, Bonham Carter’s most significant appearance – episode 7, “The Hereditary Principle” – is one of the weaker episodes of the series, but I don’t feel this reflects as much on her as it does on the total insignificance of the episode to the wider plot – if anything, she may have saved the episode. Tobias Menzies, as Prince Philip, additionally gives a characteristically forceful performance in a brilliant reprisal of his series three role, and Marion Bailey’s Queen Mother and Erin Doherty’s Princess Anne suit the rest of the Royal ensemble perfectly.
The senior royals, however, are not what makes this series shine above the rest. Since The Crown‘s first series, the plot has been (as is expected) driven by these senior members, whether it be Queen Elizabeth’s ascension, Princess Margaret’s marital troubles, or conflict between the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh. It is series four’s introduction of Gillian Anderson’s Margaret Thatcher and Emma Corrin’s Diana Spencer that provides the new series with a crucial icy element that previous episodes were often lacking. The “Balmoral Test”, the second episode of the new series, summarises this perfectly: Anderson’s Thatcher fails to understand or buy into the apparent (superficial) politeness and ‘joy’ of those often at war with one other, creating a chasm that comes to define the frosty relationship between Thatcher and Colman’s Queen. In the same episode, just minutes later, Corrin’s Diana undergoes her own “Balmoral Test”, a triumph removed entirely from Thatcher’s disaster. The initial kindness and joy in Diana’s characterisation (perhaps unintentionally) creates a beautiful contrast with the coldness of Thatcher – one made only more apparent and enjoyable by the effortlessly compelling performances of Gillian Anderson and Emma Corrin, who both grow into the world-famous shoes of their respective characters without issue.
It should be noted that Anderson’s Thatcher, brilliant on her own, shines particularly brightly in scenes she shares with Olivia Colman’s Elizabeth. Equally, Emma Corrin’s Diana Spencer stuns most when appearing alongside Josh O’Connor’s Prince Charles, who falls far from the mildly sympathetic portrayal he enjoyed in series three of The Crown to one of gruelling outer and inner conflict and hatred. The presentation of mental health disorders (namely, bulimia) in The Crown deserves additional praise, succeeding in giving an honest depiction of the issue without falling to the traps of either glorification or complete ostracisation. Corrin ensures, furthermore, that Diana’s struggles with mental health manage to stay faithful to her sympathetic portrayal without veering into a form of pandering; Corrin’s portrayal of Diana Spencer as slowly growing into her new role, new confidence and new fame never conflicts with the show’s daring confrontation of social prejudices. The Crown, in this way, provides an important consideration for the true struggles that even the most confident, popular figures can experience behind locked doors and beneath the noise of a running tap.
Series four has reinvigorated a show that was coming rather close to monotony. It does so in an often painfully human way. It feels a little wrong to give anything top-marks when I’m only doing such a review for the first time, but The Crown‘s series four gives me little choice. I found the plot compelling, the acting incredible, the costumes, soundtrack and landscapes all stunning and the show itself beyond enjoyable. The closing scene of the series, seen in episode 10 (“War”), is one of my favourite scenes of all time, combining a beautifully mournful Christmas song with a very simple but breathtaking representation of Diana’s struggles to assume her role within the family and world around her. Series four is far more than a handful of good episodes within a good series of a good television show: it is a triumph of a show that could have so easily gone downhill, instead becoming ten hours of fascinating viewing that deserves every award I’m sure it will claim. Series four reigns, as the best series of The Crown yet made.
All ten episodes of The Crown’s fourth series are available on Netflix now, as well as all thirty episodes of three seasons before. Further reviews can also be found here.