Six years ago, when Netflix launched a lavish, gritty drama about the British royal family, it was a period saga set in a half-forgotten past and a production with a direct connection to modern times: Incredibly, the woman we saw become queen in 1952 was still on the throne. Season five of The Crown now arrives as the first to air since its protagonist’s death – and the series itself feels like its time has come and gone.
The continued documentation of the reign of the late Elizabeth II – we have come to the years 1992 to 1997 – is not in question, since the end of her era in real life should increase the need for full dramatization. The series’ growing closeness to the present should also not be a problem for its writer, Peter Morgan, whose pre-Crown reputation was for finding new angles on the recent exploits of statesmen, including the family. royal. Still, these new episodes are small and often boring, with Morgan looking for subplots to hide the fact that everything he has to say about the Windsors has already been said.
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For the actors too, the task has evolved awkwardly. An odd season of Crown means a cast change, and the news lands with the embodiment of the royal family as anyone under 50 instinctively imagines them: the Queen (Imelda Staunton) elderly rather than middle-aged; Charles (Dominic West) scampering around in displeasure with his left hand lodged in his jacket pocket; Philip (Jonathan Pryce), the sturdy retiree who fends off opponents with oversized hands and ears. The temptation to offer more of an imitation party piece than a believable character proves hard to resist.
At its best, The Crown is about flawed people imperfectly coping with cursed privilege, visiting unhappy personal lives on themselves in the process. But there are only so many times we can see the Queen, whatever her role, telling a family member that they can’t marry this man or that they must stay married to this woman. Charles, Anne and Andrew get the lecture here, as does Margaret (Lesley Manville) when she reflects on her feelings of frustration at not being allowed to stay with her true love, Peter Townsend.
Retreading the old floor feels forced, and that’s not the only time a 10-game season is clogged with putty. An episode centered on Boris Yeltsin and the exhumation of the Romanovs, and in particular a stand-alone episode on cartoonish aristocratic wannabe Mohamed al-Fayed, could have been thrown in without disrupting the main narrative too much.
The boldest of Morgan’s deviations from the palace action is his depiction of ordinary couples going through the same divorce court as Charles and Diana, their failing relationships imagined via short sad sketches – the fact being that all kinds of marriages end because of differences that in retrospect, the unions seem doomed. However, that only underscores how difficult season five is in finding new human drama. Near the end, with the nisi decree signed, Charles and Di’s final barney is the same as everyone else: she says he was inattentive because he loved Camilla Parker-Bowles all along; he says she was naive about royal priorities and took revenge when her unrealistic demands weren’t met. The anguish of ordinary people is more interesting.
The most important things happen when C and D are separated. The real John Major – sympathetically portrayed here as a methodical and wise diplomat by Jonny Lee Miller – has already come out to decry the moment when Charles unsubtlely suggests to the new prime minister that the royal family could also benefit from a different leader. It’s just acceptable fiction, putting into words something Charles probably meant while helping to mold the deadpan Major into a cautious traditionalist who always sided with Elizabeth. But the scene underscores that, rather than there being a rolling subtext about how change threatens the position of the Windsors, the future of the monarchy is now the main topic of discussion. Dramatically, it’s a dead end, leading to a lot of dry speeches where the characters state what would be more effective as underlying themes. More than once, the script resorts to an aging and less and less viable building like HMY Britannia, the dismantling of which is the framing device of the season, which is referred to directly in the dialogue as “a metaphor”.
Di’s big news, meanwhile, is that she consents to a TV interview — Elizabeth Debicki, another performer with a penchant for caricature, nails this flirtatious Panorama nod. The fable of dishonest Martin Bashir’s dastardly journalistic ambition meeting Diana’s unstable desire to be heard, with that explosive mix sparked by clashes of personalities clouding judgments at the top of the BBC, is vintage Crown, recasting public events major as a result of relatable private weaknesses.
This, however, is a talent the Crown has largely lost. Without it, the show’s relevance declines.
The Crown is on Netflix on November 9.