This review describes episodes in some detail, so read at your own risk.
Season Three brought a total aged-up recast to the jewell in the Netflix Crown, and although the new cast is almost faultless, the writing of that season did not do them justice. Queenie herself (now played by Olivia Colman) was sidelined into mournfully staring out of windows for most of the time and it was the supporting players – particularly Helena Bonham Carter’s Margaret and Josh O’Connor’s Charles – who really got to shine. The episodes that focused on them were highlights, but this left large swathes that were a slog to plough through.
So what of Season Four? Well, it kicks off with the dawn of a new PM in 1979 – Margaret Thatcher, played with aplomb by Gillian Anderson. We also find a now 31 year old Charles, who is still single, much to everyone’s chagrin, who needs to get on with the important business of finding a family-approved wife and providing an heir. The two secret weapons in The Crown‘s arsenal that have to make Season Four more exciting than the last one are Anderson’s Thatcher (a much stronger personality than Wilson or Heath, whose clashes with the Queen make sparks fly) and Lady Diana Spencer (played by relative newcomer Emma Corrin). Luckily the actresses playing these two pivotal roles are exceptional, making for the best season yet.
Creator Peter Morgan has wisely chosen to focus on Charles and Di for much of this season and this is absolutely the right call. Last season introduced Camilla Parker Bowles (played by actress and director Emerald Fennell), but then failed to do much with her and crucially, gave us little to go on in terms of getting us invested in her decades-long relationship with Charles. This season does much better at establishing how important she is to the Prince of Wales, mostly through phone calls – she is his confidante and by the end of the season, there is no getting away from the fact that they are clearly soulmates.
Episode One starts with a bang, coming in strong with IRA speeches (this season does not shy away from either the political or social context) and the assassination of Mountbatten (Charles Dance). We also have Charles and Di’s meet-cute at the Spencer estate of Althorp, which is presented much more romantically than might be expected. She, still a schoolgirl in a Puck costume, shyly hiding behind enormous vases of flowers is reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet first seeing each other through the fish tank in Baz Luhrmann’s film. But Diana is presented as quite a calculating figure, who had her sights set on the Prince from a young age “she was obsessed with the idea of meeting you.”
Gillian Anderson also makes a huge impact as Thatcher from the get-go and of course, the “two women in power” aspect is played up to the max. Colman finally has something to sink her teeth in to, the Queen’s audiences with Thatcher are brilliant two-handers between these actresses. I will be shocked if Anderson is not showered with awards with her uncanny portrayal of Thatcher – her strained mouth, the tilt of her head and of course, the voice are impeccable. The writing of her character is also strong, with an emphasis put on her obsession that she was a green-grocer’s daughter who pulled herself up by the boot-straps, so why can’t the rest of the country do the same.
Episode Two demonstrates The Crown‘s lack of subtlety in its heavy-handed metaphors and constant use of portent, but it does so in a delicious way, with such good actors and good music, it’s hard not to lap it up. Thatcher is invited to Balmoral, where she crashes and burns, then Diana is invited and is a roaring success. There is a wounded stag wandering the moors who needs to be put out of his misery, who may as well have an enormous name-tag strapped to his antlers that says CHARLES. Philip summons Charles to the hanging room – I kid you not – to give him the final push in proposing to Diana. O’Connor continues (from season three) to show that the weight of the world is on Charles’ shoulders through his brilliant use of physicality. Camilla – ever the pragmatist – encourages him to marry Diana as well. It would seem that Charles’ fate is sealed.
Episode Three opens with a brilliantly edited phone call between the lady Royals – The Queen, The Queen Mother, Margaret and Anne, as the news of the proposal is relayed. Unlike season three, which provided little sense of 60s or 70s culture, this episode is packed full of 80s hits from Diana Ross, Ultravox, Elton John, Duran Duran and most brilliantly – Edge of Seventeen by Stevie Nicks, as well as showing Di’s sweet love of Bagpuss. An uncomfortable aspect of Diana’s life is also not shied away from. The centre-piece of this episode is a dinner between Camilla and Diana, where Camilla makes it painfully clear how well she knows Charles and how close they are. Although, the more Camilla tells Di about Charles, the more we’re aware of how little we, the audience, know him and the other characters. We are kept at a distance by the piece-meal nature of the episodes and seasons, the casting changes and the Royals’ stoicism. One other example of this is that we see nothing of Anne’s husband or children, we just hear second-hand that the marriage is unhappy.
Episode Four is, amusingly, about favourite children. Thatcher is the mother of grown twin children – Carol and Mark – and her favourite, Mark (Freddie Fox) goes missing during the Paris-Dakar Rally. Anderson gets to showcase her performance as the Falklands War is brewing, but Thatcher is more concerned with her son. We meet Andrew (Tom Byrne) and Edward (Angus Imrie, in a masterstroke of casting) for the first time and it is gradually revealed which of her four children is The Queen’s favourite. Andrew is presented as a glamorous, heroic and dashing military hero and Edward is unsurprisingly being bullied at Gordonstoun, where the Royals persist in sending their children.
Episode Five is a highpoint of the season because Morgan has done much better this time at acknowledging the real world outside the palace walls. Although Season 3’s Aberfan episode was affecting, the connection to the The Queen felt forced. This episode seamlessly examines how ordinary people were faring in Thatcher’s Britain (clue: not well) and brings a struggling working class man into contact with The Queen via an astonishing true story.
Episode Six follows Charles and Di on their tour of Australia in 1983, with an infant William in tow. An acting tour-de-force from O’Connor and Corrin reveals the ups and downs of Charles and Di’s strained relationship, as Diana becomes a media sensation and thousands of people clamour to meet the People’s Princess. O’Connor’s hunched posture as Charles plays off Corrin doing the Diana thing – looking up at people shyly through her fringe – so well. On the face of it they are similar gestures, but are rooted in two such widely different personalities and insecurities. These motivations, which are poles apart, are skilfully conveyed by the two actors’ body language.
Episode Seven finally shines the spotlight on Helena Bonham Carter’s Margaret, who hasn’t had much to do this season. Tom Burke has a great cameo in this episode and Bowie’s Let’s Dance features (always a good thing). We finally have a scene featuring all four Royal children in the same room at the same time (at Edward’s 21st birthday) and it would it have been great to have seen more of this dynamic. Edward gets a line in Ep 8 (referring to something Charles says to Andrew) that brings a belly laugh and I longed for more of this. This episode features a little-known hidden corner of the Royal family – cousins who have been hidden away for reasons which become clear.
Episode Eight has a cameo at the start which will cause a stir among loyal fans of The Crown, who have followed the saga from the start. This episode focuses on a conflict between Thatcher and The Queen and pushes the boundaries of The Queen’s supposed non-involvement in politics. Once again, it’s great to see that Colman has so much more to do this season and she excels in her scenes with Anderson. Episode Nine is about an avalanche that Charles, Diana and their friends got caught up in while skiing. It also follows things coming to a head in their troubled marriage, with much discussion of Diana’s affairs, as well as Charles’ continued pursuit of Camilla. The two Royal weddings (of Charles/Diana and Andrew/Sarah) and the avalanche in this episode are oddly skirted around and not properly shown, making one wonder if perhaps Netflix’s seemingly limitless budget is running out.
Episode Ten brings us to 1990, with Maggie’s time finally running out and things coming to a head for Charles and Di. Emerald Fennell as Camilla has had fairly limited screen-time throughout the season, but makes a big impact when she does appear. Camilla is more secure in her position in the world than any of the Royals and knows that actually being with Charles would probably just bring pressure, stress and misery, even if she does love him. Not many people seem to have made the connection between Fennell and the feature film she directed – Promising Young Woman, starring Carey Mulligan – which should be released in December. Between this and Marielle Heller’s superb acting turn in The Queen’s Gambit, tis the season for multi-talented director-actresses.
O’Connor and Corrin get a barnstorming scene which will surely be the awards clip, for O’Connor, at least. For what seems like the first time in two seasons, O’Connor stands up straight and attempts to take on Diana once and for all. In a similar scene to his “I have a voice” moment with The Queen in Season 3, all of his frustrations come to a head. Even with him shouting in the face of the vulnerable and fragile Diana, we still feel a glimmer of sympathy for Charles because of O’Connor’s performance. His utter desperation at the position he is in is palpable.
Over all, Season Four has addressed almost every criticism I had of Season Three, with none of the episodes being dull duds that are a struggle to wade through. One episode follows onto the next much better, with less standalone episodes that feel disjointed and jarring. The standalone episodes that there are (eg. Episode Five) are much better than anything in the previous season, dove-tailing the wider socio-political context with the concerns of the Royal family much more seamlessly. There is a much stronger sense of the decade this time as well, with pop music, Diana’s fashion and other cultural references.
The greatest strengths this time are without doubt the Colman-Anderson scenes (and Anderson in all of her scenes, in fact) and the Charles-Di-Camilla love triangle. Morgan knew that Diana and Thatcher would be the two big selling points of this season and wisely focuses on them. The MVPs, acting wise are Gillian Anderson and Josh O’Connor, although I’m also very impressed by Emma Corrin, who I hadn’t seen in anything before. The only small criticism I have of Season Four is that unfortunately Helena Bonham Carter’s Margaret only gets one episode focused on her, but as she had some brilliant ones in Season Three, I won’t complain too bitterly. I also would have loved to have seen the four Royal children get more scenes together.
Season Four of The Crown is brilliantly compelling television that I absolutely rattled through. A huge turnaround from the previous season, with much more excitement provided by newcomers Thatcher and Diana. A triumph.
Season Four of The Crown will be available on Netflix from November 15 2020.