The Monarchy & Show Struggle to Stay Relevant
Dec 20, 2022
A predictable cycle always seems to crop up in the press right around the time that Netflix is gearing up to premiere a new season of The Crown. Someone makes headlines with the declaration that Peter Morgan’s longtime series should come packaged with an indication that what’s being depicted is fiction, the streamer responds to those assertions by issuing its own statement about the dramatization of events, and eventually, audiences tune in regardless of whether such a disclaimer exists. Rinse, repeat.
While the trailer for the upcoming fifth season did specify that the story being told is only “inspired by real events,” there’s no doubt that the long-running show finds itself in previously uncharted waters, especially in the wake of Queen Elizabeth II’s passing. On the one hand, I’m not sure anyone is actually watching The Crown for a factual version of history. Still, on the other, it’s impossible not to see the stark parallels between one of the monarchy’s most vocal dissidents — which plays out over the course of the show’s latest season in heartwrenching detail — and her own son’s real-life decision to eventually break free of the system that he was born into.
Image via Netflix
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Season 5 boasts yet another cast change-up, with varying levels of success — some actors are clearly trying to immerse themselves into the real-life people they’ve been tasked with playing, while others toss out the occasional word in the royals’ received pronunciation accent and strive for little beyond that. As Charles, Dominic West is in possession of more charm than might be believable in the wake of Josh O’Connor’s stiffer, clipped demeanor in Season 4. His ambition in succeeding his mother isn’t so obvious as to become diabolical, but it is somewhat ironic to see Charles calling for modernization within the monarchy when the contemporary version could still be defined as a rather dated institution. Of course, mainstream favor is wrested away from him in the wake of very public scandal, and the tide of positive opinion will likely never turn back in his direction with one season left to go for this series.
Elizabeth herself (Imelda Staunton) is also dealing with the dilemma of whether she maintains any purpose in her current role as monarch or if, like the soon-to-be-decommissioned royal yacht Britannia, she’s merely an old relic that serves as an unwanted reminder of a different age. Old boat metaphors aside — which can be heavy-handed at best — Staunton embodies the quiet level-headedness of the Queen in her later years, and the very fleeting moments of vulnerability that she permits herself to have are as stark as they are sobering. Meanwhile, Jonathan Pryce’s Philip oddly vacillates between being a vocal supporter of his wife and searching for comfort elsewhere, with the resulting emotional affair one that is never directly addressed or resolved before season’s end. Politically, Jonny Lee Miller’s Prime Minister John Major is less of a presence than his predecessor, although it would have been an uphill battle for him and Staunton to match the repartee that Olivia Colman and Gillian Anderson’s Margaret Thatcher so skillfully engaged each other with last season.
The obvious Season 5 standout overall, however, is Elizabeth Debicki’s Diana, and while early footage making the rounds on social media could leave anyone thinking she’s just putting on a good impression of the late Princess of Wales, there’s much more to her performance than mere mimicry. Yes, there’s the chin-tucked, lifted gaze beneath lashes expression that Di is so often associated with giving in front of the cameras, but Debicki seems to possess a clarity of understanding about the difference between the princess’s public persona and who she was in private. There’s depth and care given to the portrayal of a woman who has become so immensely dissatisfied — not just with her marriage, which has existed only in name while Charles reserves his real affections for longtime flame Camilla Parker Bowles (Olivia Williams), but also with the monarchy itself.
Image via Netflix
There are certainly more than a few liberties taken with The Crown’s depiction — chances are there was no post-divorce convo between Charles and Di over scrambled eggs — but there are also the very verifiable events where Diana decides to assert herself in her own words, via Andrew Morton’s biography or the tell-all broadcast conducted by BBC journalist Martin Bashir (Prasanna Puwanarajah) in ’95. One can’t watch the moment when Debicki’s Diana makes reference to her suicidal ideation and her mental health struggles and not be reminded of that bombshell interview Meghan Markle gave to Oprah in 2021, as well as the heartbreaking resemblance between two women who ultimately chose not to be silent about the treatment they’d unfairly received. For all the smiles visible in carefully staged photographs and the family trips purely orchestrated to offer the illusion of happiness, real contentment in the “system” of the monarchy is just a fantasy — especially when marriage is considered a duty or an obligation to perform, not something conducted on the basis of feeling.
Therein lies one of the season’s most weighty throughlines, as each of the Queen’s children finds themselves navigating this primary issue within their respective relationships. While some of them are free to divorce and remarry with a stern talking-to from Mummy, Charles’ situation is much more delicate as the heir to the throne — not to mention the unspoken factor of Diana’s popularity with the public. In a sense, you can’t help thinking that the royal family knows they need Di in order to maintain widespread goodwill, but to an extent, and on the condition that she’s willing to be who they need her to be.
However, there’s only so much that the show itself seems willing to take the monarchy to task for certain behaviors. Morgan’s scripts frequently teeter between calling out the royal family for their out-of-touch behaviors and misguided spending habits, like calling on taxpayers to foot the bill for the Britannia’s refurbishment, and shedding light on their charitable works or being sympathetic to their supposed plights, often within the very same episode. For all the insistence on including some sort of disclaimer, there’s no denying that the series still maintains a pro-monarchist viewpoint, even as the story’s loudest voices of dissent finally go public. At this particular turning point, and especially looking ahead to what the sixth and final season is likely primed to address, it remains to be seen whether The Crown will wrap things up on a high note — or if, like the monarchy itself, it’ll fight to maintain its relevancy right up until the end.
The Crown Season 5 premieres November 9 on Netflix.
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