After months of tumultuous electoral politics, you may be longing for the comfort and stability of a constructional monarch like the one depicted in Netflix’s The Crown. Yet, if you’ve seen The Crown, you know that beyond the palatial settings, polite protocols, and immense privilege is a story about family resentments, repressed passions, and existential changes. The latest ten-episode installment brings the show to new heights and delivers its best season yet.
Luckily for fans, season four completed filming in early February, just before the coronavirus halted normal life in the UK and abroad. This is one of the last television productions able to avoid the shutdowns. Ironically, you can imagine the events in a future episode of The Crown as royal family members came down with the virus and the government continues to struggle with its containment.
There are other historical events for The Crown to explore in its latest season spanning from the late 1970s to the early '90s. Juxtaposed against familial drama there are clashes with the IRA, two international wars, an economic crisis between continental Europe and Britain, record unemployment, racial injustice in the form of apartheid in South Africa, and a public health crisis in the form of the AIDS epidemic. (Some of this may have a ring of familiarity when you scroll through your phone’s newsfeed.)
The Crown remains the epitome of prestige television, even as that term is undermined by an onslaught of glossy, high-concept programming that lacks substance. From the costuming to the sets to the cinematography, the production values illustrate why The Crown is the most expensive television program in history. It may even be the cause of the recent price hike in your monthly Netflix subscription. Unlike much of the streaming behemoth’s recent programming, The Crown really shows you where the money is going and proves to be worth the investment.
But what really breathes life into this technically exquisite show is its writing and wonderful performances. The concept of The Crown in telling the 50-plus-year reign of Queen Elizabeth is that every two seasons the show is completely recast, which makes this the final bow for the current cast. Returning from the third season are standouts Helena Bonham Carter as Princess Margaret, Josh O’Connor as Prince Charles, and, a personal favorite, Erin Doherty as Princess Anne. Each is tremendous in their own way. Carter is pitch-perfect portraying a woman well past the verge of a nervous breakdown and relishes eviscerating anyone in her eye line with caustic wit and disdain. O’Connor is walking a tightrope portraying a future monarch whose insecurities make you pity and loathe him in alternating equal measure. Doherty continues to disarm every scene she is in with deadpan delivery from a hilariously blunt and pragmatic princess.
But Olivia Colman is the jewel of The Crown. She has proven a perfect heir to Claire Foy, who originated the part in the first two seasons. While season three struck a very somber tone as Queen Elizabeth found herself settled into her role and middle age, this new season offers more space for Colman to showcase her comedic talents. The result is a much more endearing and entertaining vision of Queen Elizabeth. Colman still expertly captures the tension and restraint of the woman who must live two lives, one as a woman and one as a queen. Season four ratchets up the drama as we see Queen Elizabeth begin to assert herself — and with fascinating results. In fact, you can see the previous 19 episodes as holding back for a wonderful explosive monologue in the final episode that will probably run repeatedly for the multiple award nominations Colman will surely secure. The Crown shakes up the Queen’s world with the introduction of two new women: Margaret Thatcher and Princess Diana.
Much of the narrative and marketing of season four of The Crown revolves around the introduction of Thatcher and Diana and the way they upset the orbit of the Queen. Season three foreshadows Thatcher's arrival when the Queen jokes about the large number of prime ministers who have come and gone during her reign. Thatcher remains the longest-serving prime minister, and her 11-year tenure runs the entirety of season four. An extremely polarizing figure already portrayed in an Academy Award-winning performance by none other than Meryl Streep, Thatcher is deftly played by Gillian Anderson. What could have easily become a caricature is fully fleshed out, if not humanized by, Anderson’s performance. It is a fascinating addition to the show. Their contentious relationship fuels the show and offers a fascinating contrast between two women in power and how they both chose to utilize that power.
The other foil to the Queen comes in the form of Princess Diana, who exudes a maternal warmth lacking in her mother-in-law. Diana becomes a destabilizing force within the royal family that contributes to a majority of the fireworks in season four. A relative newcomer, Emma Corrin is a revelation as the People’s Princess. Like Thatcher, Diana is a larger-than-life figure that has the potential to overwhelm the world of The Crown. However, Corrin’s nuanced performance and the careful scripting creates an intimate portrait of a radiant, yet deeply troubled young woman that is riveting to watch. The show deserves particular praise for Diana’s introductory scene that manages to diffuse the heavy expectations given to such a beloved personality while also perfectly mythologizing her iconic status. From her very first scene, it becomes a shame that Corrin will only have one season in the role.
Despite changing casts, the greatest constant of The Crown is the collision between tradition and changing times. This is best encapsulated in the intrusion of pop music into the stately world of Buckingham Palace or the literal intrusion at the center of “Fagan,” a stand-out episode. The Crown continues to expertly weave the personal and the political in a way reminiscent of shows like Mad Men and The Americans, cornerstones of the golden age of television. As its second act comes to an end this Sunday, The Crown is poised to become a classic among a sea of disposable and binge-able content. The final haunting image of season four ends its best season on record but also holds out promise that the show may have the same legacy and longevity of Queen Elizabeth herself.
The Crown. Season four premieres Sunday, November 15, on Netflix.