Even Diana’s Revenge Dress Can’t Save ‘The Crown’ Season 5
If “The Crown” is remembered as a great series, instead of just being beautiful, it will probably owe that reputation to its spectacular fourth season. The first three volumes of the lavishly budgeted Netflix series were often sleepy and uneven, featuring portrayals of Queen Elizabeth II and the rest of the royal family as stark as the institution they served. Season 4 shook up the series, with the introduction of two outsiders, Diana Spencer and Margaret Thatcher, whose perspectives clarified the Windsors’ blind privilege and distorted but undeniable humanity. Finally, “The Crown” became the ambitious but resolutely royalist palace drama that its creator, Peter Morgan, envisioned.
Few TV premieres have been as eagerly awaited as the fifth season of ‘The Crown’, premiering after the Queen died in September at the age of ninety-six. But the ten episodes, released on November 9, are a surprising disappointment. Season 4 kicked off with a literal bang; at the start, a boat with a member of the royal family on board was bombed by the IRA Season 5, set in the 90s, also launches with a ship: the Queen’s royal yacht, Britannia, which a young Elizabeth described as “reliable and steady”. , able to withstand any storm. In 1991, the moldy ship required a multi-million pound refurbishment, ideally at government expense, as the Queen, now in her 60s, told Prime Minister John Major. Such a weighty metaphor for the decline of the monarchy could be forgiven if it were a minor plot. But Morgan clings to it like a worn blanket.
Ahead of the premiere, the firm’s supporters pressured Netflix to explicitly declare the series a dramatization. Presumably, they were concerned about the sequel to the story involving Diana (played this season by Elizabeth Debicki), whose mistreatment and suicidal desperation were recently discussed by Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Another cause for concern was the focus on an aging queen (Imelda Staunton) who is out of step with the modern world. When Elizabeth ascended the throne at the age of twenty-five, she became its unlikely saviour. Four decades later, it is perhaps its greatest handicap. Counselors shield her from bad news; she initially thinks that Charles and Diana are happy. A recurring theme is its inability to find a remote control. Elizabeth, symbol of tradition and constancy, believes that she must continue as she has always done, even if it means repeating mistakes. When her daughter, Anne (Claudia Harrison), wants to marry a divorced man (she too is divorced), the Queen’s instinct is to lock her in face-saving seclusion, as Elizabeth once did with her own sister, Margaret. As the Empire crumbles – Hong Kong returns to Chinese control in 1997 – so does its figurehead, whose position in the polls plummets.
There’s epic sensibility to Morgan’s decision to end “The Crown” with Elizabeth’s complicity in the withering away of the monarchy. But the season lacks narrative skill and historical scale. The show’s strongest episodes have revisited nation-defining events in Britain and beyond, such as the 1966 Aberfan mining disaster, which killed one hundred and forty-four Welsh villagers, and the Apollo 11 moon landing, which inflames Prince Philip’s ambivalence about trading a life of adventure for one of the royal comforts. But season 5 focuses narrowly on the domestic drama inside the palace. The fall of the Soviet Union culminates here in a marital spat between Elizabeth and Philip (Jonathan Pryce). The lingering image in the show’s narrative of Hong Kong’s “transfer” is of Charles (Dominic West) flying in business class. An episode chronicling the transformation of a young Mohamed Al-Fayed (Amir El-Masry) from a street vendor in Egypt to a flashy hotelier buying goods and prestige across Europe, winks demographic changes in the UK following emigration from former British colonies. But Fayed is hardly a representative figure; his presence suggests that Morgan is comfortable addressing the racism of the British imperialist project only indirectly.
The idea that Elizabeth should have abdicated at the time of her annus horribilis – the year three of her four children gave up on their marriage and a fire engulfed Windsor Castle – is not new. This theme is explored in the 2006 film “The Queen”, also written by Morgan, which is set in the months following Diana’s death. It feels like Morgan may have said just about everything he needed to say – and more effectively – in this film. The only major revision concerns the characterization of Prime Minister Tony Blair, who comes across as serious and reasonable in “The Queen” but in “The Crown” is endowed with the soul and style of a used-car salesman.
Charles, meanwhile, only won in Morgan’s esteem. Season 4 humanized the Prince without making him particularly likeable. Season 5 is practically pro-Charles propaganda. His relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles (Olivia Williams) is outrageously healthy. Even the re-enactment of “Tampongate” — a leaked phone call in which Charles expresses a desire to be Camilla’s tampon — is surprisingly tender, restoring the lovers’ cat to its prankish, self-deprecating devotion. Charles is an intellectually engaged, philanthropic and forward-looking leader. This scene, which relies on West’s physical grace and charm, is an affront to common sense; he asks us to forget the Charles who rebelled against population growth in the countries of the South and who irons his shoelaces every morning. Morgan fails to reconcile the prince’s apparent fitness for the throne with his deep unpopularity with the public.
Unsurprisingly, the main villain of the season is the media. If the episodes offer any indication of how the UK has transformed over this period, it lies in the growing nastiness of the press as the explosion of commercial television tests even the BBC’s commitment towards virtuous programming. Diana is easy prey for unsavory journalists, who plot to take advantage of her loneliness. Like so many other women of tabloid interest in the 90s, Diana benefited from feminist revisionism. Season 4 painted her as a virgin sacrificed on the altar of good press. Season 5 takes a more, she says, approach to her marriage. The depiction rings true, even if it lacks the camp and mayhem that drove the previous version. Sporting the harsh black eyeliner of the era, a muted Debicki is only allowed to unleash the full star power of Diana twice: when she woos lowly surgeon Hasnat Khan (Humayun Saeed), and when she meets a now grizzled Fayed (Salim Daw), who remains determined to join the English elite, taking with him his film producer son Dodi (Khalid Abdalla).
Season 5 avoids the inevitable; Dodi is smitten with another spotlight-seeking blonde at the end. Because of this shyness (and compressed time frame), the larger arc looks incomplete, structurally unstable. (“The Crown” would span six seasons, with the action concluding in 2005.) Yet there is a satisfaction in watching young and helpless Diana transform into a short-sighted, friendless anti-heroine whose efforts to making themselves understood can only take the form of revenge. . Again and again, his confessions become the humiliations of his family. “There were three of us in this wedding, so it was a bit crowded,” she tells reporter Martin Bashir (Prasanna Puwanarajah), the hurt softness of her voice belying the violence she unleashes on a Charles and Camilla grimacing.
It’s not just her husband who crumbles every time Diana opens her mouth. The groaning heart of the season is her teenage son, William (Senan West). Diana, paranoid that her phone calls are being tapped, turns to him as a confidant, even when it comes to gushing about her latest boyfriend. William’s pity for his mother is soon overshadowed by embarrassment. “Do you have to tell me these things?” he begs at one point. Given the constant focus on the small and the particular this season, viewers might ask Morgan the same question. ♦