The Netflix period drama returns for a fourth season full of typically stellar performances and unflinching storytelling.
Netflix’s prestige drama The Crown returns this week for its fourth season, and in a way, it feels like stepping into a strange mirror universe of 2020. This season, creator Peter Morgan gives viewers political unrest, skyrocketing unemployment, a rabid conservative ensconced at Downing Street, a global pandemic… and yes, even a celebrity princess. Just stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
For those who can stomach the similarities to 2020, season four brings more scandal, tension, and moments of unexpected humor in between the unbearable grind of Modernity and Tradition. The glamour of the early seasons is now tarnished with age, a little out of date, replaced with an overall drab palette. It’s hard to get invested in the problems of such privileged people, but in hearing the inventory of bullying pranks Prince Edward endured at boarding school—and the causal, almost unaffected way he rattles them off to his mother—it’s obvious that sometimes the silver spoon just about chokes them to death.
As The Crown enters the ‘80s, it feels like a more familiar story, maybe because for many of us, we remember seeing many of these events unfold. This season gives us plenty to talk about with Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson) making her first and last bows as prime minister. All the while, young Lady Diana Spencer (Emma Corrin) goes from wily teen to tabloid sensation as the bride of a reluctant Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor), and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) firmly enters middle age and tries to keep her flock in line.
You may be surprised to hear that the true delight of this season is not the much-anticipated portrayal of Princess Di, but watching Anderson and Colman act circles around one another. Their first meetings have more than a little cringe, with Anderson’s Thatcher bowing low enough to scrape the floor. Elizabeth, intrigued at the prospect of a female PM, is almost immediately put off by Thatcher’s frank and barefaced coldness towards members of her own sex.
“I have found women in general not to be suited to high office,” she tells the woman who holds the highest office in the country. “They become too emotional.” Colman, not missing a beat, parries, “I doubt you’ll have that trouble with me.” While Anderson recreates everything from Thatcher’s bright turns of phrase to her sizable helmet of hair, she also brings some of the most unexpected laughs, particularly in the second episode, “The Balmoral Test,” in which she’s invited to the royal retreat and put through a series of tests so arcane only the aristocracy could come up with them. Watch her show up to go deer stalking with the royal family, dressed in a bright blue overcoat and sensible pumps, and try not to howl with laughter.
But don’t worry about Netflix or The Crown turning the Iron Lady into a fun-loving goof—Anderson’s brilliant portrayal shows the prime minister at her most human and her most inhumane. In the episode “48:1” (which will surely turn up on both Colman and Anderson’s Emmy reel), she’s called to task by the Queen for her refusal to impose sanctions against South Africa over Apartheid. Just when you thought no one could be as removed from humanity as the Queen of England, in walks Anderson as Thatcher.
And much of this season is about the Queen and her connection with humanity. The chaos of Diana’s presence in their lives to the general unrest within the royal family is there. The rolling consequences of Thatcherism are too. In what might be the best episode in an already outstanding season, we follow the day-to-day life of Michael Fagan (Tom Brooke), the man who infamously broke into the Queen’s bedroom.
In following Fagan’s life in the days before his notorious stunt, we see how dire life has gotten for the subjects of the realm. Long unemployment lines and the bootstrap rhetoric of indifferent officials lend a grim, almost dystopian feel to Fagan’s life. It’s only through Fagan’s eyes that we see what Buckingham looks like in the modern world: ostentatious, gaudy, and a bit run down, with cracked plaster and peeling paint.
Anderson’s brilliant portrayal shows the prime minister at her most human and her most inhumane.
And the cracks aren’t just showing on the palace walls, but also in the palace occupants. And while the Queen’s children may have moved into Margaret’s (Helena Bonham Carter) place as the Royal Black Sheep and Troublemakers of the Realm, no one stirs up more drama than Charles. O’Connor turns in a terrific performance of the Prince of Wales, who just wants to sit in his estate and read books, look at his garden, and simp for his married girlfriend, Camilla Parker-Bowles (Emerald Fennell). The family fairly shoves Diana Spencer at him after she manages to sail through her own Balmoral Tests with flying colors. At times Charles is sympathetic. At other times he’s just pathetic, jealous of his glamorous wife’s attention, whom he didn’t even want to marry.
Corrin’s Diana, on the other hand, is much harder to quantify. She seems to genuinely love Charles (at least at first) and craves not just approval but affection from her new family so much it’s genuinely hard to watch. At times the writers seem to want to paint Diana as a manipulative dolt, other times as a harried victim of her husband’s indifference. And while Corrin has Di’s wily innocence and peeking-up-through-the-bangs expressions down to a science, she also brings a lot of pathos and vulnerability.
Even while both the prince and princess of Wales carry on with their respective lovers, it’s hard to not feel sorry for Diana, who was partly led and partly jumped at this rigorously lonely life. Viewers with sensitivities should be warned that Diana’s bulimia is shown not once or twice, but frequently throughout the season, and it’s upsetting to watch.
There’s a lot more than just these three women at the center of The Crown’s fourth season, like Lord Mountbatten’s (Charles Dance) death at the hands of the IRA, or the Queen trying to figure out if she has a favorite among her children, or Tobias Menzies bringing a surprising warmth and chastened regret to his tenure as Prince Phillip, who has always seemed a bit ghoulish in real life. But it’s the lines of tension between these three women—the Queen, Thatcher, and Diana—that make season four of The Crown the best yet.
Season four of The Crown premieres on Netflix this Sunday, November 15.