It feels pointed, if not inordinately so, that the focus on 'The Crown' in its fourth season is less on the Queen, Princess Margaret, Princess Anne, or even Prince Phillip, but rather zeroes in entirely on Prince Charles and Princess Diana.
It's not even that the glossy, exquisitely produced Netflix series ha spent three seasons hence mining these relationships and dynamics, but more that they've become so stabilised. Much of the previous season was made up of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip entering middle-age, struggling to come to grips with their latter years, how their lives were beginning to solidify as is common - even for queens and princes.
Yet, despite this, the theme of Season 4 appears to be chaos. The opening episode, 'Gold Stick', focuses on the assassination of Lord Mountbatten, played ably by Charles Dance, at Mullaghmore. Throughout the episode, scenes of royal grandeur and pomposity are intercut with the violence of Troubles-era Northern Ireland in archive footage, all while a declaration by the Provisional IRA is read out. It's bold stuff, but you get the sense that the writers are trying to thread the needle of keeping the show - and the royals themselves - firmly apolitical while acknowledging the very real political realities of the UK's involvement and occupation of Northern Ireland.
It's telling that the episode also introduces Margaret Thatcher, played by Gillian Anderson. There's a key scene in the episode that tells you all you need to know about Margaret Thatcher, even at the opening salvo of her performance. It sees Queen Elizabeth calling Thatcher following the aftermath of Mountbatten's death, with Thatcher offering a stump speech instead of any kind of comfort.
'The Balmoral Test' sees the two newcomers - the future Princess Diana, and Margaret Thatcher - going to Balmoral to try and win over the RRoyals, but really serves as a reminder of just how weird and cut off from reality they truly are. Thatcher rolls her eyes and scoffs at their ways, while they seem either unwilling or unconvinced of her entirely - the result of it being both of them maintaining indifference to one another. By comparison, Diana goes out of her way to try and win them all over - except Charles, who has no more interest in her, and can't bring himself to go against his duty. The compare and contrast - one eager to please, the other without any interest - makes for some comedic moments, to be sure, but it's eventually revealed to be nothing more than layers in an onion.
'Fairytale' makes this clear, and gives Emma Corrin space and breadth to really perform as Diana. Much of the episode is devoted to her training for the wedding, but also reveals her eating disorder, and the crushing loneliness of her life and the emotional draught that is her relationship with Prince Charles. While it does infantilise Diana - she literally skates around Buckingham Palace while listening to Duran Duran - Charles doesn't exactly come out of it easily either. Josh O'Connor really has managed to both balance the tragedy of Charles' love life that he is entering into a doomed marriage, and also the impetuousness and the sulkiness that he can't have what he wants.
One of the standout episodes of the season is 'Fagan', which diverts the action out of Buckingham Palace entirely and instead examines the realities of '80s England, the utter degradation of Thatcherism, the dehumanising nature of poverty, and how far removed it is from the lives of royals. The episode examines the events that led up to an intrusion into Buckingham Palace by Michael Fagan, an out-of-work painter / decorator who snuck into Queen Elizabeth's room in 1982. Although it may feel like a wheel-spinning exercise to some extent, it's a way to highlight the very realities of everday life that 'The Crown' has so often avoided.
Indeed, when you boil it down to the base elements, 'The Crown' is a family drama and soap opera. While in the past, it's maintained a certain loftiness by solely focusing on the Queen, it delves into the tabloid antics of Charles, Diana, and Camilla in this season. Cameras follow Diana everywhere, and the telephone calls between Charles and Camilla - which famously leaked in the early '90s - betray the civility of their outward appearances.
As mentioned, Josh O'Connor plays Charles brilliantly, really getting at what a sulky brat he could, but also how awful it must be to forced - truly, forced - to marry someone they don't love. Emma Corrin portrays the vulnerability of Diana's early years with ease, desperate for some kind of affection from anyone in the royal family, then seeks in the arms of others and the attention and adoration of people. It's ballsy stuff, playing Diana not as the beloved "people's princess" but as a real person trapped in that situation.
By contrast, the weak link of Season 4 is undoubtedly Gillian Anderson's performance as Margaret Thatcher. While the hair, the dresses, the mannerisms, and the overall air of vile superiority is all there, it never seems to gel together to make something cohesive. It's not that we so closely associate Anderson with other characters, or that she doesn't fully commit to the role. If anything, there's a sense that she is straining with the weight of it, never allowing for a relaxed moment or a natural performance. Maybe that's the point of it, that Thatcher - or her understanding of the character - was so caught up in appearances, so helplessly trapped in never showing weakness, that she looked frail and veined with tension.
Olivia Colman and Tobias Menzies, even with one season under their belt, float through some of the episodes, but never quite seem to get the focus and attention that the previous season gave to them. Admittedly, it's for the best as the one episode voted to Princess Margaret, 'The Hereditary Principle', is something of a dud. Likewise, 'Favourites', which sees Queen Elizabeth meeting her children one by one to examine her relationship, falls flat - even when it tries to nudge at 'Randy Prince Andy' in one scene.
'The Crown' Season 4 finds itself caught between trying to maintain its gilded scenery and elegant trappings, and the lurid tabloid appeal of indiscretions, martial chaos, and familial infighting. The results make for some sharply-realised drama.
'The Crown' Season 4 is on Netflix from November 15th.