The Crown: Season 4 review
Our take on season four of The Crown, which arrived on Netflix on the 15th November. Beware of potential minor spoilers within...
If there is an inherent flaw with The Crown, it’s one that didn’t make itself apparent until the third season, as Olivia Colman succeeded Claire Foy in the midst of Queen Elizabeth’s reign. The first couple of seasons covered little over a decade, from when the monarch was first appointed to the throne, taking its time to offer a more nuanced dramatisation of history than the royalist, Tory propaganda the most cynical viewers (myself included) may have expected. Season three kicked off in the mid 1960’s - and by the end of season four, we’ve entered the 1990’s kicking and screaming.
In short, the attributes of the show’s early seasons are now working to its detriment, as the royal family have expanded and major political figures have arisen in the drama just as it needs to hurtle through entire decades, ready for its final two seasons to bring us up to the present day. It’s not that The Crown has suddenly become a bad show in any sense, so much as it’s now very much constrained by the ticking clock, unable to develop its newly introduced characters as anything more than broad caricatures of the public figures we’re familiar with.
Which is a particular shame considering that this is the juiciest season yet, not to mention the one that is most liable to cause controversy. The season sidesteps any rose tinted view of the 1980’s to depict a class divide deepened by Thatcherism, with the depiction of the country’s first female premier (portrayed by Gillian Anderson) likely to flare up anger in any right of centre viewers, not least because the show avoids her bigger controversies to fixate on largely forgotten details, with one of the season’s best episodes built around her dismissal of a South African trade embargo during Apartheid.
And as for the monarchy, one of the most interesting tensions in the series to date has been the royal family’s awareness that the country is never too far from the revelation that the institution is outdated and irrelevant to society - in one jaw dropping episode this time around, a character all but links the public need for a powerful royal family to eugenics. The Queen and Prince Philip emerge from the season unscathed, but there are plenty of reasons why this new season could anger Buckingham Palace more than any previous outing.
The Crown has always been in its best where it analyses major news stories that have largely been forgotten in the cultural consciousness, contrasting the differing approaches taken by monarch and Prime Minister to handle these situations and complicating legacies largely overshadowed by patriotism (season three standout Aberfan remains the show’s towering achievement). Season four, however, works best when it cuts out its divisive Prime Minister to survey the wreckage she caused to the country; episode five, Fagan, is a retelling of the time Buckingham Palace was broken into by a man who had been the victim of various Conservative policies, and succeeds entirely because it fully side-lines Anderson’s Thatcher, and her simplified characterisation.
Much like Meryl Streep’s inexplicably Oscar winning turn as the former PM, Anderson’s performance is one without nuance, where even her private moments are delivered in a breathy rasp that sounds like a Drag Race contestant impersonating Thatcher in a round of Snatch Game. Of course, a show whose opening season featured John Lithgow playing to the cheap seats as Winston Churchill, shouldn’t be criticised for lacking nuance, but this iteration of the iron lady doesn’t feel grounded in the same way that season managed to ground its egomaniacal political personality. And as much as I’m in favour of the anti-Thatcher sentiment, I feel like the writers frequently lean on their laziest instincts by making her spout dialogue about making Britain “great again”. Of course, that’s not the only area where the writers have thrown caution to the wind in how they characterise the most controversial figures - expect Buckingham Palace lawyers on the phone to Netflix for the manner in which they introduce a young Prince Andrew here.
The season’s other big character introduction is that of Diana Spencer, played by Emma Corrin. The show isn’t as successful in its soapier domestic drama than its depiction of major societal changes, rushing through the pair’s initial courtship to get to their marriage falling apart, meaning that several significant factors (Diana’s eating disorder namely) get acknowledged without being explored in the depth they deserve to be afforded.
There are plaudits to this narrative arc though, not least the fact its the rare show to weaponise the lack of chemistry between two central actors (Corrin is opposite Josh O’Connor resuming his role as Charles) in a way that makes it complimentary to the ongoing arc of Helena Bonham Carter’s Princess Margaret - two people realising that the public spotlight, and pressure to conform to the norms of the monarchy, will wind up with them being miserable and emotionally unfulfilled. One of The Crown’s strongest achievements across its four seasons might be in how it manages to make tragic figures out of people born into hereditary power and wealth.