Now in its fourth year, Netflix’s The Crown is pleasing to a very specific sensibility: mine. The way I imagine an eighth grader gets excited by, say, Star-Lord zapping an alien was my reaction at the end of season four, episode two (“The Balmoral Test”). “What an unspeakable cabal of wets,” I shouted at the TV, fairly bouncing on my sofa. “That’s right, Mrs. Thatcher, sack them. Sack the lot of them!” This would be the episode whose climactic scene is . . . a Margaret Thatcher cabinet reshuffle in 1981.
Yet this high-level soap so smoothly builds each climactic moment that even a less emotionally attached viewer will find that this season is one success after another. We have arrived in the Eighties, when Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor) goes to pick up his date Sarah Spencer for dinner and is instead enchanted by her little sister, a teenaged woodland elf. Such is the costume worn by Lady Diana Spencer (Emma Corrin) as she rehearses for a school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson) overrides the advice of her gelatinous crew of poncy ministers so as to rescue her fellow Britons from a dictator, restore the honor of Great Britain, and give the invaders of the Falkland Islands a proper seeing-to; a relative of the Queen, Lord Mountbatten (Charles Dance), goes on a fateful fishing trip; and Her Majesty (Olivia Colman) is revealed to be a closet liberal.
That last detail is the price you pay for enjoying this beautifully wrought and drama-drenched series; the show’s creator, Peter Morgan, is a liberal who adores the Queen and he squares that circle by pretending Elizabeth Regina has been pushing Peter Morgan’s favored agenda behind the scenes. Morgan is aware (sort of) that it would be highly improper, not to mention uncharacteristic, of the sovereign to wade in up to her tiara on South Africa policy. But there was once a (questionable) newspaper leak to the effect that Elizabeth was at odds with Mrs. Thatcher over the latter’s reluctance to sanction the apartheid regime, and so Morgan builds an entire episode (“48:1,” the eighth of this season) around the notion that the Queen incessantly browbeat Thatcher until she adjusted British policy to the monarch’s liking. You may want to skip this episode; I wish I had.
Another source of minor irritation is the performances. As has been the case throughout the show, the actresses playing the monarch (before the able Colman took over, the excellent Claire Foy played her in the early years of her reign) comport themselves with appropriate dignity but supporting players tend to ingest scenery as if it were steak and kidney pie. John Lithgow should have been sent to the Tower for his portrayal of Winston Churchill in the first three seasons; this year, it’s Anderson who behaves as if she’s doing a sketch-comedy impression on a second-rate variety hour. Did Mrs. Thatcher sometimes tilt her head to one side while making a point? Well then, Anderson spends the entire season listing so far to port that it’s a wonder she doesn’t topple over. Did Thatcher have a distinctive voice? Yes, but it wasn’t nearly as varnish-scrapingly abrasive as the one Anderson affects. O’Connor also overdoes things to an irritating degree; Prince Charles is in real life immensely slappable but not quite the human oil stain that he is here.
Though allowing Thatcher a few splendid moments, Morgan can’t bring himself to show too much respect for her triumphs (though he revels in her 1990 fall) and so he largely skips over them to portray her as something of an embarrassing harridan and has himself a chuckle imagining Thatcher doing her own cooking and ironing. (These are supposed to be insulting, the kinds of scenes that make pretentious BBC twits think, “So middle-class.”) It is, however, the Charles–Diana dynamic that steers and defines the show. It remains a genuinely heartbreaking tale; Charles, forced to marry someone other than his true love, the married commoner Camilla Parker Bowles (played amusingly under a giant Farrah Fawcett fluff of blond hair by Emerald Fennell), is disarmed by the girlish lack of pretense displayed by Diana (who at the time was living with two flatmates in Earl’s Court, notable for being populated by Australians and other disreputables). He talks himself into marrying her after she seems to slip naturally into the royal family in a weekend visit to Balmoral, but then immediately regrets it. During their engagement interview, a journalist noted that the pair seemed “very much in love” and Charles replied, “Whatever ‘in love’ means.” Ouch. Morgan does not fail to make a smashing, grueling, devastating scene out of this.
The scenes of Diana shut in to her own quarters in the palace as she learns her trade as the world’s designated Fairy-Tale Princess™ touchingly capture how lonely and awkward and, soon, bulimic she became. And the ones in which she takes to her role and becomes a globally beloved figure are endearing. We’re rooting for her, and yet we know she has no chance. When she and Charles go on an Australian tour together (episode six, “Terra Nullius”), he is frosty and she is sick about being parted from her baby son William, but they manage to reconcile, a bit. It’s adorable. The gap between the two can never be closed, though, and Morgan finds a terrific way to dramatize this in a delightfully unexpected way: At the Royal Opera House, Diana surprises her husband (episode nine, “Avalanche”) by sneaking out of their box and turning up on the stage to dance to Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl.” The audience is enchanted; but Charles, being Charles, is appalled.
What goes wrong between them isn’t really anyone’s fault (okay, it’s Charles’s fault, at least according to the series). It’s all wrapped up in questions of duty and tradition and protocol — the iron bars of the gilded cage. We’re watching some of the most privileged people who have ever lived on this planet, and most of them are miserable. The Crown is lovely to look at because of that gilding, but what makes it work impeccably is how ruefully and well it comprehends the iron.