The Crown Season 4: The Conflict Between Duty and Desire

By Meha Razdan

Since Peter Morgan’s The Crown launched in 2016, with the premise that each season would cover a decade or so of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, the main cast changing every two seasons to keep up with the passage of time, the period of the 80’s seemed in many ways to be the one with the most unspoken anticipation behind it. It’s the period in which much of the modern image and gossip surrounding the British Royal family first exploded to life, and one in which many of the most notable players in the modern mythology of the Royals first came onto the scene. With Season 4, which covers 1977-1990, we finally reach that period and get what creator Peter Morgan calls “the first modern season of The Crown.”

Season 3 was, in all truth, a little dull, dragging at parts, with the loss of Claire Foy in the central role keenly felt throughout. Season 4 all-in-all more than makes up for it by being the most addictive, fun, and one of the best seasons so far. “Let’s go Dutch,” Princess Diana says to Camilla Parker-Bowles in one scene where they attempt to settle the bill for lunch in a restaurant called Menage à Trois. “Good idea,” returns Camilla, “I’m all for sharing.” This is the kind of indulgently gossipy, almost soapy excess that The Crown revels in this season, and it’s endlessly watchable. 

Many of the core cast members from last season return to reprise their roles this year — The Queen, Prince Philip, Princess Margaret, and Prince Charles are still played by Olivia Colman, Tobias Menzies, Helena Bonham Carter, and Josh O’Connor respectively — but the two roles people have really been waiting to see this season are both brought to life by new cast members. Both the then-future Princess of Wales,  Lady Diana Spencer, and Britain’s first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher make their The Crown debuts this season. Thatcher is brought to life by The X-Files and Sex Education star Gillian Anderson — also the real-life partner of Peter Morgan — and the first impression you get of seeing her on screen is a profound sense of awe for the hair & makeup and costume departments for turning Anderson into an uncanny doppelganger of the Iron Lady. Her performance at first seems to trip a little into SNL-style impersonation territory, with Anderson absolutely doing the most to capture Thatcher’s distinctively husky voice and series of head-tilts and face tics. It seems bound to beget comparisons to Meryl Streep’s Oscar-winning turn in the role. But she settles into the performance as the series unfolds, her Thatcher feeling more natural and more human, but still undoubtedly Thatcher-esque. 

Newcomer Emma Corrin had enormous shoes to fill in the role of the so-called “People’s Princess.” I will admit to some trepidation about how the show would approach the role of Diana. She more than perhaps any other member of the Royal Family has attained mythical, martyred status. And with the first few scenes of Diana, the show seemed at risk of pushing her firmly into manic pixie dream girl status — Diana and Charles’ first meeting echoes Romeo and Juliet’s as orchestrated by Baz Luhrmann, as they flirt with each other through a bush, discussing A Midsummer Night’s Dream while Diana is in a wild costume that makes her look like a wood nymph; later on, the audience is shown Diana’s inner turmoil at feeling trapped by the rules and regulations of palace life by watching her do angsty ballet to pop music in the middle of Buckingham Palace. But Corrin soon proves she’s delivering one of the season’s standout performances — fragile, vulnerable, troubled, her Diana is complicated and dynamic.

Moreover, this season, Oscar winner and veritable national treasure Olivia Colman truly makes the role of Queen Elizabeth her own. Elizabeth is less central a figure to this season than in previous ones, taking something of a backseat to Charles and Diana, but Colman shines as the duty-bound matriarch struggling with her role as both mother and “boss” to her children. One of the best episodes of the season, entitled “Favourites” follows her attempts to get to know each of her four children, meeting with each of them one-on-one, and Colman shines. It’s all in the most delicate of touches, slight facial expressions, minor reactions, a delightful back-and-forth with Menzies’ Philip — Menzies and Colman lean into the affectionate domesticity of the Queen and Philip’s dynamic, and although the royal couple’s relationship is far less central to this season than past ones, it’s still a lovely grounding to this season’s high drama — above all, this season of the crown proves the show is at its best when embracing the interpersonal family drama, and Colman is wonderful mining the core of that. 

The same episode, “Favourites” also acts, perhaps inadvertently, as the most resounding indictment of the monarchy, largely by portraying each of the Queen’s four Children as uniquely, well, awful. Edward (Angus Imrie) is a spiteful, entitled, child, Anne (Erin Doherty), whilst the most sympathetic and fun to watch regardless comes off as embittered and catty, Andrew (Tom Byrne), albeit charming, is a character that feels like he’s certainly been written with the mind of foreshadowing the Epstein-entangled philanderer most vivid in Britain’s imagination for his appalling, hysterical, foul interview that quickly made history in all its messiness. And as for Charles (Josh O’Connor), oh Charles. 

If this season has a villain, it’s the heir to the throne. O’Connor continues to be uncanny in his recreation of the Prince of Wales’ mannerisms, and his performance is perhaps all the more believable in how unabashedly awful he makes the Prince seem. Far from leaning into the image of Charles’ affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles (Emerald Fennell) as a tale of star-crossed lovers, Charles is cast as the deluded, self-pitying, self-obsessed and frequently petulant figure whose desire to view himself as the protagonist of life leads him to resent his mother, his family, and, above all, his wife to the point of cruelty. So resoundingly awful is Charles by the end of this season — “impressively cunty,” as Edward quips in one scene, is perhaps the most apt description — that one is unsure whether to feel sorry for the man in real life or demand he be brought out into a pillory and pelted with rotten fruit. Whilst one has to wonder whether Charles, whether anyone, can genuinely be so completely awful in real life, it is a refreshing spin on the monarchy’s most notorious love triangle to see it not as a story of women pitted against each other, but of the destructive impact of both monarchy and of one man’s simultaneous entitlement to rank and position, and to personal desire and fulfillment.

For all that the show shines as a family drama, however, the nature of its subject matter is that it cannot be separated from history and from politics, particularly not with the era of Thatcherism as this season’s focus. There was cause for trepidation that in exploring the notoriously fraught relationship between the Queen and the first female Prime Minister, the show might give itself over to a reductive #Girlboss narrative without acknowledging the genuine effects of Thatcher’s policies on Britain and on ordinary British people. But whilst Thatcher is a central figure to this season and her humanity and motivations are explored, the show doesn’t shy away from showing the effects of her austerity and spending cuts. The episode “Fagan” deals with an infamous incident in which a Londoner named Michael Fagan broke into the Queen’s bedroom and held a conversation with her for ten minutes. The episode follows Michael Fagan (Tom Brooke) as he struggles to cope with the fallout of life for the working class in Thatcher’s England. Unemployment and the dismantling of the welfare state are brought to life in deeply affecting and vivid contrast with the out-of-touch frippery of the rituals of Court in one of the most impactful episodes of the season.

But the show’s wrangling with issues such as racism and of the colonial legacy of the British Empire are decidedly less well-handled. The downside to this show’s strength lying in the portrayal of interpersonal drama is that frequently, certain issues are only dealt with insofar as they relate to the royal family’s interpersonal dynamics. The first episode deals with the death of Lord Mountbatten (Charles Dance) following a terrorist attack by the IRA. The actual conflict between Ireland and Britain however exists only as decoration for the personal tragedy that Mountbatten’s death represents; as an Indian watching the show it was just about baffling to see Mountbatten’s entire arc come and go with little-to-no mention of his role as former Viceroy of India. He exists almost exclusively in his capacity as “Dickie,” beloved uncle and father figure to Princes Philip and Charles, his most prominent political position as an active agent of Britain’s colonisation of India untouched. 

And it’s not as if the show is insensible of the fact that Britain has a colonial legacy. The Commonwealth and some of its members are frequently dealt with this season, but again, more as causes of personal drama for the Royal family than as victims of British colonialism. An episode dealing with Charles and Diana’s 1983 tour of Australia and New Zealand brings up the cause of Australian republicanism. Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s determined case for making Australia a republic, however, is introduced not as a way to genuinely wrangle with the ethics of the Queen remaining installed as Head of State for a country that was made part of the Commonwealth by way of colonisation and genocide, but as a reason that Charles and Diana are under even greater pressure ahead of their tour. If they fail to impress, Australia might persist with its pesky republican agenda! And this strange view of the Commonwealth is even more pointed in the episode 48:1, which follows the conflict between The Queen and Thatcher regarding their opposing views on whether Britain should join the other 48 nations of the Commonwealth in imposing economic sanctions on South Africa as a response to Apartheid. 

Thatcher is against it while the Queen is resoundingly in favour. Yet, bizarrely, Apartheid feels incidental to the central conflict. Even though Elizabeth rails against Thatcher’s lack of compassion, her own primary concern seems not to be the insidious and deadly racism of Apartheid itself, but her duty to the Commonwealth. And beyond Thatcher’s own bigoted opposition to the Commonwealth, The Crown makes no effort to plumb the depths of what the Commonwealth actually means. We are shown the determination with which the Queen wishes to serve and preserve the Commonwealth, the extent to which she values what she calls her second family. But beyond a throwaway line from Thatcher about Britain losing power — spoken as a prelude, I might add, to an assertion that Britain can be great once more — there is no acknowledgement of why the Commonwealth actually exists or what it represents. Far from interrogating Britain’s role as one of history’s most prevalent and violent colonial forces, The Crown barely seems to recall it. It is not an issue that troubles the Queen, her children, and their lovers, after all, so it is not one that troubles the show. 

This season, glamorous and salacious, intimate and affecting, as highly bingeable as the show has ever been, is far from easy on the Royal family. It exposes them as a group of people with a myriad flaws, cruel, calculating, entitled, destructive, all interwoven in a complex web of duty and power. But it’s primary concern is with them as a family, not an institution. If you want to delve into the ups-and-downs, the kindnesses and cruelties of the Royals as people, this season is The Crown at its best. If you want an interrogation of the role and legacy of Britain and its monarchy, and of their impact on the global stage? Well, those are questions The Crown isn’t asking.

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