No More Scandals, Princess Di Throwing Shade – Rolling Stone
Late in the fifth season of netflix The crown, Queen Elizabeth (Imelda Staunton) asks her grandson William (Senan West) to help her with the complicated remote control for the palace’s new satellite dish. As William scours the many new channels for the BBC, Her Royal Majesty finds himself briefly watching Beavis and Butthead. Just like one of her predecessors, she is not having fun.
It’s the 90’s and Elizabeth has agreed to have the satellite dish because her old television and antenna are no longer up to snuff. She spends much of this season wondering about obsolescence, from the state of her aging royal yacht, the Britannia, to her own role as Britain’s monarch. The times have changed. Elizabeth begins this new season at the age of 65 – and as happened when Olivia Colman took over the role in season three, Staunton is immediately contrasted with images of Claire Foy as young and fresh. Elizabeth – and finds the state of her royal family more precarious than ever. The cold war between Charles (now played by Dominic West) and Diana (Elizabeth Debicki) is about to explode where all can see. Prince Philip (Jonathan Pryce) seems increasingly estranged from her, and while Margaret (Lesley Manville) has mostly made peace with her corseted role within the clan, old wounds between the sisters still have a way to heal. reopen.
The crown himself came under fire following the death of the real Queen Elizabeth in September. Lady Judi Dench wrote a letter at The Times of London accusing the show of being “willing to blur the lines between historical accuracy and crude sensationalism”, and asked Netflix to add a disclaimer on the balance between fact and fiction. Each docudrama blends fact and fiction in exactly this way – Dench herself has starred in many such projects over the years, including one about another British leader, when she played Queen Victoria in Mrs Brown – but there was nevertheless a fear that the series would play as callous so soon after the death of its main subject. (Netflix added a disclaimer to the season five trailer.)
These new episodes largely match what creator Peter Morgan has done in chronicling earlier eras of Elizabeth’s reign. The show has always mixed in recreations of extremely public moments with Morgan presenting what he imagines – or perhaps wishes, in some cases – was going on behind the scenes. The difference here is that the royal family’s private affairs have been played out far more publicly than ever before, especially when it comes to the prince and princess’s crumbling wedding. Diana secretly collaborated with writer Andrew Morton on a book revealing everything she had been through since becoming Charles’ second choice for marriage, and later sat down to a divisive television interview with journalist Martin Bashir. Between the book, the TV special, and the media as a whole becoming more willing to look behind the curtain behind which the Royal Family had hidden for so long, far less of this season feels as revealing as previous episodes.
Everything is always executed to a very high standard, mind you. The new cast members are all wonderful, though Charles de West (like Josh O’Connor before him) seems a lot more dashing than the genuine article. (One episode ends with Charles breakdancing at a celebration for his Prince’s Trust charity; West seems much more comfortable doing it that the real Charles did in 1985.) Morgan continues to choose events wisely around which to build episodes. And while he sometimes lays down too much of a metaphor – say Diana was taping Bashir’s explosive interview on Guy Fawkes Night – his take on each of his fictional subjects remains as strong as ever.
Still, the show must find new ways to cover familiar ground, both inside and outside of the stories it’s already told. Sometimes it works wonders, like the return of Margaret’s former lover, Peter Townsend (played with great charm and vulnerability by Timothy Dalton), and the way it rekindles Margaret’s resentment at having been forced to breaking up with him in the ’50s. Manville, like Helena Bonham Carter before her, isn’t in for much of the season. But Morgan derives great value from her in this storyline, particularly a sibling argument where Elizabeth unsurprisingly fails to win any sympathy by insisting, “I turned you down as a queen, not as a sister. .”
The Charles and Diana part is trickier. We know so much about the circumstances surrounding their divorce, including the release of a recording of Charles talking dirty on the phone with former and future love Camilla Parker Bowles (Olivia Williams), that it’s hard to find new angles on all of that, even with West and Debicki killing him in those impossible roles. Morgan explains how Morton’s book and Bashir’s interviews came together – including the many lies Bashir told to secure Diana’s trust and turn her even further against the Royal Family – but even these made the subject of much discussion over the decades.
There’s also the matter of the series’ ever-widening focus. Margaret and Winston Churchill were featured here and there at the start of the seasons, but Elizabeth and Philip were by and large the main subjects of those years. The mid-seasons with Colman and Tobias Menzies incorporated Charles and Diana a bit more. This new incarnation must now juggle stories about Elizabeth, Philip, Charles, Diana, Margaret, new Prime Minister John Major (Johnny Lee Miller) and even wealthy businessman Mohamed Fayed (Salim Daw) in his attempts to become a friend of the royal family. (His son Dodi, played by Khalid Abdalla, also appears and will of course become more prominent in the sixth – and, as currently planned, the final – season.) Charles and Diana’s divorce sometimes seems to be the main driving force behind the season, but they will completely disappear for a while as we catch up with Peter Townsend, or see Elizabeth traveling to Russia to take care of a very old family case regarding the Romanov massacre.
No, this episode was not written by
Matthew Weiner. Regarding Judi Dench’s complaint, the best moment of the season takes place entirely behind closed doors, an apparent invention of Morgan. On the verge of finalizing their divorce, Charles goes to Diana’s house for an informal farewell to their union. In a surprisingly relaxed manner, the two exes begin to discuss the many flaws in their marriage, but soon the friendly tone is replaced by the usual anger and resentment they’ve faced in their years together. It’s basically a one-act play, with dynamite performances by West and Debicki, and bringing together various things reported or outright said by one or the other. Did this exact conversation actually take place? Probably not, but that doesn’t matter, because that’s the very nature of a show like this, as fiction is used to emphasize the fact, rather than negate it. The scene folds what we know into an effective and emotional whole that cuts through important conflicts and themes without contradicting the larger truths of things. Morgan insisted he had no interest in carrying the series through to the end of Elizabeth’s life and reign. It would miss some juicy material regarding Harry and Meghan Markle’s ugly split from the Royal Family, but it was of course even more open than Charles and Diana’s mess. Judging by how carefully Morgan has to dance around a smaller scale release this season – and how it’s not always effective when it does – it’s almost certainly the right choice. Season five continues the ongoing discussion of the struggle between royal traditions and the demands of modernity. But it almost feels meta now that the new episodes are set in a time that’s much more like our own than the Foy and Colman seasons. The queen accidentally watches
Beavis and Butthead is one thing; Do we want to talk to someone trying to teach him about memes and TikTok? Season 5 of
The Crown premieres November 9 on Netflix. I have seen all 10 episodes.