A recurring theme over the first three seasons of Netflix’s Emmy-winning program, “The Crown,” is the familiar old adage that history repeats itself. And, despite the knowledge of their past misfortunes, Britain’s Royal Family continues to fail spectacularly at avoiding embarrassment in the public eye. If you’re looking for a recent example, you only need to see how they handled the racist treatment of Meghan Markle. In fact, even before she became sovereign at the age of 25, Queen Elizabeth II (portrayed currently by Olivia Colman) and her husband, Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies), had witnessed these cycles repeat themselves again and again. The fourth season of the Peter Morgan shepherded series begins to chronicle perhaps the family’s greatest tragedy of all, the relationship between Lady Diana Spencer (Emma Corrin) and Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor). The surprise this season, however, isn’t Corrin’s at times heartbreaking performance, but that Gillian Anderson’s portrayal of another prominent figure of the era, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, somehow overcomes the supernova of Diana’s still-cherished moment in history.
For those whose British history is limited, Thatcher was a woman who was detested as much as she was revered and was driven by an unempathetic resolve that might make even Dick Cheney shudder. After being selected to the U.K.’s highest public office, she takes her first weekly meeting with the sovereign, who is almost giddy that Thatcher’s rise as the first female PM finds two women leading the nation. Elizabeth soon learns that they don’t see eye to eye on how to serve a public that is knee-deep in economic hardship. Thatcher’s indifference to their suffering seems to shock Elizabeth (well, as shocked as she will allow herself to appear), and it sets the stage for a relationship that was more strained than the general public was led to believe at the time. A relationship that, in Morgan’s telling, frustrated the Queen.
At first, you might think Anderson is leaning in a bit too much into a caricature of Thatcher’s steely resolve. Still, the more she pops into the narrative, the more obvious she’s crafted this role into the finest of an already lauded career. One reason why is that performance doesn’t include the trademark bug-eyed reactions and funny quips that peppered Meryl Streep’s award-winning turn in 2011’s “The Iron Lady.” Many who knew Thatcher would say that she played up the caricature of herself when it was advantageous, but she was not as emotional or over-the-top as Streep played her. On the flip side, Anderson uses that iron lady mystique as Thatcher’s wall against, in her eyes, disloyal cabinet ministers and a continual public criticism over a laundry list of issues. But as the season unfolds, Anderson’s creative choices depict a much more grounded Thatcher than you thought you initially thought you were watching. Yes, Morgan has peppered the sit-downs between Anderson’s Thatcher and Colman’s Queen with more condescension and sly digs than any of Elizabeth’s previous elected cohorts (and it’s absolutely glorious to watch), but its a creative liberty that works in the context of their unique places in history.
For much of the world, the other woman at the center of this season, Diana, was their entryway into the Royal Family. The fairy tale story of a just 20-year-old girl who helped clean her sister’s home only to marry a handsome older prince and become a princess sold newspapers worldwide. The story’s tragic ending, something we assume will be chronicled in the next season of the series, is only foreshadowed here (although perhaps a bit too much).
Stressing her importance to the Queen’s legacy, the season begins with Charles arriving at the Spencers’ home for a date with Diana’s older sister, Sarah (Isobel Eadie). Still a teenager, Diana ignores her sister’s wishes and finds a way to meet Charles anyway. It’s a tease of a not always flattering depiction of the princess that might rankle some viewers.
When she first entered their confines, how the Royal Family abandoned Diana is the subject of what is a marvelous, almost stand-alone episode, “Fairytale,” directed by the now underrated Benjamin Caron. The princess-to-be learns her fiancé is heading overseas. Simultaneously, she finds herself spending six weeks alone in Buckingham Palace with a future mother-in-law indifferent to spending time with her and the only escape becoming phone calls to her former roommates. And it’s where Morgan reveals her long battle with bulimia.
As the season progresses, it becomes clear that Morgan isn’t interested in placing complete blame on either Charles or Diana for what became a relationship of not-so-secret affairs and, seemingly from his perspective, public spectacles to embarrass one another. Almost a decade into the marriage, when Princess Diana visits a Harlem hospital in 1989 and hugs a child with HIV, a historic moment considering the stigma of the disease at the time, Charles is incensed that she’d do something he considers just a stunt for the cameras. Their relationship has deteriorated so dramatically he simply cannot see it as a genuine moment it appears to have been. It’s a credit to O’Connor that he found a way to make Charles sympathetic despite his ongoing affair with Camila Parker Bowles (Emerald Fennell, who deservingly gets much more screen time).
Sadly, there is a bit less for Helena Bonham Carter to do as Princess Margaret this time around. However, she does get to play family sleuth in one, particularly memorable episode. Menzies seems to be having much more fun as Philip as he tries to act as a bridge to Diana and Erin Doherty continues to turn a terse and blunt Princess Anne into an unexpected gay and – go with me here – feminist icon.
Many who know the history of the era will wonder why a specific aspect of Diana’s life or Thatcher’s exploits are missing. There’s no dancing at the White House with John Travolta for Diana, and Thatcher’s role in the fall of the Soviet Union is all but ignored, but that’s because Morgan has chosen the moments that circle back to the series’ namesake, the Crown. A crown on the head of Elizabeth II. A monarch Colman wonderfully portrays as increasingly uninterested in what she sees as the immature behavior of her growing clan (and that’s not even taking into account the antics of Sarah, Duchess of York, who barely gets any screen time).
That being said, for the first time over four seasons, the final episode doesn’t decidedly end on her visage. Instead, someone else is the focus. She’s alone and holding back the tears as she realizes she’ll be an outsider to this family forever. An unexpected, but pointed choice as a new ensemble of actors arrive for the heartbreak of the next decade. [B+]