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The Crown Rests its Fourth Season Between Soap Opera and Greek Tragedy

“The Crown” is, at this point, a known quantity. That’s something it has in common with the family on which it centers. Much of what this review has to say about the largely excellent fourth season of the Netflix powerhouse will therefore come as no surprise. A few shockers: the acting remains exemplary; the production and costume designs are, if not unmatched elsewhere on television, then at least rarely matched; there are corgis and they are adorable; the list goes on. But as Peter Morgan’s series continues its march though Elizabeth II’s time on the throne, those known quantities have begun to crystallize. Its strengths grow stronger; its weaknesses may not grow weaker, but they certainly become more apparent. The result is 10 episodes of television that may not be uniformly among the show’s finest, but which are somehow its most authentic.

As it happens, it seems the most authentic version of “The Crown” is somewhere between a soap opera and a Greek tragedy. In the third season, the tumultuous lives of Charles (Josh O’Connor) and Anne (Erin Doherty) were added to the mix, joining Elizabeth (Olivia Colman), Philip (Tobias Menzies), and Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter), among others, in the show’s well of stories. As always, those stories are punctuated by Elizabeth’s regular audiences with the Prime Minister of Britain, a role this time filled by Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson), and historical events of the time, usually distilled down into a crisis-of-the-week (the assassination of a member of the royal family, a fateful avalanche, and the truly bonkers story of Michael Fagan, to name a few). And once again, the season arc hinges less on either those audiences nor the historical record than on one or more doomed love affairs and ill-fated marriages. This time, however, it’s really just the one: The doomed union between Lady Diana Spencer (relative newcomer Emma Corrin) and Charles.

It would be all too easy to get caught up in Corrin’s uncanny resemblance to the very famous woman she’s playing, and forget entirely that you’re watching a performance. And it is uncanny—on more than one occasion, a shot of Corrin in profile actually took this writer’s breath away, so strong is the resemblance, and the season’s directors clearly share that response, so often is she captured in profile. But to overlook the strength of the performance would be a mistake. The relationship between Charles and Diana—and inevitably, that between Charles and the former Camilla Shand (Emerald Fennell)—plays an even more central role here than any previous such storyline has done, save the marriage between Elizabeth and Philip, and anything less than excellence on Corrin’s part may have tanked the season. But she more than rises to the challenge. “The Crown” takes great pains to underline Diana’s isolation, and that places a hell of a burden on the young actor bringing her to life. Her most frequent scene partner is no one at all, and the scenes of Diana alone—rollerskating through the palace, studying ballet, or simply pacing her lonely apartments—are among the season’s finest.

That’s the element of the season most like a soap opera, and that’s not a term used here disparagingly. The tangled royal web Morgan weaves makes for addictive viewing, but it never diminishes the emotional experiences of the characters. Indeed, as with the early seasons, Morgan seems far more interested in the inner life of one of his characters than audiences might be, though O’Connor’s tormented, selfish Charles has supplanted Matt Smith’s younger Philip as Morgan’s favorite. O’Connor, like Smith, is terrific, but my kingdom for a few more scenes with Bonham Carter and a few less of Charles talking about what a misery his privileged existence is for him. Still, given the choice between characters with no interiority and characters with too much, only the Windsors themselves would prefer the latter.

They would, with this season in particular, be sorely disappointed. Even the political storylines, usually the door through which “The Crown” ushers in its chosen historical events, play more to the cheap seats than in previous seasons. That’s due in no small part to Anderson’s excellent performance as Thatcher. The series stumbles nearly every time it attempts to really wrestle with the implications and legacy of Thatcherism (a late-arriving scene between Colman and Anderson is particularly, and infuriatingly, reductive), though Anderson never does. However, when “The Crown” allows itself to simply enjoy having a clear-cut villain played by a world-class actor, it’s incredibly satisfying. That the show does best with Thatcher as a character when she’s painted with the broadest brushstrokes should be a failing, but Anderson never allows it to be; the performance is always layered, even when the writing is not. And when the focus shifts to Thatcher as a foil for or reflection of Elizabeth, the season soars.

That’s what comes of putting Olivia Colman and Gillian Anderson alone in a room together, one supposes. The season’s standout fourth episode, “Favourites,” stems specifically from the potency of this pairing, though the two spend most of the hour apart. The inciting incident here is the disappearance of Thatcher’s son, who she openly describes to the queen as her favorite; it’s a remark that sends Elizabeth, who believes that she does not have a favorite, off to spend time with each of her four children individually. It’s the season’s funniest episode (always a relief with “The Crown”) thanks in no small part to both Colman and Anderson’s knack for landing punchlines that aren’t punchlines (an example: Elizabeth asks her private secretary for a dossier on each kid’s hobbies and interests, because “one wouldn’t want to appear uninformed”). But it’s also its finest character study, allowing the audience to plumb Elizabeth’s psyche and see the four young royals through her eyes by using Thatcher’s distress as a springboard.

It’s episodes like that one I have in mind when tossing out a term like “Greek Tragedy.” Like all dramatists, Shakespeare—name-checked a lot here, as with all seasons—owes a great deal to Aristotle and his ilk; the stories of Hamlet, Macbeth, and Lear all hinge on the central figure’s hamartia, or fatal flaw. “The Crown” is chockablock with fatal flaws—in characters, in relationships, in entire systems—and it is at its best when those flaws sit front and center, especially where Elizabeth is concerned. (Another shocker from this season: beloved actor Olivia Colman is still very, very good at her job.) When “The Crown” falters, it’s usually because the focus has shifted elsewhere, typically to the crisis-of-the-week, and the more complex that crisis, the less substantial the episodes seem to be. Get ready for an engaging power struggle between the Queen and Thatcher, in which the subject over which they’re coming to blows is something of an afterthought. That subject is apartheid.

But when Morgan is at his most Aristotelian, “The Crown” remains a triumph; it relishes both the complexities of character and the tidbits that might make the tabloids. (Very generous of Morgan to give the people their bread and circuses.) This marks the end of the reign of Colman, Menzies, Bonham Carter, and the rest; when the series returns, there will be a new queen in town. But Colman’s tenure on Morgan’s fictional throne was an excellent one, a 20-episode masterclass in subtlety and restraint. It’s from her that so much of that authenticity stems; she never lets the series stray completely from the story of a woman who has long ago deemed herself insufficient as a mother and wife, subservient to the role which was thrust upon her head, quite literally. Now that crown will pass to another, and while the next in the line of succession is more than capable of bearing that weight (Imelda Staunton is a hell of a get), this writer, at least, will still mourn the loss of that performance. The queen is dead, long live the queen—for two more seasons, at least. May her reign be as tragic, as funny, and as addictive as her predecessor’s. 

Whole season screened for review.

Allison Shoemaker

Allison Shoemaker is a freelance film and television critic based in Chicago. 

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