In the slog of perpetual isolation in the pandemic, The Crown Season 4 premiere date of November 15 stretched on into the horizon as a beacon of hope in a sea of absent entertainment content. And so, like a child on Christmas morning, I awoke early on a Sunday to tear open a new toy.
But underneath the wrapping was a story deeply darker than the previous three seasons. It began in Episode 1 with the tragic loss of Lord Mountbatten, using an instrumental music theme in minor key which reappeared throughout the season to mark tension and foreboding. In the first episode, filmmakers juxtaposed scenes of hunting, stalking, and fishing against the final moments of Mountbatten aboard his small boat off the coast of Ireland. The symbolism in this moment was obvious: the IRA hunted Mountbatten as his family hunted on their holiday. But this theme of hunting continues on throughout the season at different moments. It would be easy to again connect this theme of the hunt with the introduction of Diana Spencer (Emma Corrin) this season and recall the eulogy by her brother at her funeral. However, it is only in the moment of Mountbatten’s death that the Windsors themselves are hunted. In actuality, it appears that the act of the hunt itself is intended to illuminate the cruelty and savagery displayed by the Windsors towards each other and towards many aspects of their lives. The carcasses left by the Windsors, figuratively and literally in the game that they shoot, reappears to remind the audience in grotesque form that the young optimism found in Season 1 has been replaced by a hostility towards life.
In fact, the Windsor family as a whole is hardly redeemable throughout the season. They show deep animosity towards each other, not just in the obvious between Charles (Josh O’Connor) and Diana. But also in how the siblings talk to one another and how they treat outsiders, like Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson). It becomes increasingly clear throughout the season, now in their adulthood and maturity, the family is not really so much of a family in the middle-class sense of the word. The privileges of their birth show an inner wickedness that does not exclude their own blood. The nobility being not so noble after all.
On the whole, Princess Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter) despite evidence from previous seasons, seems to be the most kind-hearted, rational, and sane of the entire lot, and that’s truly saying something. Philip (Tobias Menzies) beginning with season 3 is more likable than his previous depiction by Matt Smith, but even he is jealous of his own son. Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) has some deep stingers directed at and about her children and even towards her husband about his (supposed) extramarital affairs. The Queen Mother (Marion Bailey) is relegated to a blithering fool, giggling her way past any responsibility or character definition. Charles even deeply wounds his brother Andrew (Tom Byrne) on his wedding day and all four children are terribly selfish. But the audience hardly feels sorry for any of them. Perhaps it is through the lens of today’s social and economic strife that we view the Windsors unfavorably, but in this season, there’s not much, save Princess Margaret or Philip, to like about the family, so when they attack each other, they all seem deserving.
Princess Margaret’s character development takes an unlikely turn this season. Interestingly enough, she predicts all that is to come between Charles and Diana quite poignantly, probably less on intuition and more on experience from her own doomed love life. And in Episode 7, takes a righteous and moral stand against her own family. After all the ways in which she had been wronged, when witnessing it happen to others, she releases all her pent-up frustrations and animosity that is a deserved catharsis for her. By the end of the episode, the audience doesn’t much care for the Windsors anymore. This appears to be a deliberate choice by the producers since this decade for the monarchy is like the rumbling of a pot of water before it boils over.
I’m sure I’ll get some flack here for this, but Diana’s depiction is neither true nor false. The writers skirt around the deeper insecurities she faced stemming from her childhood and missed an opportunity to contrast very similar insecurities faced by Charles from his childhood. Biographers would agree that they both lacked affection and confidence from their parents, leading them to seek it in others, and since they were both looking for this in a mate, unable to give it, but wanting it for themselves, their partnership is so obviously ill-fated from the onset. Through a biographical lens, there was little chance for a successful modern marriage between the two. So now, when given the opportunity to present this in the show, the writers missed the most crucial aspect for understanding the ‘War of the Waleses’ that is to come in the Nineties. Both Charles and Diana are flawed individuals, but it seems, at least to this reviewer, that the writers were too intimidated by the memory still held strong in many of Diana that they circumvented the opportunity altogether.
The writers however had no fear when it came to the Iron Lady. Honestly, I wasn’t sure from episode to episode or even from scene to scene whether or not I wanted to smack the back of her head like Gibbs from NCIS or lean in and give her a warm hug. Thatcher, like all the rest, is an incredibly interesting and multi-faceted character. Looking at her historically and through a biographer’s lens, her depiction is very fairly nuanced and the audience is never quite sure, even at the end, if she is friend or foe. This is owed largely to Gillian Anderson’s amazing performance. I recently watched Hannibal (TV) for the first time and was very impressed by her chops there, and even more so in Season 4 of The Crown. And her performance as Thatcher deserves some hardware, not just because the impression is so good, but also because she finds a way to be the most compelling of all the characters. The show is titled The Crown, and in several moments over ten episodes, you wonder yourself if she’s the one wearing it during her decade of reign as Prime Minister. We as an audience like her because she is not the establishment or the elite and as a character, we are secretly rooting for her and against the royals, a marked change from previous seasons.
Overall, the darkness of this fourth season was felt in the score, the lighting, and costuming. It perfectly set up the audience for the crisis of 1997, when the people lashed out against their monarch and the royal family for all the things that had once made them great in the first three seasons. And it’s no wonder after watching this season how it could be any different in reality or in this fictional depiction. Next season will once again bring new actors already slated such as Imelda Staunton, Jonathan Pryce, Leslie Manville, and Elizabeth Debicki. It will be interesting to see if there will be a Windsor redemption. If there is, it will have to be carefully crafted by writers and directors and most likely through young actors portraying young royals.