The fourth season of “The Crown,” in 2020, seemed finally to crack the case of how to depict Queen Elizabeth II: in opposition. Writer Peter Morgan is inexorably drawn to the sovereign, and does his best work with her when she’s in one-on-one conflict. Previously, he depicted Tony Blair pushing her toward change in the film “The Queen”; Blair is among the prime ministers whose relationships with Her Majesty build towards a prismatic portrait in the stage play “The Audience.” And on television, in showing the Queen’s 1980s as shadowed by her vexed relationships with Princess Diana and Margaret Thatcher, Morgan finally found the story within his show.
It was a long road to get here, and it was not to last. Perhaps it’s merely reactive to the genuinely impressive work in the Thatcher-and-Diana era that lends the sense that the new, fifth season of “The Crown” is the show’s weakest outing yet: A generally scattered and unfocused show is less disciplined than ever. The fact of the divorce between Prince Charles (Dominic West) and Princess Diana (Elizabeth Debicki) being so obviously the point of greatest interest for a contemporary audience has forced the series to slow its pace and linger. (“The Crown” faces the same problem the Queen did; Diana, with her ravenous eyes and her need to be cherished, consumes all the oxygen.) But even after having been handed the gift of a memorable scandal with two hugely charismatic and flawed participants as grist, “The Crown” finds it has nothing to say.
Debicki is very strong in a role that would challenge any performer; Emma Corrin absorbed all of the marital misuse that made Diana come to feel wronged, while Debicki is left to handle the aftermath. (West is simply miscast, a sad comedown from the terrific Josh O’Connor.) And Imelda Staunton steps in for Claire Foy and Olivia Colman as the third Queen, and can be said to have achieved a compelling likeness (no small feat, as the iteration of Elizabeth she’s playing is the one with whom viewers will be most familiar). But the character she’s playing isn’t much of a character at all; a life devoted to duty and country has, by its nature, the conflict ironed out of it. Staunton’s best moments come when the Queen expresses her frustration in an imperious manner learned over time; it’s a reminder that living in proximity to a royal figure is hardly easy. But more often, Staunton, and the character she plays, recedes.
Which is not itself new! Morgan has sidestepped Elizabeth’s unknowability agilely before, but the fact of Diana’s estrangement from the Windsor family as we enter the 1990s, as well as the ascendancy of John Major (Jonny Lee Miller) present new conundrums. How can he dramatize Windsor family conflict when it’s, by and large, happening through intermediaries? The answer seems, in large part, to be tasking both Staunton and Debicki with casting significant gazes into the middle distances. (To the question of whether the show is sufficiently respectful of the real people it depicts: It’s too respectful, perennially taking no one’s side in showing that every person involved is fundamentally Good. At one point, Prince Charles, the closest thing to an antihero the show has, dances to rap music with the young people of color his charity supports, as text onscreen tells us how many people he’s helped.) And the entire season’s domestic-policy story going to a leader best remembered as the drama-free buffer between the Thatcher and Blair eras means what has always been a rich vein for Morgan’s writing, the relationship between head of state and head of government, falls out of mind as it’s playing out.
One senses Morgan’s slow-rolling realization that stretching the Charles-Diana story to a greater portion of the show’s run means that nothing from outside that timeline can enter the story, and his grasping for what else can be included. Ahead of the dalliance between Diana and Dodi Fayed (Khalid Abdalla), we get an episodelong excavation of the Al-Fayed family’s rise to prominence in the U.K., which at least represents a bit of a jolt for the show; later, there’s an episode examining the Queen’s concern for the remains of the slaughtered Romanov family. There are generous readings of what both of these episodes represent for “The Crown” — respectively, a social-realist look at a family of color establishing itself in a shifting nation and a depiction of the British royals’ growing awareness of past culpability and present popular discontent — but both feel introduced somewhat haphazardly, popped into the story to bulk out the season, not as part of a unified vision of who these characters are or what they want.
There’s an unpleasant didacticism to “The Crown” this time around, as if, in dramatizing among the most scrutinized series of events of the late 20th century, it’s doing us a favor. The episode in which Diana does an explosive interview with the BBC on Guy Fawkes Day includes young Prince William receiving a school tutorial on the Gunpowder Plot and an at-home lecture on the monarchy’s history with television from the Queen Mother. Both the metaphorical valence of Diana’s interview and its significance to the other characters is literally presented to the audience as a lesson appropriate for a child.
And the by-now expected spotlight scenes for Princess Margaret (Lesley Manville) and Prince Philip (Jonathan Pryce) are both excellently performed (with Manville especially distinguishing herself as likely the strongest of the three inhabitors of the show’s richest role) and frustratingly schematic. Both of these characters have something they want from their family member that she, as their Queen, cannot give them — in Margaret’s case, an apology; in Philip’s case, truly egalitarian love. This is their central trauma, the thing around which their lives, or at least their big moment each season, is organized. But, well — she can’t give it to them! And so we circle recursively around the same fights.
It’s in Margaret’s case that the weakness of “The Crown” is most pronounced. Margaret, who was denied the opportunity to marry the man she loved by her sister’s fiat, is once again angry and upset at what has been taken from her. This comes amid a series of familial and personal setbacks for Elizabeth, who eventually mollifies Margaret by giving her a veiled special mention in her famous “Annus Horribilis” speech, calling her “my sun and water” and thanking her for her personal sacrifice. The real speech is online; no such grateful mention of her family, in those terms or any other, exists.
This is not unethical, exactly; “The Crown” is not fact and does not present itself as such. But it’s an overreach that gives the game away. This series purports to use the tools of art to lead us to a greater understanding of a figure who resists being made a metaphor. In contrast to her living-out-loud family members, Elizabeth gave the world little of her inner self, so little that the temptation to invent details runs up against the sneaking suspicion that what results might not be that interesting. And, here, her confession that she was unhappy — by her standards, shockingly frank — does not provide Morgan enough juice; he must find a way to create the impression that his protagonist also was emotionally demonstrative to her family at their time of greatest need.
But — as far as we know from what’s on the public record — she wasn’t; that was the intrigue of her, such as it is, and finding the story within those boundaries is the putative task of a show like this. Instead, “The Crown’s” endless embroiderings are coming to seem colorless and drab. What lies ahead for “The Crown” is a final season in which we must move from 1997 to whatever is the endpoint. There’s a great deal of reign left — the death of Diana, the Blair decade, and the Iraq war lie ahead, along with who knows how much more modern cultural history. And the likely increase in pace and change in dynamic may help the show find its footing as it ends. But, to borrow a phrase from Queen Elizabeth’s own speech about her bad year, this is not a season on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure. It’s a crisp line, communicating meaning about the state of mind and general attitude of the reserved person delivering it. Too bad Peter Morgan couldn’t let it speak for itself.
“The Crown’s” fifth season will debut on Netflix on Wednesday, November 9.