TV Review: "The Crown" S5
Our critical review of the Royal Netflix show, in which both the monarchy and the series struggle to stay relevant!
The '90s were not a fun time for the British monarchy, who was scrambling to keep up with the times while enforcing unattainable, outdated appearances of idealised family life. However, the '90s certainly functioned as a fruitful era for “The Crown” which strides into this new season with all the elegance, poise, and self-awareness of a certain revenge dress-wearer. This is also marking the first season of Peter Morgan's opulent series to debut on Netflix since the Queen’s death on September 8, 2022. It's this awareness going into Season 5 of the current King Charles and his very public chaotic private life of the 1990s that makes the Netflix series more compelling than ever before.
The show’s new and final Queen Elizabeth II, Imelda Staunton, is splendid. Playing the monarch in her late 60s and coping with the 1990s meltdown of the family’s public image, Staunton seems even more right than her Emmy-winning predecessors, Claire Foy and Olivia Colman. It may help that she is playing an Elizabeth we are more familiar with, facing tribulations many of us witnessed. Still, she combines warmth and unforced regality in a way that makes her the most human of the show’s queens. Her Elizabeth is dry-eyed and on guard, but the toll of the office is always apparent. Staunton is stunning in a moment near midseason when, after confronting a woman whose friendship with Prince Philip is a bit too close, Elizabeth almost lets a tear escape. She doesn’t get nearly as many vital moments as you would like, however. That’s partly because the season is focused on Charles and Diana, now played by Dominic West and Elizabeth Debicki. But it’s also down to how Morgan, who scripted the entire season, writes episodes as self-contained morality tales, emphasizing the construction of complicated metaphors over the mundane business of building characters.
West and Debicki are, in different ways, both fine in the roles. West isn’t like the Charles we know — he’s more charismatic, more obviously commanding — but he’s a strong, absorbing screen presence, as usual, and you understand why the show needed that. Debicki, on the other hand, gives an eerily accurate rendering of Diana’s physical and emotional affect and plays her in a recessive, watchful manner that holds your interest. The problem is that Morgan hasn’t figured these characters out, and his writing for them isn’t as good or as moving as it has been for Elizabeth and Philip, or for Margaret (now Lesley Manville) and her assorted lovers. This is obviously a contrarian view given the acclaim and awards showered on the Charles and Diana storyline in Season 4.
As both the best part of the Royal Family and “The Crown”, Princess Diana is the most coveted element of the series — a mistake of neglect made by the monarchy itself but not the show. Taking the rei(g)ns from Emma Corrin, Elizabeth Debicki embodies Diana in her thirties, bringing her own mighty talent to portraying a public figure whose audience now seems to have a checklist for, following superb portrayals by a roller-skating Corrin and Kristen Stewart in “Spencer”. Debicki convincingly assumes that unmistakable upward gaze, either withdrawing her voice to a distant monotone or offering up cheekily hushed banter, and bringing nuance and humanity to a person relegated to a public pedestal.
Morgan’s predilection for allusion and allegory is more vital than ever in Season 5. Diana’s revenge interview with the shady journalist Martin Bashir (Prasanna Puwanarajah) is linked, in elaborate fashion, with the Guy Fawkes plot, both attempting to set off bombs beneath the royal family. An episode is structured so that Elizabeth’s dealings with the Russian president Boris Yeltsin echo the cold war between her and Philip (Jonathan Pryce). Morgan acknowledges this tendency — when satellite TV is finally installed at one of her castles, Elizabeth tells her grandson William (Senan West, Dominic West’s son, who’s quietly excellent), “Even the televisions are metaphors in this place.” If the somewhat static rewards of this literary approach are your cup of tea, along with the requisite obsessive attention to details of period production design, all may be fine. But even when you take it on those terms, Season 5 doesn’t have the life - the hard snap - of “The Crown” at its best. He presents the high points of the sad story — the scandals, the duelling interviews — with dramatic intelligence and a certain amount of stiff-upper-lip humour. But the two characters at the centre remain opaque; Morgan resorts to the same shallow, sentimental notions of love gone sour and family inflexibility that was the stuff of public mythmaking.
The idea of the practical calculation is floated but rejected with regard to both Diana and her rival, Camilla Parker Bowles (Olivia Williams), presumably because the Princess Di story has to be a love story. But even as Morgan is telling us that’s what it is, it doesn’t feel like that’s what it is. The type of story that would really make sense of Charles and Diana would very likely have to be a wilder, harsher, more corrosive story than “The Crown” can afford to be. And of course, the show gives the people what they want: pitch-perfect costume recreation, thanks to Emmy-winning costume designer, Amy Roberts. After Dominic West expertly re-enacts Charles' TV interview with Jonathan Dimbleby in which he admits his affair, we watch Diana assess her wardrobe with intent, donning one of the most iconic outfits in pop culture history: the so-called ‘revenge dress.’ Attending Vanity Fair’s summer party at the Serpentine Gallery, Debicki steps out wearing a version of Christina Stambolian's stunning, off-the-shoulder black evening gown. If anyone tells you fashion isn't political, show them this scene. Diana even refers to the outfit later when Charles pays an unexpected visit: "Had I known, I would've put on a revenge dress."
History is, in general, the enemy of good storytelling, and Morgan can’t be blamed for putting words in people’s mouths; his characters are his, not ours, and many of the show’s best moments are those characters’ stirring, wholly invented lectures on one another’s bad behaviour. As we get closer to the present, the need for “The Crown” lessens as we watch events unfold in real-time. Netflix has confirmed that the show will indeed end after its sixth season, and with Season 5 leaving the audience sadly aware of the days ahead, particularly for Princess Diana, we can expect next season to be an emotional one. This season grapples with important questions of the relatability, role, and financial standing of the Royal Family at a time when these issues are still extremely prevalent. "The system," more splintered and problematic than ever, though still standing, continues to be publicly scrutinized.