We have been fooled! Tricked! BAMBOOZLED! The Crown season four hoodwinked us all into thinking The Crown was good again, but alas! It is not! The Crown debuted in 2016 with one of the strongest—and best-looking—single seasons of television in the 2010s. The Crown season one holds up. Season two fell off a little, it was still good, but it lost some of the sparkle of the first season. The third season was another reduction in quality, the first cast changing to older versions of the characters drawn from the British royal family which also brought unwieldy storylines as Peter Morgan, the writer-creator of the show, struggled to balance his sprawling narrative. But then, season four came and introduced young Lady Diana, played by a winsome and vulnerable Emma Corrin, and The Crown was rejuvenated with energetic storytelling and a razor-sharp sense of character and narrative purpose. Season five, segueing into the “Wales’ divorce” years of the early 1990s, though, is the worst season of The Crown. Like, just straight up bad. As in, not good. The opposite of quality. It sucks.
There are a lot of problems in The Crown this season, but let’s start at the top with the egregious miscasting of damn near every major character. From this list I absolve Lesley Manville, starring as Princess Margaret. There is no sense of Margaret’s declining health in her performance, and she has very little to do, in general, but in the odd moment where Margaret has purpose, Manville shows up. Also excused is Jonny Lee Miller as Prime Minister John Major, the man tasked with negotiating not only renewed relations with post-Soviet Russia, but also navigating the Wales’ divorce. Again, he doesn’t have a ton to do, but not only is his physical transformation convincing, so is his acting whenever he gets a chance to do that. A lot of his performance is just making a frowny face whenever the royals do something particularly out of touch, but a couple of times, Miller gets a moment, and like Manville, he shows up.
Everyone else? Garbage. In general, these are all good, even great actors. Imelda Staunton, Jonathan Pryce, Dominic West, and Elizabeth Debicki have all been brilliant elsewhere, but they’re all awful here, just totally unsuited to their respective roles. Queen Elizabeth has never been portrayed by Peter Morgan, a man who seems to have a love-hate relationship with the royals, as particularly smart or interesting, but he at least credited her with certain sensibilities that suit what is, essentially, a lifetime diplomatic appointment. With Claire Foy playing young Elizabeth, we saw Elizabeth as a hard-working woman determined not to embarrass herself, her family, or her country on the international stage. With Olivia Colman, there was a sense of middle-aged Elizabeth comfortably settled into her power and her role as matriarch of a nation, if not matriarch of her family.
But with Imelda Staunton, Elizabeth is a dipsh-t. Just the simplest little old lady to ever cross the street. No thoughts, only corgis. There is no sense of Elizabeth’s “soft power”, or the inner steeliness that props up her passionless façade. Staunton totally lacks the authority that both Foy and Colman could summon to suggest a woman used to command. And Pryce is too “kindly grandpa” for a hardass like Prince Philip. At this stage in life, Philip should be portrayed by an actor who scares you a little, like Charles Dance (who actually played Lord Mountbatten in previous seasons, in hindsight, that was a waste of Charles Dance). Meanwhile, Dominic West looks nothing like Prince Charles, but actually nails the aimlessness of a middle-aged man angsting in the shadows of his more powerful mother and more popular wife. I usually don’t care if an actor looks like the real-life subject they’re portraying, but in this case, West is SO physically wrong, it is never not distracting. His genuinely good performance cannot overcome the physical mismatch of the role.
And then there is Elizabeth Debicki. Unlike West, she is a physical dead ringer for Princess Diana, but her performance never works as anything more than impression. Especially coming on the heels of Emma Corrin’s and Kristen Stewart’s interesting, interpretive portrayals of Diana, Debicki’s performance is shallow and flat, like staring at a reflection of Diana, with no sense of the person trapped inside the royal gilded cage. That leaves a gaping hole at the center of The Crown, which has never felt more like paper dolls being paraded on screen for the sake of superficial recreation.
Don’t even get me started on the portrayals of Mohamed Al-Fayed and Dodi Fayed. Salim Daw gets a spotlight episode showing Mohamed’s rise from the streets of colonized Egypt to owning the Ritz in Paris and buying his way into British society. Daw is very good, one of the few actors giving a real performance in the entire season, but Mohamed is reduced to petty social climbing, shown to be desperate to join the (white) ruling class that once oppressed his people. Mohamed Al-Fayed has always seemed much more of a person interested in BUYING the royals than BEING a royal, but in this case, the inimitable Roxana Hadadi said it best.
my thoughts on that standalone mohamed al fayed episode of THE CROWN are that I never read him as someone who adored the monarchy ~despite~ its colonial past, but someone who wanted to be the biggest force in every room, & doing so involved diminishing the royals, not being one.— âœðŸ¼ roxana | âœŠðŸ¼ zivar | âš’ï¸ hadadi (@roxana_hadadi) November 10, 2022
Dodi Fayed (Khalid Abdalla) is a non-entity. Just a coke-snorting wannabe Hollywood player, a dutiful son chafing against his father’s expectations. Every opportunity to contrast Charles and Dodi as talented, ambitious men thwarted by a larger-than-life parent is missed. Any instance of showing Dodi to be a person worthy of understanding is avoided. He is literally just here to be the guy who dies with Diana, there is no effort made to portray him as a person in his own right. The non-characterization of Dodi is as shameful as the inclusion of the Romanovs’ brutal murders in 1918. Nothing is being served except prurient interest in bloody death, it’s everything wrong with true crime on TV right now. Points could be made! These inclusions could be purposeful, even meaningful! But they are not. Nothing is being said, we’re just going through the motions until we arrive at the moment of death, and then it is all spectacle, no substance.
Season four flourished because every element served a pointed story about disillusionment. It feels like a deliberate deconstruction of the mythologizing of the first three seasons, as if Morgan spent all that time to build up his characters only to begin destroying them as people make life-altering mistakes throughout that season. But this season has no such purpose. This season really feels like Morgan backing off and backing down, like he got cold feet after all the displeasure expressed by the royals, particularly King Charles, after the last season. And I can’t even say at least this season looks good, because it doesn’t. Partly it’s down to the unappealing aesthetics of the early 1990s, but it’s also the notable absence of director Benjamin Caron, off to direct Andor, a show that looks as good as The Crown looks bad.
The Crown has always been a mixed bag, but this season, there is little good to outweigh the bad. The entire season feels like a misstep, from the casting to the rushed storytelling to the weirdly apologetic approach to the royal family this time around. I cannot shake the feeling Morgan bailed on whatever his original intent was for this season after the royal response to the last season. He’s always been more interested in the royal men than the royal women, which has gotten progressively worse until this season, when every woman is boring and/or awful, except for Camilla. The weird apologia of this season is the first time it actually feels like The Crown is trying to rewrite history, not just reinterpret it. This is a season without point or purpose, in which outrageously miscast actors flounder through layers of nothing to try and anchor the story in some meaning that never materializes.
The Crown season 5 is now streaming on Netflix.