Created by Peter Morgan
Episodes : 10
Release Date: 4th November 2022
When it began, The Crown was very much rooted into the realm of historical drama. Right away, with Hans Zimmer’s booming theme music reverberating through a very classy title sequence and making stars of Claire Foy and Vanessa Kirby, while also giving Matt Smith his first substantial high profile role since Doctor Who, it was an audience favourite, garnering critical acclaim and was (this pun may not be intended) the jewel in the crown of Netflix’s original programming.
However, given the six season plan of creator/showrunner Peter Morgan and a unique casting process that would see its main cast replaced every two seasons to reflect the ages of the characters, the historical drama component was sure to disappear by the time the series reached its final two volumes, and so it is that the fifth season of the series is no longer one rooted in what now seems like far away past decades, but of stuff that to anyone over the age of thirty-five or thereabouts are event that were experienced in real time.
The prestige period trappings of seasons one-to-four are replaced with reproductions of the 1990s, and events and stories that have still reverberated into the present day. It was only two years ago that the methods with which Martin Bashir used to procure Princess Diana’s famous BBC interview were detailed to much shock, and we get to see those methods re-enacted here with a depiction almost akin to a con artist film. Bashir himself (played here by Prasanna Puwanarajah) almost becomes something of an antagonist in the drama, another cog in a press machine that sees Diana as a means to gain attention.
Morgan’s writing portrays him as arch, manipulative and every bit as wearying as the constant attention of the paparazzi that pop up like bad pennies foreshadowing events that will no doubt occur in the final season, a surprise given that one might have thought that this very season itself would have been the one depicting in some form the final tragic chapters of her life.
It goes without saying that the performance that will grab your attention is that of Elizabeth Debicki as Diana. She captures the fragility, mannerisms and character in a way that feels connected to what Emma Corrin did in season four but which also sees Debicki put her own stamp on the role. The recreation of the interview in question is uncanny, but she also finds grace and sympathy throughout the series and even though this has always been stationed as a series about the crown and Queen Elizabeth herself, for the first time since the series began, this is a season that feels more focused on the younger generation of royals as opposed to the two characters the series started with, creating a symmetry of sorts in that the storytelling attention devotes itself to a new generation who feel less inclined to follow tradition even more vehemently than the initial reluctance (which then passed) of their parents.
Imelda Staunton is wonderful and the viewer can truly feel the connective tissue between the previous performances of Foy and Coleman, but you might be forgiven for thinking that the series has forgotten about the Queen at various points, but then this perhaps says a lot about where the attention of the UK was at the time.
The Crown has always been at its best at depicting not only the psyche of the UK itself throughout the reign of Elizabeth, but the very concept of British identity. That identity found much to go hand-in-hand with when it came to the very existence of the Monarchy, but you get the sense of a country in flux by the time this season begins with the emergence of a new Tory Prime Minister in John Major (Jonny Lee Miller, who is convincingly uncanny) and the coming storm that is the divorce of Charles and Diana.
Dominic West steps into the shoes of the older Charles with set ideas of where to the take the Monarchy in the changing face of UK values and perception but which hits a brick wall when expressed to the rest of his family. Where last season had started to position Charles as an increasingly bitter Michael Corelone-type character with a deep resentment against ‘the system’ and his wife because he couldn’t be with the woman he loves, the series has once again positioned its portrayal as a more sympathetic one at times despite the fact that in the time span of the series he frequently mistreats his loving wife emotionally.
Scandals such as his infamous ‘tampongate’ conversation with Camilla and Sarah Ferguson’s toe sucking exploits are touched upon (the former more than the latter and it’s weirdly humorous that Ferguson isn’t depicted on screen at all from what one can tell), but the series has always played delicately with tone and taste in a way that has always put it above similar scripted dramas about the royals, especially in comparison to previous tabloid flavoured scripted television movies and dramas. dd
In now being positioned as a story set in the 90s and featuring characters that are still a big part of the news cycle today, there is the danger that the series will lose some of the classy lustre of the earlier seasons and its post-WWII historical drama leanings. Morgan has found a way to counterbalance the possibility of falling into that trap in finding his way into documenting themes about ’the system’ that has reverberated throughout the series since its inception and questions the very core of what it is to be British and what the British identity stands for.
Amongst the best episodes is the season’s dovetailing into the origins of Mohamed Al-Fayed (Salim Daw) and his son Dodi (Khalid Abdalla), the latter’s destiny interlinked with that of Diana to tragic effect, but it also sees Morgan and the series deliver a superlatively played character drama about a thirst for privilege and what it means to be on the outside looking in from the periphery and being very close to it. The performance from Daw as Mohamed Al-Fayed flits between snobbishly unsympathetic to a more grounded and at times charming one, but which also brilliantly conveys the notion of what it means to desperately want privilege and prestige and to view it on a rung of the social ladder which is below something even more powerful yet elusive.
It might come as a source of frustration for some given that this comes as the third episode just as the Diana/Charles dramas are starting to reach a boiling point, but it’s also one of those episodes that The Crown produces to tremendous effect, one of those little side stories in which the Monarchy are something of a guest star in their own series.
Similarly, the Margaret focused episode brings back Peter Townsend from early episodes, this time with Timothy Dalton in the role and which sees the series in a reflective mode as its characters contend with a past that is drifting further and further away from them, leaving nothing but memories that are both warmly nostalgic but tinged with sadness and a longing for things that never were.
With Margaret (and Lesley Manville is tremendous here), that reflection comes from a lost love, with Elizabeth and Philip it comes with contending with the possible loss of the Royal Yacht Britannia (I think it says a lot that it’s a boat for the latter but something genuinely sad for Margaret), whose launch is portrayed with a Claire Foy-cameoing flashback but which then flits to a present where the ship is in disrepair and which Elizabeth and Philip want the public to pay for, a humorous notion that might have played as satire if it wasn’t potentially true.
This all plays as background to younger characters who have to contend with bitter resentments in the present; Charles hankering to play King so he can modernise the traditions; Diana facing divorce and heartbreak, causing her to lash out via the BBC, which itself has to contend with where it’s positioned in the changing face of the United Kingdom, a country about to face a new seemingly hopeful future in the final episode with the emergence of Tony Blair, New Labour, D:Ream soundtracked campaign promises but with the death of Diana and the impact of 9/11 hovering on the edges of that very oncoming future.
It ends the season on a note that hints at dramatic things for the final season, but that very final episode itself feels like something of an anti-climax, seemingly existing only to set up the final season. A real sense of mystery hovers over the series as to where the final batch of episodes (set to air next year presumably) will eventually lead within a historical context. The biggest surprise here is that Diana’s story looks set to continue into some of the sixth season, which given that happens in 1997 leads one to believe where Morgan has planned to bring his series to a close. It’s an intriguing notion to be left with as the final episode’s credits begin, even if you can’t help but feel the season might have been stronger if it had concluded with that powerful Diana/Charles argument in the episode beforehand.