The true controversy around The Crown‘s fifth season shouldn’t be whether rich British people can tell the difference between a drama and a documentary. It should be that Dame Judi Dench’s absurd and hilarious letter requesting that Netflix add a disclaimer before the show was more entertaining than this entire season of television. Showrunner Peter Morgan has finally run out of cloth to wrap this tepid background television in the trappings of a captivating prestige drama.
While the fourth season benefited immensely from the introduction of Emma Corrin’s Princess Diana and Gillian Anderson’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Season 5 is bereft of such dynamism. The moniker of “soap opera” has been applied to this season in some reviews and the elements are certainly there: a sad Princess, a husband who loves his mistress more than his wife, a cold and standoffish mother-in-law. But good soap operas are entertaining, self-aware, and have a relatively consistent understanding of human behavior. The Crown‘s fifth season has none of these qualities.
The first major problem is the heavy-handedness of the storytelling. I have rarely ever felt as insulted by a show’s estimation of my intelligence than I did watching this season of The Crown, which is as subtle as someone slamming you in the face over and over again with a sledgehammer and then saying “I hit you in the face with a sledgehammer! Did you get that?” Subtlety can be overrated as a storytelling device, but there is something to be said about trusting that the audience will understand the metaphor on screen without you literally saying what is happening through the dialogue.
The most egregious use of heavy-handed metaphorical storytelling is how Morgan devolves Imelda Staunton’s Queen Elizabeth into a living, breathing metaphor itself. She doesn’t have an arc of her own and no truly engaging relationships of her own. Her relationships with Margaret (a delightful Lesley Manville) and Phillip (a miscast, dull Jonathan Pryce) are simply rehashed and, if nothing else, come across as a massive waste of time. However, it’s Morgan’s treatment of Elizabeth’s aging and sense of place that truly takes the cake.
The opening clip in which Claire Foy’s Queen Elizabeth christens the royal yacht Britannia is fine. That she feels distraught at its decommissioning is fine. It makes complete sense within its first introduction that Elizabeth sees Britannia as an extension of her and therefore tantamount to her as the monarch. A storyteller who understands the structure of a television episode would have constructed an episode where Elizabeth tries to come to terms with her age and her place in the world without having to reference the damn yacht again. But Morgan, who seems to have the least amount of faith in audience intelligence that I’ve seen in quite some time, references the yacht again and again and again. Peter can’t let go of the yacht because it’s all he has in reference to his protagonist for an entire season of television.
The second problem is the overall structure of the season. Generally, The Crown covers a decade per season, adopting a semi-anthology format where Morgan picks certain events that provide an overarching structure. In the fourth season, it was Diana’s realization that her marriage was ultimately doomed and the end of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister. There is no structure for the fifth season and it flounders as a result. It becomes wildly obvious that, with a truncated timeline, there just isn’t enough material here for six episodes of television, let alone ten.
Random sequences that don’t add any heft to the story or even the characters are just slotted in to elongate the running time, so a structure that already feels wildly all over the place becomes even more profoundly disorganized. If you ever wanted to see Jonathan Pryce rattle on about restoring old wooden carriages for twenty minutes without it revealing anything additional about the character he’s playing, well then The Crown is happy to oblige.
The third and most significant problem with The Crown is that Morgan has absolutely no idea what story he’s telling and it’s more obvious now than ever before. Theoretically, The Crown is a character study of a woman who dogmatically believes that they must not change. But the world does change and, as time goes on, it seems to change at a more and more rapid rate. The idea of understanding someone who remains rigid in their worldview and performance in light of that can be fascinating but, to pull this off, the story requires a dynamic character at its center and an evolving and honest understanding of them, including their strengths and flaws.
Peter Morgan can’t do this because he can’t tell the difference between Queen Elizabeth the person and Queen Elizabeth the character. What does Elizabeth think about her place in the modern world? Does she have any reasonable response when confronted with her incredible privilege? What is her perception of place in a world that is increasingly relegating the institution she represents into the margins? Does she have any understanding of how much harm her family has caused? How much suffering? None of those questions are answered honestly because at its heart, The Crown is more committed to making sure that it doesn’t make anyone have profoundly negative feelings towards the royal family than anything else.
There are the occasional scenes that work, including one legitimately great scene where Peter is able to distinguish between the character and the real-life person. In the finale, Diana (a fantastic Elizabeth Debicki) and Charles (a woefully miscast Dominic West) perform an autopsy of their marriage over a meal of scrambled eggs. Did they do this in real life? Probably not, but who knows? But what makes it a great scene is that it focuses on the characters and does the basic storytelling job of building on established relationships within the story.
Ultimately The Crown perceives itself to be a dramatic story that has the capacity of establishing and exploring nuanced characters. Nuance involves being able to critique your characters and have an understanding of their roles within your narrative––and here, there’s the added layer of thinking about the role of the British monarchy within the country and abroad and, more crucially, its history. What does it mean for Elizabeth to hold on to her yacht when there are people in her country without shelter? What does it mean for Charles to talk about the modernization of the monarchy when he so clearly doesn’t understand the modern world like Diana? What does it mean to maintain love for an institution that is responsible for such a staggering amount of bloodshed, slavery, and genocide?
Critics perceive The Crown to be an indictment of the monarchy. But an indictment is sharp, says something meaningful, and skewers the heart of whatever it is indicting. The Crown is simply too much of a coward to do that. Rather, Peter Morgan knows where his audience is (or did, rather) and plays it entirely safe by critiquing the monarchy just enough to fend off criticism while remaining firmly in its favor. In other words, it simply believes in the institution too much to meaningfully critique it, which is less a sign of love than of heedless loyalty. It’s all empty, really: the critique, the characters, and the pen of a writer who has a vast canvas but nothing to say after all.
The Crown Season 5 is available to stream on Netflix, lest you find yourself in need of background television to iron your clothes to.
– Maybe Peter Morgan, after doing a propagandist shoutout to Prince Charles’s philanthropy efforts, can do a calculation of how much public works could benefit if he paid an inheritance tax (just a thought).
– The idea that Prince Charles would make an anti-colonial comment regarding Hong Kong reverting back to Chinese control in 1997 is hilarious to me.
– The casting here is all over the place, in particular with Dominic West delivering one of his worst career performances as Charles. What doesn’t help these actors is the reality of them playing such poorly written characters.
– If you just watch The Crown, you’ll entirely miss what Princess Diana’s relationship was with the LGBTQIA+ community, in particular what she did to help ease the stigma against people suffering from HIV/AIDS. To know more about this history and Diana as a person overall, I recommend the five-part series about her on the podcast You’re Wrong About.
– It is absolutely bonkers to me that in spite of introducing Dodi (Khalid Abdalla) this season, the season finale doesn’t end with Diana meeting him for the first time. Any sensible story structure would end with Diana meeting her last love but nope, not on The Crown. What is happening here, Peter?