Its fifth season may be its weakest, but The Crown still remains eminently watchable.
or its latest batch of episodes, the historical drama The Crown takes us to the very ancient era of … the 1990s. Because, yes, the ‘90s are now “historical”. Is anyone else suddenly feeling very old?
We can’t say it doesn’t sting a little, but here we are: a period that we – or at least those of us in our 30s and beyond – lived through can now be viewed through a historical lens, and that is precisely what Peter Morgan is trying to do in the fifth season of the massively popular Netflix series that centers on the reign of Queen Elizabeth II.
In this case though, the lens is distorted by all manners of fictionalization, but at its heart still lies the real-life drama that has been spilling out of the House of Windsor. And boy did the ‘90s supply a copious amount of royal drama!
Between the breakdown of three royal marriages, the fire at Windsor Castle, and a number of other misfortunes of varying magnitudes, the ‘90s weren’t the best of decades for the British monarchy.
The new season explores many of these ups and downs (focusing mostly on events from 1991 to 1997), painting a portrait of a family struggling to reconcile their convictions with the changing times while navigating a whole mess of complicated relationships.
In keeping with the series’ tradition of replacing its actors every two seasons, a new cast is now helming the show. The very impressive ensemble is now led by the immensely talented, yet a tad miscast, Imelda Staunton. It initially feels like she may not be the best fit for the role of Elizabeth – although that might just be because of the perfection that was Claire Foy and the very high bar she set in the first two seasons (one that Olivia Colman managed to reach simply because she can do no wrong) – but her performance does grow on you as the show progresses.
The storylines the season chooses to explore, however, aren’t always the most riveting. Who would’ve thought that an (over-drenched in metaphor) arc about fixing the royal yacht and a (rather inconsequential) detour based on Prince Philips’ (portrayed by Jonathan Pryce) love of carriage driving wouldn’t make for the most thrilling of dramas? Clearly not Peter Morgan!
Did Philip not do anything more exciting than carriage driving during half a decade? Oh, and Prince Edward did continue to exist during the ‘90s, right? Because you can hardly tell based on these ten episodes!
The focus, all too often, turns to the soap opera that was the turbulent divorce of the then-Prince Charles (a woefully miscast Dominic West) and his wife Princess Diana (a phenomenal Elizabeth Debicki) and the very public mudslinging that entailed. But Charles appears to have had a personality transplant since we last saw him (and is, rather unrealistically, obsessed with usurping the throne) while Diana is whinier and more immature here than she deserves to be.
The characters don’t always seem like aged version of the incarnations we saw in the previous seasons. Plus, there are many little details that seem questionable.
Former British Prime Minister John Major has described parts of his and Charles’ storyline as “a barrel-load of malicious nonsense”. But then again, we already know that the series has no qualms about rewriting history to suit its narrative, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there appears to be quite a bit of that going on here.
None of these shortcomings, however, take away from the fact that The Crown remains an immensely intriguing, eminently watchable series. The sets are still immaculate, the costumes beautiful, the performances wonderful. And there are so many interesting historical details – like the execution of the Russian Imperial Romanov family, the treachery of Martin Bashir, and the rise of Mohamed Al-Fayed – that pepper the narrative and add fascinating shades to the human drama at its center (and elevate it beyond what would otherwise come off as a look at the first world problems of a ridiculously privileged family).
Much of the issue, despite the stellar production, this time around seems to lie in the uneven pacing and imbalance of focus, which together make this season feel less like a solid entry in itself and more like a set-up for the next. The Al-Fayeds, for instance, get their own episode (they could have easily been introduced in the next season) while Dr. Hasnat Khan’s (Humayun Saeed) two-year relationship with Diana is reduced to a couple of scenes that make it seem like they merely went on a few dates before he ghosted her; the warmth is still there, but it’s the depth that is missing.
Or it just might be that we have now arrived at a more modern time in “history”, one that was chronicled meticulously by the expanding, evolving global media and one that so many of us have personal recollections of and opinions about. We are more aware of the events portrayed, more cognizant of what is shown and what is missing, and our own feelings might be shading our viewing experience more than they did in previous seasons.
At any rate though, the latest season of The Crown is easily its weakest – the writing could have been more inspired, the selection and pacing of storylines could have been better – but that doesn’t mean the series isn’t still entertaining.
Does The Crown ultimately remain binge worthy? Absolutely. But it’s not quite as magical as the drama that first enchanted us some six years and five seasons ago.
Between the breakdown of three royal marriages, the fire at Windsor Castle, and a number of other misfortunes of varying magnitudes, the ‘90s weren’t the best of decades for the British monarchy. The new season explores many of these ups and downs (focusing mostly on events from 1991 to 1997), painting a portrait of a family struggling to reconcile their convictions with the changing times while navigating a whole mess of complicated relationships.