‘The Crown’ season 4 dazzles as it turns heroes into villains, ladies into princesses

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Grade: 4.0/5.0

The fourth season of “The Crown,” which was released Nov. 15 on Netflix, was perhaps the most anticipated in the series’s run so far. While the previous season focused on introducing us to the little-known stories surrounding the royal family’s growing pains and midlife crises, this most recent installment centered on a narrative with which audiences around the world are already intimately familiar: the courtship and marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. 

The addition of Diana (Emma Corrin) breathes new life into the show; the episodes that center around her metamorphosis into the People’s Princess are some of the series’s best. Although the episodes that shift focus away from Diana are comparatively lackluster at times, Corrin’s performance and the construction of her arc are strong enough to elevate the season to the same level of brilliance achieved by its predecessors.

The season, which spans from 1979 to 1990, covers the entirety of Margaret Thatcher’s (Gillian Anderson) tenure as prime minister, as well as the majority of Charles (Josh O’Connor) and Diana’s relationship. Queen Elizabeth II (Olivia Colman) mostly takes a backseat to these storylines, occasionally entering into the picture as a force of opposition against Thatcher’s harsh political calculus or as the voice of reason in Charles’ romantic tribulations. 

Colman is exceptional this season, despite having less to do. Her quiet displays of seething and melancholy populate the margins with the emotional gravity that’s absent from Anderson’s unflappable Thatcher. Each of their scenes together is a veritable battlefield of passive-aggression and subtext as each character tries to communicate the displeasure that custom forbids them from expressing aloud. 

Though the two actors deliver excellent performances, their plotlines are not quite as compelling. One of the greatest strengths of “The Crown” has always been its singular, self-contained episodes that tell small stories about the characters and their deeper hopes, fears and insecurities. Season four attempts several episodes in this style, but they mostly pale in comparison to previous successes such as season three’s “Aberfan” or season two’s “Paterfamilias.” 

One exception is “Fagan,” which tells the story of working-class Londoner Michael Fagan (Tom Brooke), who breaks into Buckingham Palace to inform the Queen of the detrimental impacts that Thatcher’s austerity has had on the British people. Brooke is phenomenal in the role; his manic, yet sympathetic desperation is itself a more scathing critique of Thatcher’s administration than any of the verbal condemnations offered by the central characters.

The season can’t be faulted for these weaker episodes too much, though — part of the reason they appear tedious is that they’re juxtaposed with the sheer majesty of the Diana episodes. To put it mildly, Corrin is a revelation as Diana. She perfectly captures the princess’s mannerisms without veering into caricature; every subtle eye movement and minuscule head tilt practically set the screen ablaze. Her performance is so comfortable, so lived-in, that every new scene feels fresh, yet consistent with those that precede it.

“The Crown” has never shied away from criticizing the royal family, but Diana’s arrival invites them to do so more intensely than in previous seasons. The show places the viewer in Diana’s shoes, communicating the anxiety and helplessness she experiences in a family that either ignores or outright rejects her. 

This dynamic is a fascinating one, but it comes with negative consequences. By painting the royals as wholly cruel when Diana is around, they eviscerate much of the sympathy they’ve spent three seasons eliciting from the audience. When the plot turns to the struggles faced by the Queen or Princess Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter), they tend to feel petty and insignificant in comparison to the pain that the royals inflict on Diana.

Despite a few hiccups, however, this season is a triumph that far surpasses expectations. Its most regrettable aspect is that it’s the last we’ll see of Corrin, O’Connor, Colman and the rest. This company might be saying goodbye, but they leave the palace quite a bit more intriguing than they found it. Season five’s cast has several pairs of big shoes to fill.

Matthew DuMont covers television. Contact him at [email protected].