The Crown’s fifth season hits Netflix at a time when the show is arguably more relevant (and controversial) than ever, following the history-making circumstances of the Queen’s passing and King Charles’s accession (who recently faced a near egging at an engagement) in real life.
Despite the relevance, this fifth entry into the prestige drama does a bit too much telling and not enough showing. After a two-year wait, the impeccable Season 4 storytelling of Charles and Diana’s doomed marriage or Thatcher and the Queen’s testy partnership has faded, especially when facing a brand-new cast. We’re told what we already know, which is how miserable Diana (Elizabeth Debicki) and Charles (Dominic West) are while they cruise the Italian coast and then host Christmas dinners that make their infidelity, the Morton tapes, and other scandals look unmotivated and aimless.
Somberness permeates the season, applying an uninspiring tabloid interpretation to much of the personal lives of the royals. (The post-WWII era of Claire Foy’s seasons had happier moments.) For example, a young William (Senan West) is not brought to life by a happy, toothy iteration as one might expect but is written as much more despairing as if the royal family were psychic and knew of the impending heartbreaks ahead.
The problem lies in the clunky metaphors and lack of nuance that have Peter Morgan’s British royal family come across as more remote and unlikeable than ever in contrast to the previous seasons’ flawed, human predicaments. Given historical accuracy, that may be the point but as far as television goes, the flat characters disappoint. Positioning Diana as the Palace’s central victim this season means the rest of the established royals stagnate in their crabby desires by contrast. One case includes the Queen (Imelda Staunton) demanding yacht restorations for Prime Minister John Major (a capable Jonny Lee Miller). Meanwhile, Charles carries on his affair with Camilla but he also visits schools of low-income youth—and yes, attempts to breakdance.
Seeing how the actors come to embody real-life inspirations has been a major talking point among The Crown viewers and the Season 5 cast is no exception. Dominic West and Elizabeth Debicki take on those keystone mannerisms of the upper crust with flair, outfitted in perfect wardrobe recreations. But the talented actors and wardrobe department are not enough for overworked themes. The beats between Charles and Diana arise as any royalist (or hater) might already know with Diana’s tragic death hanging in the distance. Outside of being Charles’ betrayed soon-to-be ex-wife, Debicki is surprisingly underutilized as Diana until the final few episodes. Her romance with Dr. Hasnat Khan (Humayan Saeed) mostly sticks to one episode when their relationship could have brought welcomed warmth, possibly mirroring Margaret and Armstrong-Jones’ arc in Season 2.
The in-show media also underline the drama in the royal marriages where they act as retroactive mouthpieces for current public awareness and speak knowingly like semi-omniscient showrunners instead of journalists of the nineties. This obvious editorializing almost eclipses moments where Debicki colors Diana with a wider range of humanity than just a depressed princess. Still, in between moments of mischief or romance, Debicki is made to say unsophisticated lines like, “Is [my heart] broken? In a great many pieces, after years of cruelty and neglect?” and “You’ve just mended my heart” to her lover.
Exceptions to the po-faced tone best occur with the lesser-known events that the actual Buckingham Palace had probably done its best to bury, such as the leaking of an intimate phone call between Charles and Camilla (Olivia Williams). By making their unfaithfulness silly (hello, Tampongate) and more sympathetic in light of the invasion of privacy, Charles gains a bit of dimension than just a personally and professionally frustrated royal.
Highly anticipated historical moments, such as the Queen’s famous 1992 “annus horribilis” speech in the episode named after it, play out in the dramatized version somewhat anticlimactic. In the forgettable episode, Princess Margaret (Lesley Manville) and Peter Townsend (Timothy Dalton) tread old ground to further highlight the Queen’s difficult role as moderator of her family’s personal relationships that add some texture to Imelda Staunton’s Queen Elizabeth II.
We also hear a lot about the royal family polling poorly or a need for modernization without seeing what the emotional or political stakes are. When dramatic liberties are taken, they stand out as especially made-up and laughable, such as Prince Philip (Jonathan Pryce) openly scolding Charles at a meeting attended by the entire royal family and senior staff of the royal household. Unwieldy metaphors spell out emotional meaning in scenes that could have stood on their own due to the gravitas of historical inspiration.
“Ipatiev House” stands out as an adept slice of prior seasons past, layering a little history lesson in the entertainment. Peter Morgan seems to excel most at bringing the period to the small screen, as we are reminded by a well-done episode six that recounts the brutal Bolshevik execution of the imperial Romanov family in the horrifying first ten minutes. In addition, Pryce’s Philip retains the consort’s known humor and charm in a season that needs it.
The Crown remains a compelling show solely for its unerring visual recreations of history, orbiting the institution it focuses on with big-budget style and keen interest, but the fifth output suffers from awkward writing and a lack of gradation for a season so highly anticipated.
Images courtesy of Netflix
'The Crown' Season 5 - 5.5/10