Up until now, The Crown has been more impressive for what it represents ambition-wise than for its execution.
Perhaps the most aspirational project Netflix will ever undertake, the series was greenlit for six seasons on the strength of Peter Morgan's pitch alone: A history of Queen Elizabeth II's reign, spanning six decades, one per season. His previous hits, the feature film The Queen and the stage play The Audience, successfully humanized Britain's current monarch. A longer series covering her whole reign seemed a smart bet, even if it planned to recast the entire series twice rather than age up actors as time went on.
Philip: Everyone in this system is a lost, lonely, irrelevant outsider apart from the one person, the only person, who matters. She is the oxygen we all breathe, the essence of all our duty. Your problem, if I may say, is you seem to be confused about who that person is.
That the show successfully rotated cast between Season 2 and 3 and kept the same quality was proof Netflix had chosen well. But the ratings were merely average. Though Netflix did not release numbers during this period (and still only does so sporadically), estimates put viewership in the low millions. Respectable numbers for a prestige TV series on a small-but-growing streamer, but nothing like Stranger Things, The Witcher, or You. Season 4 may change all that, as Morgan has now hit the heart of the story, with Diana Spencer's arrival to the royal family, as well as Margaret Thatcher's years in power.
Morgan is lucky these two women happened on the scene at the same time. The series has always been about Elizabeth, and works hard to keep her the sympathetic heroine at all times, to the point of sometimes turning Prince Philip into a bit of a monster, to make sure viewers are always taking the Queen's part, or later in the series, Charles'. But one cannot do that with Diana. She was not the universally beloved martyr her fans turned her into after her tragic death. However, her marriage to Charles was a horror show she was in no way emotionally prepared to handle. To pretend otherwise would not fly.
To that end, despite a few moments of sympathy for the devil to make a show of even-handedness, Thatcher's legacy, and the deep hatred the working class still feel for her today, is mined to turn her into the Queen's main nemesis this season. It's an odd fit at times, asking Elizabeth to be the voice of the people who are jobless, homeless, and starving under Thatcher's rule. But Gillian Anderson's performance is distracting enough in it's internalized misogynistic hatred that Olivia Colman's pushbacks mostly work. And the crackle of energy between the two actresses seated together in a room under a veneer of polite conversation is the stuff that award show nominations and wins are made of.
But the real story this season is Emma Corrin as Diana. It's not often one sees an actress make her career from the moment she steps in front of the camera, but Corrin's Diana is utterly remarkable. She is everything everyone ever said Diana was, from spoilt and incurious to open-hearted and giving, sometimes all simultaneously. It doesn't matter if you love or hate Diana, you will see what you wish in her performance to support your position. She plays the character straight down the middle, making her as sympathetic as possible, a secondary heroine to root for. Except, of course, that was never her role, and the ingenious way in which The Crown damns her for it may be the best trick the series ever pulled.
Corrin also provides something for The Crown that the series has not had up until now. She's a single focal point that the Queen can orbit around instead of the other way around. It might seem counter-intuitive, but The Crown's failings in earlier seasons usually come towards the back half of the season, as the momentum of following the Queen's journey flags. Here, the story never stumbles because the drama never stops, making this the most watchable ten-episode season so far. Finally, The Crown has a story to tell worthy of the ambitions it has always aimed for.
The rest of the cast continues to step up in their second and last turn in these roles before passing them on to the third and final cast. Helena Bonham-Carter only gets one real Margaret-centric episode, but she makes the most of it. (It helps that she's paired with Marion Bailey in it, who has been mostly underused as the Queen Mother.) Tobias Menzies is still scene-stealingly funny as Philip. However, his best scene comes at the very end as he confronts Diana with the reality the family does not just forbid escape but demands her spirit be crushed along with it.
Erin Doherty is still the best sour Anne ever, and newcomers Tom Byrne and Angus Imrie as the now college-aged Andrew and Edward are fabulous small-time additions to the family. (Andrew only gets two scenes, but my gods, are they damning.) And then there's Josh O'Connor and Emerald Fennell as Charles and Camilla, committed to doing their best to play things as sympathetically for their characters while knowing that Diana will win in the court of public opinion the same way she did in real life. Even Claire Foy turns up reprising her role as the young QEII, a reminder of how great she was in the first two seasons.
As the family gathers for the final picture of this group, the same way the show did at the end of Season 2, we say goodbye to the shatteringly good cast, knowing that another one will follow in their wake. The Crown has become the show to be cast in, which makes and breaks careers. Netflix's aspirational dreams have come true, and finally, they have a season worthy of them.