Season 5 of The Crown brings Peter Morgan's sprawling story of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II into the early 1990s, a particularly tumultuous time in her own history and one of the darkest periods the monarchy itself ever faced. It's not an exaggeration to say that, three decades ago, I'm not sure we all believed there would still even be a monarchy, as such, in the year of our Lord 2022, let alone that Elizabeth would have played such a crucial role in holding it (and her wayward family) together.
That there's something of a pall over this season makes a certain amount of narrative and real-world sense. Premiering a scant two months after the real Elizabeth II passed away, something feels a bit off throughout much of this season. Whether that has to do with the generally grim subject matter or that it all feels a bit like stepping into a dead woman's shoes is up for debate; however, while there's as much high drama as ever, some of the fun and pizzaz has gone out of the show.
The final two seasons of The Crown bring the series' final complete cast overhaul, as Olivia Colman and Tobias Menzies step aside for Imelda Staunton and Jonathan Pryce to take over as Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. Staunton, once you get past the fact that her Elizabeth bears an uncomfortable physical and sartorial resemblance to Harry Potter's Dolores Umbridge, is as immaculate as always, nailing the particular speech cadence of an Elizabeth approaching old age and infusing her every action with the sense that she is an immovable certainty, and that she bends for no one, whether to her husband, her son, or public opinion.
Yet, Staunton is also uniquely skilled at showing what that facade costs the queen, who is, more than we've ever seen her before, increasingly isolated. Her position often leaves her without an outlet to verbally express her worries over growing older, her son's ambition, her husband's resentment, or the world that seems to be so rapidly changing. Instead, she must swallow it all for the good of the crown, and Staunton's performance contains multitudes behind her eyes and a strained smile.
For all the "Charles and Diana" drama of it all, the fifth season of The Crown is weirdly aimless and lacks some of the propulsive tension of Season 4. There are plenty of tumultuous and familiar moments because a lot of big things happened to the Royal Family in the first half of the 1990s: three of the queen's children decided to end their marriages, various tell-all books, press leaks, and interviews rocked the monarchy, a massive fire destroyed a large portion of Windsor Castle, and the royal yacht Britannia was decommissioned.
And we see these events close up, from a heartsick Elizabeth looking at the smoldering ruin of her home to the sharp barbs exchanged between Charles and Diana as their marital differences become irreconcilable But despite all these tragic twists and the presence of a fantastic cast, it's not clear what, if anything, the show is trying to say. There are beats where it seems as though the show wants to wrestle with the entire idea of the monarchy, whether the institution is capable of surviving, let alone thriving, in a modern world or if the answer to that question doesn't even matter, because the royals are such an intrinsic part of British life.
One of the more frustrating aspects of the later seasons of The Crown has been the way that the show has consistently and repeatedly sidelined Elizabeth herself to tell the stories of those around her. On some level, given the high drama of Charles and Diana and everything surrounding the dissolution of their marriage, that does make sense. We're here to watch the fairytale fall apart, after all.
But in a season that's all about the monarchy's struggles, we find out precious little about the woman at the head of it. We see Charles chafing at the bit to rule, Margaret reflecting on her relationship with Peter Townsend, and Phillip's burgeoning "friendship" with Penny Knatchbull, his godson's wife. (Plus, a side plot about how he helped identify the Romanovs' bodies.) The Fayed family gets an entire episode devoted to their backstory.
But Elizabeth has no such clearly defined arc, and much of the season is spent indirectly questioning whether she's right (or fit) to remain in power. Staunton's quiet steel is such that her simple presence is enough to answer that question. Still, beyond an admittedly very satisfying confrontation with Charles over his blatant attempts to ingratiate himself with new PM Tony Blair, she's granted no real opportunity to express herself on the subject.
Perhaps the whole idea of "the crown" is meant to put a wall between Elizabeth and everyone around her, even those that are ostensibly watching a show about her life. Maybe Morgan doesn't feel comfortable speculating about what the queen did or did not feel during this tumultuous period of her life. (Though he certainly doesn't hold back from doing so in his film The Queen.)
Whatever the reason, it often leaves Elizabeth feeling like an afterthought in the show she's meant to star in, and it's hard not to wonder what the show that did not choose this path might have been like.
Yes, there's a certain entertaining glee to be found in knowing that, for all of Charles' posturing and scheming, he'll still have to wait thirty years from the events depicted during this season to ascend to the throne. (The one aspect of Charles that Dominic West truly nails is his eminently punchable-ness at this point in his life. Otherwise, he feels weirdly miscast throughout.)
But, the public outcry from some corners about how Season 5 needed disclaimers about how fictional it all is now seems remarkably unnecessary, particularly given what a generally positive edit the show gives Charles. In all honesty, it's a much kinder depiction than most of us expected after what we saw in Season 4. For the most part, his ideas about the monarchy's future are presented as forward-thinking and intelligent, the things his parents might have done well to heed during such a dark time for the family.
Granted, royal insiders are probably furious about the idea that 1990s Charles was basically trying to push his mother off the throne in favor of himself. Still, almost every awkward situation is resolved in his favor. He sneers at Diana's desire to have fun and shop on their "second honeymoon" even though he's brought a passel of his own friends to hang out with them without asking her. The one episode that feels like it might deal with the harmful nature of his adultery ends with a bizarre segment where Charles breakdances and the hour is tagged with a reminder of all the money he's raised through the Prince's Trust. It's really weird and ultimately does nothing so much as thoroughly muddle the show's POV on the character.
As The Crown undergoes its third full cast turnover, it's fair to ask whether this system — of swapping out actors rather than just indulging in the polite suspension of disbelief that middle-aged performers can reliably pretend to be either much younger or much older than they are — has done the show any favors. But, for the most part, I think it's worked wonderfully, and if Season 5 criminally underuses Lesley Manville's Princess Margaret, well. It's not like Helena Bonham Carter didn't essentially suffer the same fate during her run.
As I suspect everyone probably predicted, the gem of this outing is Elizabeth Debicki's Diana. She feels like both a natural extension of Emma Corrin's Season 4 performance and something completely new. From the careful way she shapes and holds her body depending on who she's sharing a scene with to the way she telegraphs Diana's evident and desperate need to be loved, it's a masterclass in inhabiting the history of a famous real-life figure without aping them. Unfortunately, in its mania to be seen as "even-handed" in its presentation of the dissolution of the Prince and Princess of Wales's marriage, the show essentially loses track of Diana for a stretch in the middle of the season. But perhaps Morgan (rightly) understood that putting West opposite Debicki for too long wasn't doing him any favors.
As we look toward The Crown's final season, it's hard to know precisely where Morgan will choose to end this tale or if the real Queen Elizabeth's death will make him want to condense the last several decades of her story to pay a proper tribute to her long and remarkable life. But no matter what these final episodes look like when they arrive next year, let's hope they have a clearer point of view than this season managed.
The Crown Season 5 is now streaming on Netflix.