That’s not to say that “The Crown” hasn’t had its successes over the years, notching 10 Emmy wins out of 39 nominations, but it feels as though the series — which tracks the (ongoing) reign of Queen Elizabeth II — has never quite lived up to its potential when accolades come into play.
Too often, the show ends up the bridesmaid instead of the bride or, if you prefer to stick with royal references, the series always seems to be too far down the line of succession. And if you prefer Emmy references, the series has already been usurped down the line by “Succession.” The good news is that all hope is not lost for fans of the costume drama.
Let’s look at another relative late bloomer: Given its eventual status as the most successful series in Emmy Awards history, it can be difficult to remember that HBO’s “Game of Thrones” didn’t win the top prize for drama series until 2015, for its fifth season. Until that point, it was a series that had flirted with awards greatness, racking up below-the-line honors, but had not yet transformed into the juggernaut that would dominate the Emmys for the rest of the decade.
There are plenty of reasons to believe that this could finally be the season that propels “The Crown” to the upper echelon of premiere dramas, not the least of which is its inclusion of recognizable figures from the last 40 years of world history.
The problem with following the life of a sovereign who has been in power for nigh on 70 years is that the series must begin in an era that exists before most of its audiences has actual memories — meaning that watching the series feels a lot like watching a purely fictional creation. For the fourth season, “The Crown” is on the cusp of an era in which the royal family had rarely been more scrutinized or more ripe for tabloid fodder. Even beyond the introduction of young Diana Spencer (played to wide-eyed, ducked head perfection by newcomer Emma Corrin) the season also welcomes the United Kingdom’s first female prime minister into the fold with Margaret Thatcher (a simultaneously brittle and officious Gillian Anderson.)
Both Spencer — better known, of course as Princess Di — and Thatcher are not just recognizable figures, but iconic representations of the 1980s in the UK and beyond. With their arrival, the series enters a realm in which it is depicting a world increasingly familiar to viewers, whether they viewed it in the papers or the evening news or the tabloids. It means the level of difficulty for “The Crown” has increased, as now they must not only craft a stirring narrative, but also compete against memories or impressions that the audience brings with them into viewing.
Luckily, “The Crown” not only succeeds at this, but thrives on it. While much can and should be said about the performances of Anderson and Corrin, both of whom stepped into near-impossible roles and were forced to find something beyond mere caricature to bring to two women the world already feels fully confident they understand everything about.
For Anderson, that meant bringing a deep-seated inferiority complex to the table, which fueled much of her ridiculous bootstrap theology. Thatcher was so fixated upon the privilege of the ruling class that she could not see her own privilege over those millions of U.K. residents living in abject poverty.
For Corrin, that meant bringing to Diana a layer of culpability. If she entered into her relationship with Charles as a bit of an opportunist, does that make the treatment she received within the royal family, specifically from her husband, even the slightest bit justified? Was she suffering from mental illness that spurred from the rigors of royal life or were those just issues exacerbated by the thoroughly unnatural life she was forced to live?
If there is a failing with the fourth season of “The Crown,” it’s that it proffers up more excellent performances than could possibly be justly recognized by awards bodies. With queen Olivia Colman competing by herself in lead actress, Anderson and Corrin will be left battling it out in supporting actress, to say nothing of the competition they’ll face in Helena Bonham Carter as Princess Margaret and, in a just world, from Erin Doherty, whose pinched but pointed portrayal of Princess Anne is often shamefully overlooked.
While the men of “The Crown” theoretically have an easier time insofar as competition goes, one of the best elements of Season 4 — the fact that the focus remains on its female characters at nearly every turn — means that they have less screen time to make their mark. Tobias Menzies remains a droll and occasionally threatening presence as Prince Philip, but the real man in the center of the storm this season is Josh O’Connor. The actor’s slouched shoulders, prominent ears, and sulky expression perfectly captures the essence of Prince Charles, but the character himself is such an unmitigated, unsympathetic trash human the possibility of O’Connor seeing real and lasting awards buzz for the role seems questionable.
Because the series has finally managed to perfect its balance between story and substance, the fourth season makes for easy consumption, facilitated by its inimitable sense of style — be it the recreation of palaces or iconic Princess Di looks or Thatcher’s looming hair helmet. This is ultimately unsurprising for a series that garnered three Emmy wins for production design for its first three seasons, plus two for costume design. While “The Crown” has failed to nab the Emmy for hairstyling in that time, despite three nominations, between Thatcher’s cloud, Diana’s feathering, and Elizabeth’s growing grey streaks, this might be the season for them, too.
But forget the Emmys. There’s an entire awards season between now and next September and plenty of ways for “The Crown” to start staking its claim as heir apparent to TV’s Golden Age.