[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for Season 4 of “The Crown” and British history between 1979-1990.]
Like the good public school types that they are, the British Royal Family isn’t above a bit of hazing to those who seek to enter its inner circle.
It’s known as “The Balmoral Test” and involves diligent bouts of outdoorsy activity at the Queen’s castle in Scotland. (Traipsing over steep hills in the mud! Stalking stags to kill! Wearing tartans unironically!)
Season 4 of “The Crown” debuts November 15 on Netflix, and early on you learn Margaret Thatcher wore high heels, brought a briefcase and a sneer to Balmoral, and unequivocally, catastrophically failed the test. Diana Spencer wore boots, bangs, and a sweet smile, and passed with flying colors.
In the end, though, they both lose the bigger game of conquering The Firm.
After a subpar Season 3, it turns out that what this ongoing narrative of Queen Elizabeth really needed was an enemy — or two. In a season with the most pop culture audience pressure riding on it — because of the Princess Diana factor, there is no doubt that people who have never watched a single second of “The Crown” before now will tune in — Peter Morgan’s show delivers its best yet.
With the addition of Thatcher, played to gritty, galling Iron Lady perfection by Gillian Anderson, and Diana, a near-impossible role that Emma Corrin makes look effortless without descending into hagiography, “The Crown” gives a riveting look at a decade that codified callous excess in the characters’ public and private lives.
Instead of the world being seen through others’ eyes and leaving Olivia Colman on the margins to react — as she was left to do in Season 3 — Colman is now allowed to own the monarch’s authority in her performance. And with foils like Anderson and Corrin, all three turn in very brittle and beautiful performances.
The great fear was that the Prime Minister vs. Sovereign face-offs between Anderson and Colman could be reduced to tropes: either “It’s Girl Power time, Tory style!” or “Oooh catfight!” Thankfully, this is avoided entirely by letting both actors show their chops in the most understated and devastating ways at their command.
Morgan was the playwright for 2013’s “The Audience,” which envisioned the weekly meetings between the Queen and her long history of Prime Ministers, and it won Tonys for Helen Mirren (playing guess who) and Richard McCabe as Prime Minister Harold Wilson. Colman has extensive stage experience, most recently in “Mosquitoes” at the Royal National Theatre in London in 2017. Anderson has three Laurence Olivier Award nominations, including one for 2019’s production of “All About Eve.”
As a result, the scenes between these two are a study in the subtleties of power dynamics and differences in upbringing that are framed to read as beautifully on a TV screen as it would on the West End. What you see is Anderson as Thatcher curtsying particularly deeply at a certain moment, or Colman as the Queen making a calculated move to end the audience. What you understand is that Thatcher doesn’t get why someone with an inherited title should hold more power than her, and the Queen’s firm resolve to keep Thatcher in her place.
Yes, yes, yes, contemplating the wounds caused by the vicissitudes of the British class system is all well and good, let’s please get to the part about Prince Charles and Lady Di, rich people in doomed love. Or “Whatever love means?” as Charles agonizingly asked at his engagement press event as Diana wilted beside him. This famously public cringe-moment is recreated in “The Crown,” and it’s one of the reasons why this long has been the timeframe where the show stood the most risk of devolving into shadow puppetry.
The Charles and Di moments have been covered a million times in various news clips and documentaries; you can see the entirety of the terrible engagement interview at a moment’s notice via YouTube. Great credit is due to Josh O’Connor as Charles, Corrin as Diana, and Emerald Fennell as Camilla Parker Bowles, as they all find layered emotional textures to enrich the footage that’s been part of the pop culture vernacular for decades.
Corrin, in particular, does a hell of a job. This is not a Diana with a sad-princess-imprisoned-in-a-tower sheen — several episodes open with content warnings due to the graphic depiction of her disordered eating. The show doesn’t play coy: Diana was a particularly child-like very young woman who checked all the boxes for “virginal beautiful young princess” — and beyond that perfect-on-paper resume there wasn’t a second thought given to her mental health. She is shown without the emotional capacity or maturity to understand that this isn’t a love story; it’s a job to fill the global complexities of a role in a chilly, treacherous family.
Corrin pulls no punches; her Diana is winsome and frustrating, sweet and calculating. She is savvy and silly and petulant. She is world famous but starved for attention. Corrin spins around to the point of collapse as she dances, all desperate, keening, frenetic energy and no joy. It’s a complex portrayal of a complex person, one that is fully aware of the mythology that surrounds the character but isn’t weighed down by it.
Diana was an Instagram royal decades before there was such a thing, and it’s through gestures like famously hugging a child with HIV in the hospital that the princess tried to kill the Crown with her kindness. It’s something a perpetually battle-ready Thatcher would never conceive of doing — but it’s also something The Queen would never consider. But why shouldn’t they? What do we expect of our hallowed institutions, and why? If we can envision better, more humane treatment, why don’t we require it?
These are weighty questions, and they are asked in a show relentless in its ability to propagate its characters’ power through setting and spectacle. It goes without saying that the production design, hair and makeup, and costumes remain outstanding on “The Crown” — there is a reason the show is undefeated during its three-season run at the Emmys in the category of Outstanding Period Costumes.
The streak should continue this year if for nothing else than the combination of creating a wedding dress inspired by Princess Diana’s voluminous meringue and the true-to-life pink plaid ensemble the lonely princess wears to roller skate around Buckingham Palace. (Corrin also at one point wears a sweater with llamas embroidered on it — also based on an outfit Diana wore. The ‘80s were a lot.)
Beyond reveling in the tawdry candy-colored tale of Charles and Di, Morgan’s writing on the show routinely explores notions of classicism, privilege, sexism, and racism. But this time around, the undercurrents surface in a way that is timely, incisive, and, ultimately, more pointed and hopeful: If England can survive 11 years of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister, the United States will survive four of President Donald J. Trump and the craven GOP leadership.
This isn’t a particularly sunny take. The cruel deprivation, degradation, and devastation wrought by the Thatcher years is the basis of several episodes over the course of the season. A war was started out of preposterous personal motivation (Shout-out to former President George W. Bush! Some of us haven’t forgotten that you’re a war criminal!); institutional racism was bolstered and emboldened for oligarchical profit; public resources were diverted from the marginalized in the righteously cold-blooded notion that there is no implicit bias in society, it’s just that some are lazy and choose to suffer.
All of this is familiar. Very painfully, infuriatingly familiar. But as “The Crown” in this season shows, with a steel spine and ice in its veins, the Monarchy was built to withstand whatever onslaught comes its way.
So are we.
“The Crown” Season 4 will be available Friday, November 15 on Netflix.