Peter Morgan loves his metaphors. “The Crown” creator has long indulged in the authorial art of interpreting his subjects through situational comparisons, be it subtle visual signifiers or more explicit mid-scene declarations. The latter have gained prominence in recent years, as the writer’s Emmy-winning Netflix original series purges its intermittent levity in favor of unwavering gravitas, but the overt, onscreen acknowledgement of metaphors in Season 5 is still dumbfounding. Characters actually connect the dots themselves, as if Morgan doesn’t trust the audience to recognize the similarities between a house burning down and a family falling apart. At one point, even Queen Elizabeth (now played by Imelda Staunton) complains about the symbolic excess: “Even the television’s a metaphor in this place,” she moans.
While that line is on-the-nose enough to be read as meta comedy, Morgan’s other indulgences would be less grating if “The Crown’s” surrounding story didn’t feel needlessly stretched out. Past entries get away with steady heavy-handedness thanks to their broad framework (using episodes to hone in on an array of Royal family members, as well as their key connections), sterling performances from an enviable cast list, and elegant craftsmanship worthy of the show’s 10 Creative Arts Emmys. Season 5 is woefully deficient in its focus, which in turn puts too great a burden on the actors and production. History buffs and sovereign superfans may tolerate the excess better than others, but to borrow Morgan’s season-spanning metaphor — Queen Elizabeth’s outdated cruise ship, Britannia — “The Crown” seems to be running out of steam.
Set between 1991 and the spring of 1997, Season 5 focuses on two long-established arcs: the role of the monarchy in an evolving Britain, and the turbulent divorce of Prince Charles (Dominic West) and Diana, Princess of Wales (Elizabeth Debicki). As is customary every two seasons, a new cast has been enlisted to accommodate a new era, with Oscar-nominee Staunton stepping into the heeled loafers last occupied by Oscar winner Olivia Colman.
Now, Queen Elizabeth is feeling her age. Her health is fine and faculties sharp, but there’s an encroaching pressure on the ruler to change her ways, apologize for them, or step down — if not all three at once. Like too many women of a certain age, Elizabeth finds herself being talked about more than spoken to or heard, and Morgan’s use of a Her Majesty’s Yacht — there’s debate as to whether it should be preserved (at great cost) or decommissioned entirely — manages to simultaneously illustrate how that must feel and exemplify a comparable level of disrespect.
Morgan (who writes every episode) still seems all too eager to get to the men’s stories. Returning to tradition, the second episode is all about Prince Phillip (Jonathan Pryce). The table-setting third is given over to Mohamed Al-Fayed (Salim Dau), the father of Diana’s future romantic partner, Dodi Fayed (Khalid Abdalla). A majority of Season 5 is spent on Charles, as he mistakenly senses his moment to ascend, and Diana, who’s largely relegated to moping around and apologizing for moping around.
That leaves Elizabeth with a short, shallow arc. Staunton does a fine job, but there simply isn’t enough interest shown in her character to allow the talented thespian to thrive. (The season starts and ends on the Britannia metaphor, implying Elizabeth is simply taking up space, rather than a figure worthy of further dissection as the weight of her crown shifts.)
After revitalizing Season 4, Charles and Diana are leaned on harder here. West’s talents are a perfect fit for the ego and import of an impatient king-in-waiting, even if his looks and charisma betray him a bit. (I’m sorry, but West’s dance moves are way too good to be Charles.) Morgan tries to bridge the gap between performance and reality by painting this Charles as a man who’s matured into his duties.
It comes across well enough, but Debicki fares better. I’m sure the internet will light up with montages and memes examining all the ways “The Crown” tries to hide the actor’s height — Debicki is 6’3”, West is 6’0”, and Diana was 5’10”, reportedly — but it doesn’t affect her potency. With a soft lilt to her voice, a sparing yet sly sense of humor, and highly communicative physicality, Debicki delivers a lived-in, understated turn as an international icon. Her rendering both fits the character as written and serves as a guidepost the series doesn’t always follow: Debicki recognizes when Diana starts repeating herself, adding a layer of exhaustion to redundant arguments with Charles. Would the show be better without some of these scenes? Absolutely, but if they’re going to be there, I’m glad to have Debicki steering the ship.
Despite scripts that toil through the pulpy details of a very public divorce, strong design work on every level, and enlivening portrayals from the fresh ensemble (Lesley Manville is so good in her criminally truncated time as Princess Margaret), “The Crown” Season 5 suffers from a narrowed point of view. The world may have been obsessed with Charles and Diana’s impending split, but the series could’ve done more than underline inevitable conclusions and revisit once-fiery dynamics. Families may bring up the same feuds again and again, but TV needs to move things forward. Season 5 technically does so over its six-year stretch, but like a yacht out on the open ocean, it’s often hard to pinpoint what real progress has been made.
“The Crown” Season 5 premieres Wednesday, November 9 on Netflix.