windsor woes

The Crown Found Its Scoundrel in Charles

If the Netflix series once wanted us to see the prince as a sensitive man dragged along by an unfeeling system, it certainly doesn’t anymore. Photo: Alex Bailey/Netflix

We always knew that Prince Charles wouldn’t end up the pitiable superstar of The Crown, that he was destined to slide ever lower in our communal estimation as we inched into the Diana years. It’s hard to garner sympathy from the masses when you grew up in a house with 78 bathrooms, but as season four has crept along and Charles’s shoulder hunch has grown more pronounced — as his hands have buried themselves deeper into his front blazer pockets — any trace of the weeping little boy dropped into the society of vicious little déclassé brutes at soggy Gordonstoun has disappeared. All unhappy families, if I may tread upon a great sentiment, torture their children in unique ways, but we expect those grown-up children to eventually develop a modicum of self-awareness. Unless, that is, the blood of a dynasty runs through your delicate English veins.

As far as I can tell, the central question The Crown asks is: Should we feel bad for these people? What about poor Princess Margaret, the shinier star of the two Windsor sisters, always shoved into the background despite her flair for party tunes and witty repartee? Or Prince Philip, a man forced by rank to scrabble for any semblance of equality in his marriage? Sure, Camilla Parker Bowles actively works to disrupt the entire English monarchy, but she’s also decidedly not Diana, Princess of Wales, and she knows it — which would be a real blow for any woman in a love triangle. (Though let it be said that you are gorgeous, Emerald Fennell.) Only the Queen Mother, with her insistent, oblivious grin, expects no pity; she moved ranks from a Meghan Markle to a Kate Middleton, and she’s just happy to be along for the ride.

Of the whole sorry lot, Charles is the whiniest, the least self-aware, and the most openly cruel. He demands the pity he didn’t receive as a child. “What does it take,” he practically screams at his sister, Anne, when she reminds him that he’s acting the part of a spoiled brat, “to get a little love in this family?” On their Australian tour, when Diana points out to him that she would appreciate some praise, he indignantly tells her that he, the Prince of Wales and heir to the throne, has spent his whole life “unthanked and overlooked” and asks, “What do you want from me?”

It’s true that he was introduced as a whimpering young schoolboy in the second season, dumped off at that boarding school on the frigid shores of northern Scotland and left with instructions to turn himself into an admirable man, tout de suite. Little Charles was a victim through and through, simultaneously expected to understand his role as the future king of a then-sprawling empire and to blend in among the non-princely boys. That he ended up rejected — sobbing, with his head on his bodyguard’s lap — came as no surprise, but it did endear him to us. Who can’t feel for a little boy who is implicitly told that asking for parental love is a bit much?

With season three’s forward time warp (and Josh O’Connor capably taking on the role, playing the prince better than the prince could play himself), Charles darts back and forth between ham-handed lovefool and eager young specimen. “Tywysog Cymru” (for what it’s worth, one of the series’ best episodes) sees him knocked off his high horse when he is sent to Wales to learn enough of its tongue-heavy language to speak at his investiture. Twenty-something Charles is moved by the plight of the long-oppressed Welsh people to acknowledge their desire for sovereignty in his speech — and by the sight of his tutor’s wife lovingly tucking their children into bed. Sure, he’s a prick, but he’s also adaptable, willing to listen to ordinary folk, and empathetic with others who have been cast aside as he has.

The early years of the love triangle with Camilla Shand–turned–Parker Bowles and her husband, Andrew, are, if nothing else, a testament to the very real beating heart inside the prince. He’s not smitten with her; he’s obsessed in that once-in-a-lifetime way that plays so well in multigenerational sagas like this one. The Crown, which is at times overly devoted to neatly packaging up patterns, as if the Windsors had lived lives pre-written by melodramatic novelists, adds Charles’s love for an unsuitable mate as another ill-advised romp in a long line. King Edward VIII chose love with Wallis Simpson and had to hand off his scepter in return. Princess Margaret stuck to her sister’s ruling and forever regretted that she had spurned Group Captain Peter Townsend. For a brief moment, Charles considers upending the monarchy so he can stay with (a somewhat unwilling) Camilla, until, that is, he’s carted off overseas so his mother and godfather can arrange for her to quickly turn that triangle into a line by marrying one of its other points.

But this new season abandons any pretense of Charles as a victim of extraordinary dynastic forces. If The Crown once wanted us to see Charles as a sensitive man dragged along by an unfeeling system — who is still, at 72 years old, waiting to step out of his role as the bumbling, mumbling perennial No. 2 — it doesn’t anymore. He’s a complete lout.

What’s strange is how The Crown doesn’t need one dominant bad guy; it has an ensemble cast and a habit of ignoring characters’ story lines for half a season at a time. But it cranks up Charles’s nastiness over and over. And according to royal insiders (whatever that means) and biographers, the show is playing it up in ways that seriously deviate from the historical record. It has found its heroine in Diana and its scoundrel in Charles, and that tantalizing dichotomy takes over where more complicated concoctions once reigned.

Diana was destined to take hold of The Crown’s emotional center: No showrunner with sense would spend as much time demonizing the People’s Princess as the unlovable stiffs in residence at Buckingham Palace. But phew, they really sent Charles straight into villainy, especially where his wife is concerned. Thirty-two when he marries Diana, Charles has seemingly picked up very little of his father’s ability to stanch his emotions or his mother’s love of passive-aggressive virtue signaling. The royals are cold fish, but Charles runs hot and is entirely unable to use the only characteristic for which he has ever been adored — his future coronation as the head of a fading institution — for anything besides alienating everyone outside his little set of hangers-on. There’s a bit of understated assholery at first. Charles schools 19-year-old Diana on Verdi’s unromantic background on their first date, telling her, “He played such a key role in the Italian unification.” He glowers when she takes down the stag at Balmoral; not only is she more willing to plow through the muck than he is, she also has his daddy’s eye. When she departs and he puts a hand on her shoulder — “You’ve been a great sport” — the vibe is that of condescending jerk, not besotted lover.

But once Diana steps into her roller-skating existence inside the palace, Charles turns vindictive and is happy to watch her sink in the waters in which he also flails. He openly laughs and smirks when she is encircled like a wounded gazelle on the savannah and humiliated as she struggles to remember whom to curtsy to. Just as he was once handed off to nannies and protection officers, he deposits her at the palace and then leaves for six weeks, telling her on his way out the door that his mistress is “the best company.” Then there’s the bracelet, the cuff links, the indignity of pet names with a woman besides his wife, Diana’s lunch meeting with a crowing Camilla. His idea of compromise is agreeing to give up his mistress behind the altar at their wedding rehearsal.

“Terra Nullius” is just a gateway to more of Charles’s cruelty. (“Can’t you pull yourself together?” he mutters on the side of a desert mountain as his bulimic wife nearly faints.) Sure, for a brief moment they picnic in the sunshine, and Charles bathes in the adoration that comes with their shared moment on the dance floor. But when Diana dances without him a year later, it’s a “grotesque, mortifying display.” To use the words of his younger brother Edward, he really is impressively cunty.

In the final episode, “War,” the Waleses are seated across a table, like two parties at a divorce proceeding, as they discuss Diana’s solo trip to New York City. Charles listens with a twisted smile on his face as his secretary, Edward Adeane, implicitly threatens Diana under the guise of protection. Charles doesn’t care if her delicate mental health is aggravated by a strenuous visit abroad. He wants her to know that her weaknesses are his weapons. It’s a crucial mistake — we all know Diana will win the tabloid battles, and her struggles will only add shine to her halo — but it must feel like a victory for him.

And that’s really the catch here. Diana and Charles might have had the most discussed marriage on the planet. The Crown, highly cognizant of what the people want, knows who will win our hearts and shapes itself accordingly. Watching Charles scream at Diana that he can’t handle “this grotesque misalliance” any longer offers a little thrill. He’s so terrible, she’s so wounded. He holds all the cards, she is a victim of circumstance. We know that Diana will die tragically in a few years and that all the pity Charles ever hoped for will pile up in the form of flowers, cards, and tears for his deceased ex-wife.

The Crown Found Its Scoundrel in Charles