It’s the end of another era, Crown fans. We’ve reached the conclusion of not only the fourth season, but the tenure of the series’s second cast. The 1980s are behind us, as is Margaret Thatcher’s 11-year reign. Time to pop the Champagne and kick back to “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht,” yes?
No. Like, hell, no. The season finale ends on the same bleak note — bleaker, in my opinion — as the season premiere, and if you’re familiar with what went down in the royal family in the 1990s, you’ll need a couple years off to mentally prepare before The Crown returns in 2022. First of all, the episode ends at Christmas 1990, a full two years before Prince Charles and Princess Diana would announce their separation. So if you think they’re miserable now, just wait until The Crown gets its hands on the final seven years of Diana’s life.
“War” begins on November 1, 1990, a date that marked the end of Margaret Thatcher’s political career. The resignation of her longtime associate, Sir Geoffrey Howe (Paul Jesson), indicated the Conservative Party had lost confidence in the now-haggard prime minister. Ever the fighter, Thatcher presses on, pretending that Sir Geoffrey’s speech wasn’t a clarion call for new leadership — just “sour grapes” — during her weekly audience with Queen Elizabeth. But when the Conservatives hold their annual election for party leader, Thatcher fails to win by a decisive enough majority, and individual meetings with her cabinet ministers confirm they’re ready for “new blood.”
Although books like Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch, by Sally Bedell Smith, say Thatcher announced her resignation to the queen without conflict, you know The Crown’s gotta Crown. Thatcher meets with the queen and SAYS SHE IS GOING TO DISSOLVE PARLIAMENT, because her job is being “stolen” from her. Hmm, why does this sore-loser behavior look so familiar?
Once again, The Crown returns to its theory for why the United Kingdom keeps the queen around: because she’s the only one who can get power-hungry authority figures to slow their roll. Elizabeth reminds Thatcher she’s lost the confidence of the whole country, and that maybe she should try “doing nothing.”
“The difference is, you have power in doing nothing,” says a defeated Thatcher, explaining that her work is her passion. I get that. Eventually, so does Elizabeth, who, in her last scene with Thatcher, musters enough empathy to present her former prime minister with the prestigious Order of Merit, and to acknowledge their mutual challenges as women in charge.
Now let’s move on to the major plotline that won’t be resolved before the credits roll. Charles and Diana are leading separate lives, but that doesn’t stop Charles from verbally abusing Diana every chance he gets — even trolling her about her mental health in advance of her solo trip to New York. That is the worst thing he could possibly do, given that Diana’s depression is at an all-time low. It doesn’t matter that her gleaming smile and designer gowns have charmed every Manhattanite. Alone in her hotel room, she’s losing her battle with bulimia.
Timeline accuracy notwithstanding (Diana’s New York visit actually took place in February 1989), this sequence serves as a springboard to the princess’ shift toward humanitarian work, which will undoubtedly be a part of The Crown’s fifth season. It was during this trip that Diana visited underprivileged women at the Henry Street Settlement and pediatric AIDS patients at Harlem Hospital, a major step in her transformation into the beloved “people’s princess.”
But since The Crown’s season finale needs a dramatic love-triangle cliffhanger, Diana’s American triumph is twisted into the reason why Camilla Parker Bowles breaks her promise to marry Charles, deciding instead to keep with family tradition and remain his mistress. After watching a news report where New Yorkers proclaim their adoration for Saint Diana, Camilla realizes that if she becomes the woman who stole Prince Charles’s heart, Diana will “always defeat [her] in the court of public opinion.” And she’s right, because that was the case for a long time.
Shattered by Camilla’s decision, Charles storms into Kensington Palace, unleashing nearly two decades of pent-up rage onto his superstar wife. This is a fight we knew was coming all season, and it is nasty. Charles is so insecure that he accuses Diana of turning herself into a media darling as part of a “calculated” scheme to scare Camilla off. He then has the audacity to ream her out for hugging children infected with an incurable disease.
The row takes a particularly upsetting turn when Charles finally demonstrates the fervor that Diana has been begging for throughout their marriage. He gives her the tears, the shouts, and the inner anguish, but careful what you wish for, Di: You got him to crack only because you hurt Camilla. Charles, tired of being blamed for her unhappiness, then utters the best possible description of their pairing, calling it a “grotesque misalliance.”
Hearing the unvarnished truth from Charles may have been the rock-bottom moment Diana needed to start getting some real help for her bulimia. Following this emotionally draining scene, Diana hunches over the toilet, only to stop herself from throwing up.
By the time Diana joins the royal family at Sandringham for Christmas, it’s obvious that Ella Fitzgerald’s “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” wasn’t chosen to set the holiday mood. Between arriving in her own car (and not in the cortege of Rolls-Royces) and being blown off by the queen in favor of her corgis, there’s no question that she’s been iced out by her in-laws.
Charles doesn’t have much Christmas cheer either, pleading with his mother to let him separate from Diana. But the queen, despite being fully aware of the facts, has washed her hands of her son and his wife, with Olivia Colman bidding farewell to Elizabeth with one last quintessential dressing-down. Because her entire existence has been fueled by duty, Elizabeth doesn’t understand why the “spoiled and immature” Prince and Princess of Wales can’t just get over themselves. Her final directive is that they are to remain married, especially if Charles wants to be king someday.
Tobias Menzies surprisingly gets one of the more tender good-byes via Prince Philip’s paternal attempt to placate Diana. As a fellow outsider, he does sympathize with being part of a family that exhibits the same amount of warmth as a “cold, frozen tundra.” But he also feeds Diana the same drivel she’s been getting for nearly ten years: Charles “will come around.” When she suggests a separation for the sake of her mental health, Philip immediately switches from fatherly to foreboding, saying he “can’t see it ending well for you.” (And if that doesn’t send a chill up your spine, I don’t know what will.) He then explains the fundamental reason why Diana is the only person who hasn’t been able to fit in with the royals: She still puts herself first, instead of the queen.
Now, after four seasons of watching this show, we know Philip isn’t wrong, even though, for us plebs, that sounds like a horrifying way to live. But it’s precisely why Diana was so unhappy. No one ever explained to her that this is how the game is played. I’m not saying this system is right, but you have to know what you’re getting into before you say, “Yes, please.”
It’s difficult to devote space in these recaps to the actors, but I cannot conclude this season’s assignment without giving Emma Corrin her due for a flawless job playing Diana. Like the late princess, Corrin was saddled with an even tougher task than most of her colleagues: Embody a real-life figure who, 23 years after her death, remains a female icon; depict her mental-health issues sympathetically and accurately; and do it within the space of a single season.
I noticed that the last shot of “War” is quite similar to those of Crown season finales past. Photographs are being taken, and the royal family is celebrating a festive occasion. The biggest difference is, for the first time, the camera isn’t focused on Queen Elizabeth II, but Princess Diana, marking an even greater sea change within the royal family’s image. It doesn’t matter that everyone else is making merry while she’s the only one about to cry (that’s some Colman-esque tear work there). Diana is the face of the royal family now, and she’s trapped inside its gilded cage.
Yes, she will break free, but Diana’s freedom — and the freedom of those who came afterward — will come at an excruciatingly high price. I’d count on an even heavier season five of The Crown if I were you.
Give Gillian Anderson an Emmy. That’s it, that’s the sentence.
Of all the fake New Yorks I’ve seen onscreen, I’ve gotta give Manchester props for capturing the city’s character. It could never truly double for Manhattan, but it does a better job than, say, Toronto or Montreal.