In the penultimate episode of The Crown’s fourth season, Queen Elizabeth asks her daughter, Princess Anne, to level with her about the state of the marriage between Prince Charles and Princess Diana.
Anne, in her usual clipped, blunt fashion, says the marriage has no future. She cites the age gap between the two: “Charles is older than his years and Diana is younger than hers, which makes it not an age gap but an age chasm.” Despite their similar aristocratic backgrounds, Anne says, “their personalities come from different planets.” She adds that “he doesn’t understand her, she doesn’t understand him,” and that this seems like something they are unlikely to overcome.
The words Anne chooses in that assessment — gap, chasm, different planets — describe where history’s most dissected royal couple stands as the 1980s and this season of The Crown approach their conclusion. But they also allude to a central theme that has run through this entire series and takes center stage in season four: the stubbornness of distance, between people, entities, or simply what one wants and what is actually possible.
Over the decades The Crown has covered so far, those distances have caused distress, over and over, for members of the royal family. Often that has manifested itself in romantic relationships that were thwarted — see the marriage between Margaret and Peter Townsend, or the affair that refuses to go away between Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles — or in actual marriages that have soured, the one between Charles and Diana being the most high profile. Other times the space between ambition and reality provokes resentment. Philip’s frustration with playing second fiddle to Elizabeth on the world stage is one example of that. So is Margaret’s interest in serving a more important royal role, which is again sabotaged in season four by those pesky rules related to birthright and lines of succession.
Then there’s the more politically significant distance that Elizabeth is constantly grappling with: the one between the monarchy and its subjects in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. Queen Elizabeth has tried, with mixed success, to mind the gap (sorry) between evolving public opinion and traditional royal standards, either by responding to criticism, as she did in season two when Lord Altrincham attacked her public image, or taking action, as she did in season three by overcoming her initial reluctance to express her condolences in person after that deadly and disastrous mining disaster in Aberfan. But there remains a sense that the royals exist in some high tower far, far away from regular folks, which helps explain why royal scandals have been such a fascination for so many years. Those controversies bring Elizabeth and her relatives down to a lower level, which makes them seem a bit more accessible to those who don’t reside in palaces.
All of these examples of the potentially destructive power in insurmountable divisions manifest in the arrival of a single human being onto the royal scene: Diana Spencer, the shy, Duran Duran–loving teenager who quickly goes from kindergarten aide to the world’s ultimate Cinderella. In Diana’s experience, we see her marriage to a spouse with whom she can’t quite identify. We see a woman whose unconventional choices are viewed by the populace as achievements yet stifled by Charles and a royal family who find her a bit much. We also see her fully connecting the monarchy to citizens around the world in a way that no one else has managed. “She’s just like us,” exclaims one adoring fan in Brisbane during Charles and Diana’s royal tour of Australia. Diana is a figure hungry for and capable of forging bonds, stuck in a family that avoids intimacy and presses on even when open wounds have not adequately been stitched back together.
Peter Morgan and The Crown’s directors weave visual and verbal cues throughout season four that emphasize the focus on Diana’s attempts to connect, both personally and publicly, within her new role. We see it in the pair of significant hugs she gives, first to Queen Elizabeth, whom she embraces while Her Royal Highness, taken aback, flails like a turtle unable to extricate its legs from its shell, and second, to a child suffering from HIV in a Harlem hospital.
That latter warm embrace, which condenses Diana’s long history of work on HIV/AIDS into a single dramatic moment, comes from a place of instinct for the princess. When she hears that children like this young boy are often not adopted due to fear of the virus, she immediately reaches out to him, an illustration of her ability to literally and metaphorically erase the space between herself and others. Charles, who, at least as The Crown tells it, lacks that ability, sees this as a publicity stunt. During the argument sparked by that hug, he makes it clear that he prefers Camilla to her. “If you hurt her, you hurt me,” he shouts at Diana, throwing the difference between his relationship with his mistress and his relationship with his wife into the starkest possible relief. In the former, the two are so close that, in Charles’s mind, they are one person. Between the latter there is nothing but, to borrow Anne’s word choice, a chasm.
There are other, non-Diana-related nods to overcoming breaches in this season of The Crown, including the reveal that the codes for each royal’s death are named after bridges and the entire “Fagan” episode, in which unemployed Brit Michael Fagan manages to break into Buckingham Palace twice and even enter Queen Elizabeth’s private bedroom. But the more significant scenes involving Diana and Charles are the ones that speak to this theme most loudly.
When the two encounter each other for the first time in episode one, the scene acts as both a semi-flirty meet-cute and a sly bit of foreshadowing of the gulf that will later lie between them. While Charles waits for Diana’s sister Sarah, whom he’s actually visiting, Diana enters a ballroom-size parlor and, per her sister’s instructions to make herself scarce, attempts to hide, unsuccessfully, behind multiple plants. She is dressed in costume as a tree, her role in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which makes her attempts at camouflage all the more ridiculous.
“I’m not here,” she says softly, the first words she speaks to Charles. Then: “I was given strict instructions to remain out of sight.” On first viewing, this sounds sweet and charming. On second — after watching Diana get tucked away into an apartment in Buckingham Palace, and later into a marital prison — it is foreboding.
As Diana and Charles talk of Shakespeare, it seems as though they may have something in common. After all, Charles loved the theater when he was at Cambridge, and even did some Shakespeare himself. There’s even an homage to a more modern version of Shakespeare in this exchange. As Diana inches closer to Charles and they peer at each other through the stems and branches of one of those floral arrangements, it calls to mind the moment in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet when Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio first eye each other longingly through the glass of an aquarium. The difference is that their Romeo and Juliet can see each other clearly, where Diana and Charles view each other through a veritable thicket.
When Diana tells Charles that her sister didn’t want Diana to scare off the prince, he asks how she could do that. “You know,” she says. “By being a mad tree.” Mad: It is a word she will use years later to describe how Charles and his entire family think of her and why they shut her out of their circle. In the final moment of this sequence, Diana scampers upstairs, the vision of her blurring in reflected sunlight. It is lovely, but also a signifier of how obscured she will always be in Charles’s view.
In much harsher terms, Queen Elizabeth lays bare the distance between fairy-tale romance and practical reality in a scene in episode three. The night before the wedding of Diana and Charles, she tells Charles the story of his great-grandmother Queen Mary, whose first fiancé died before they could reach the altar, leading her to marry her late love’s younger brother, Prince George, to whom she was not attracted. It is worth noting that Elizabeth leaves out important details in this story, including the fact that the deceased fiancé, Prince Albert Victor, fell in love with and proposed to two other women before proposing to Queen Mary, an arrangement that history says he may have been nudged into by his mother. She also doesn’t mention the never-verified rumors that Albert Victor may have been Jack the Ripper or that he died during a global pandemic of what current scientists say may have been a forerunner of the coronavirus. History is complicated, and it’s much more efficient to simplify it.
There is already a distance between the truth and reality in this story, but Elizabeth furthers it by emphasizing that Mary and George, her “Prince Charmless,” married out of a sense of duty and worked to develop a seed of admiration that grew into love. (Ah, more plant/tree metaphors.) She implies that if Charles tries hard enough, he can make the same leap, from zero to total love for his bride. She makes this argument while fireworks are being set off in Hyde Park as people outside the palace jubilantly celebrate the impending nuptials. The distance between what is going on outdoors, down there, and upstairs, in here, where Charles is holding back tears, couldn’t be more vast.
The visual language in subsequent episodes continues to further the divided versus unified motif in a variety of contexts. When Diana and Charles arrive in Brisbane, a gorgeous tracking shot takes the POV from the high story of a building where well-wishers by the thousands are hanging out of windows to wave at the couple from so far away it’s barely possible to see them. But that perspective switches from distant, the vantage point from which most citizens see the royals, to up close and personal as the camera settles in with Diana shaking hands, taking pictures of people in the crowd, and even jokingly offering to swap dresses with a young woman who compliments what she’s wearing. She then looks up, beaming, to wave at all the people on those high floors, revealing an awareness of how important it is to make those without a front-row seat feel seen and included.
When Diana performs her famous birthday-present dance to “Uptown Girl” by Billy Joel — excuse me, Billy Jo-el — episode-nine director Jessica Hobbs pivots the camera to frame the moment from Charles’s spot in the balcony, where he is quite literally looking down on his wife, so much so that you can almost see the disapproval sliding down the bridge of actor Josh O’Connor’s nose. By the time that Charles and Diana are summoned to discuss their marriage with Elizabeth and Philip later in that same episode, it’s impossible to ignore the presence of physical separation. Each member of this foursome is seated so far apart from each other, they could easily earn the Dr. Fauci Social Distancing Seal of Approval.
When season four comes to a close during a Christmas gathering at the palace, Philip hits the inescapability of distance theme squarely on the head while explaining to Diana that everyone “in this system” — meaning the royal family — “is a lost, lonely, irrelevant outsider.” Images of the Queen Mother, Margaret, Charles, Anne, and Philip, each in past states of depression and doubt, flash across the screen until we get to Elizabeth, whom Philip describes as “the only person that matters” and “the essence of all of our duty.” Diana’s problem, he tells her, “is that you seem to be confused about who that person is.”
In other words, in this solar system, the one who wears the crown is the sun, and everyone else must remain in their respective orbits, on their different planets, millions of miles away from that source of light and each other. Those distances cannot be traversed nor bridged, and that is by a design that the progress has still not been able to dismantle.
During the last scene of the fourth season, Diana enters a room filled with family members preparing to take a group photo, but is completely unacknowledged. She joins the massive crowd of posers, but stands alone, almost off to the side. The final image of The Crown’s fourth season is of Diana, alone, connected to no one, while the German version of “Silent Night” plays gently. “Sleep in heavenly peace,” the singers sing in yuletide prayer, as tears fill Diana’s eyes. Given what Philip has just told her, she knows she’s going to have to go it alone. Sadly, we already know exactly what’s going to happen when she does.