Ah, The Crown, the quintessential example of prestige drama. The lavish production value! The impeccable casting! And it’s certainly no stranger to awards. But while The Crown always embodied the prestige side of things, season five is positioned to be particularly heavy on the drama — and not just on screen. With Queen Elizabeth II’s recent death, the very existence (and justification) of the monarchy has become pretty contentious, and as the series catches up to the present day, the stakes get increasingly higher for those making the show as well as for those being portrayed.
Prince, er, King Charles is reportedly worried about how this season might sway public opinion of him, something he has long struggled with, particularly since the dissolution of his marriage to the late Princess Diana. It’s taken him a lot of time to rebuild goodwill, and, given The Crown’s huge viewership, it could all come crashing down again. Not exactly a great way to start one’s reign. What’s more, while the show is historical fiction, it’s debatable how clearly this is understood by the public. As a result, some big names are writing the series off: Tony Blair and John Major — the two former U.K. prime ministers depicted this season — have denounced The Crown’s fabrications, with Major urging for a disclaimer to be added to each episode. Dame Judi Dench, who has played at least four monarchs (five if you count Old Deuteronomy) echoed Major’s request in an open letter. Backlash against The Crown will probably only help its ratings (thank you, Streisand Effect), but is the concern warranted? Let’s see!
Our season opener starts off with black-and-white footage of a familiar face: young Elizabeth, as played by Claire Foy. The fledgling queen is in Scotland for the launch of Britannia, a ginormous royal yacht. She says she hopes the vessel will be like the new sovereign: “dependable and constant, capable of weathering any storm.” All aboard for our first metaphor of the season! It’s easy to apply when both the boat and the queen are at the beginning of their journeys; they’re essentially blank slates. But then we’re brought to where this season officially picks up: July 1991. And that’s where things get interesting.
The queen, now played by Imelda Staunton, is 65 and getting a checkup. Healthwise, she’s in pretty good shape. (Are we surprised? The woman lived to 96!) But she does find out she’s unwittingly gaining weight despite (or perhaps because of) never changing her habits. That’s just what happens as you get older, says her doctor.
Next, we get our first glimpse of this season’s Charles, courtesy of Dominic West, the Meryl Streep of playing cheating messes. Unlike his predecessor Josh O’Connor, West bears little physical resemblance to the real Prince of Wales (Mic wrote that he’s frankly too hot to play the royal). But West certainly sounds like Charles, and he does so while portraying him as more confident and reckless than we’ve seen before — a believable change for a 40-something man whose life still doesn’t entirely feel like his own.
Charles gets news of a forthcoming Sunday Times poll in which respondents described the queen as irrelevant, old, expensive, and out of touch. He, meanwhile, gets a glowing review for his modernity. Almost half of the respondents think he’ll make a great king and they’d support his mother’s abdication. The piece says Elizabeth suffers from the titular Queen Victoria Syndrome: “an aging monarch, too long on the throne, whose remoteness from the modern world has led people to grow tired not just of her but of the monarchy itself.” So much for that clean bill of health.
Elizabeth claims that being likened to Queen Victoria (another staid, long-reigning sovereign) is a compliment. But while she won’t freely admit it, it’s clear that the threat of obsolescence makes her uneasy. The criticism signals a growing pressure for the queen to reform significantly or step down — both acts that, to her, feel antithetical to upholding the monarchy and its values.
Meanwhile, Charles, who fancies himself a radical freethinker, is pretty damn pleased with the poll results and what they could mean for him. There’s a catch, though: The appeal of Charles becoming king is largely tied to having Diana become queen. People want the package.
The news story is due to run while Charles and Diana are going to be in Italy. The trip is being framed as a second honeymoon — but with the boys. Uh, is that romantic? According to the Prince of Wales, sure! In fact, why not invite cousin Norton; his wife, Penny; and their little girl, Leonora, along too? Charles sure is full of … ideas. Diana (Elizabeth Debicki) arrives at the airport a bit miffed over the extra guests but not exactly surprised. Emma Corrin’s star-making portrayal of the Princess of Wales felt eerily perfect, but Debicki’s Diana is a natural progression that’s also captivating. Her voice and physicality are spot-on; just as Charles has evolved in his own way, this long-suffering Diana has become less coy with age.
On the plane, Diana tells Charles that she’s happy they’re doing this, and Charles holds her hand — a gesture William, now played by Senan West (Dominic’s actual son), takes note of. Charles and Diana are well aware of their power-couple status. As the press in Italy clamor for photos of them, Charles asks Diana if they should “give them some of the old magic.” The pair very much lean into the optics of the situation, and, of course, the photographers eat it up. Who doesn’t love a fairy-tale romance, even if it is a charade?
On the yacht with the rest of the party, Charles goes over his proposed itinerary for the trip. He opens the floor to requests, and Diana asks for beaches and water sports, to which Charles perfunctorily agrees. But he’s less amenable to her suggestion of shopping — their interests simply don’t align — and goes as far as to mock her until the boys back up their mother’s request. Later, Diana hands her young saviors a Game Boy as thanks before saying good night. She walks off with a copy of Vogue magazine, saying she’s “off to read the classics” alone.
Headlines back home proclaim that Diana and Charles are enjoying not-so-newlywed bliss. On the Britannia, however, things are running less smoothly; Prince Philip (Jonathan Pryce) discovers their venerable ship is falling apart. Resurrecting the metaphor, Philip tells Elizabeth it’s no surprise given the ship’s age: “Sentimentally, I think we’d all prefer to stick with her. But we have to be realistic about the cost of repairs when she’s so obviously past her best.” Philip suggests the queen speak to the prime minister about the need to repair her favorite home, but he warns that the Britannia might be too far gone to fix and a replacement might be necessary.
Back in Italy, the honeymoon’s over. It seems Charles forgot about a previous commitment he made (low-hanging fruit!), and he wants to cut the holiday short. Diana, who had once again allowed Charles to get her hopes up, now gives him an earful for not prioritizing their family time. On the flight back home, William picks up on his mother’s sadness and offers his hand — much like his father did pre-trip but this time in comfort — which Diana accepts with a small smile. Between voicing their shopping support and this, it’s clear that the boys, especially William, aspire to protect their mother. It’s an unfair burden for the kids, but given Diana’s extreme isolation, it’s not exactly surprising that she has come to rely on them for comfort.
For his part, Charles requests a meeting with Prime Minister John Major to fish for his opinion on the Times piece. The prince says it’s dangerous to ignore polls, but Major says it’s just as risky to be guided by them. Still, Charles steamrolls on. He talks about his freethinking great-great-grandfather Edward VII, whom Queen Victoria kept waiting in the wings but who ended up being an exemplary monarch. It was a shame his mind went unused for so long. Hint, hint. (FYI: Major has called this particular treason-esque conversation “a barrel-load of nonsense”.)
During tea with Major, Elizabeth requests (i.e., instructs) he approve the financing of Britannia’s refurbishment and repairs. But he doesn’t think spending public funds to fix a fancy yacht would reflect well on either of them, especially during a global recession. Still, this isn’t just a boat to Elizabeth. Britannia’s the only thing the queen has been able to make her own rather than inherit. “She is a floating, seagoing expression of me,” Elizabeth tells Major in case we didn’t catch the symbolism during that earlier conversation with Philip.
Time for Balmoral’s annual Ghillies Ball! Major spends the night dodging royals with verbal diarrhea. Philip goes on a tirade about the need to save Britannia, while Charles later tells him pointedly that old things like that are “too costly to keep repairing.” Next, Diana unloads upon him about how the young royal marriages — Anne and Mark’s, Andrew and Sarah’s, as well as hers and Charles — are struggling. She predicts they’ll all end within six months. And with their collapse, she predicts, so ends the institution. After all, the monarchy is founded upon archaic ideals, particularly when it comes to marriage.
As the episode winds down, we see Elizabeth, who retired early from the ball, kneeling and praying while a portrait of Queen Victoria hovers above — a guidepost that now only feels haunting. Britannia, the monarchy, and Elizabeth herself are all in troubled waters. Meanwhile, Major is disturbed by the events of the night. He tells his wife that the senior royals are detached from reality while the junior royals are entitled, reckless, and lost. Prince Charles is champing at the bit for more power and influence but doesn’t realize Diana is his greatest asset and weapon. None of this bodes well when the country’s stability relies at least partly on the state of the Windsor family. “It feels like it’s all about to erupt,” says the prime minister, adding, “on my watch.” Like so many of the Windsors, Major has inherited something unwanted here, too.
• Britannia is christened with the smashing of Empire wine against its hull instead of the traditional Champagne (which would be considered too extravagant in postwar Britain). The royal family will make concessions like this in times of economic trouble but later still push for a multimillion-pound refit. Make it make sense!
• All the talk about yachts and Italy in this episode had me thinking about another show that has featured these things: Succession. Is it a coincidence that two of the most popular drama series of today both deal with themes of power and inheritance and family trauma? Calling all armchair psychologists!
• I appreciated Anne’s use of binos to scope out her new crush. It’s serious business.
• Prince Philip is coming across like a Wife Guy. And I’m not sure that bodes well.
• Watching Debicki as Diana walk up to Charles and the Knatchbull family at the airport is so satisfying because she towers over everyone. (The real Diana was the same height as Charles, five-foot-ten, but often made to look shorter.)