Review: NETLFIX's The Crown (2020)

Karianne Robinson | Lancaster University
Issue 02 - December 2020

Season 4 of The Crown on Netflix.

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 n mid-November, The Crown returned to Netflix for its much anticipated fourth season. As the show reaches the turbulent decade of the 1980s, we now find ourselves easily within the realm of living memory. Those too young to recall these events first-hand are still in familiar territory; the royal wedding between the Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer and the election of Britain’s most divisive Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, are seared into the mind of the British public.

   Season four sees Olivia Colman reprise her role as Queen Elizabeth for the second and final time before Imelda Staunton steps in for the show’s final two seasons. However, Colman - who received the Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Queen Anne in The Favourite (2018) – is rarely afforded the opportunity to demonstrate her considerable skill. This is undoubtedly a consequence of the show’s repeating motif; the monarch should ‘do nothing’ in response to political events (unless, of course, doing something would result in a juicy constitutional crisis as in the episode 48:1). Much as in season 3, events are mostly depicted as happening around, rather than to, the shows’ central character.

   With the new season comes the addition of new characters. Emma Corrin dazzles and enchants in the role of Diana, almost unnervingly capturing the essence of the Princess’s mannerisms and tone of voice. Gillian Anderson equally impresses with her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher. However, whilst season four of The Crown has given us a compelling and believable Diana, the show’s depiction of Thatcher produces a more complex reaction. The show has gone to painstaking lengths to humanise the former Prime Minister and in doing so they have created an undeniably sympathetic representation. Of course, pulling back the curtain to reveal the (totally fictionalised) private lives, thoughts, and feelings of very public figures is what The Crown does best. It is certainly what keeps us all coming back for more season after season. Yet, there is something about this portrayal of Britain’s Iron Lady that sits uncomfortably.

   This season focuses heavily on the Queen and Prime Minister as mothers. This seems a reasonable narrative for the monarchy as it is undeniably a family institution. However, in a show that we expect to only engage with politicians in so far as their politics relate to the monarchy, why is the Prime Minister’s relationship with her children of such interest? We could similarly ask why The Crown felt the need to equate Thatcher’s reaction to the Argentinian invasion of the Falkland Islands with the distress caused by her son being lost during the Paris-Dakar rally, particularly when doing so required the false convergence of the timeline of the two events. Are we still so uncomfortable with the idea that a woman could hold the power to launch a war that it needs to be made palatable by dressing the decision up as mothering instinct? It is difficult to recall a situation in which The Crown has treated Thatcher’s male predecessors in this way. Has the show ever felt the need to explain the decisions of other Prime Ministers in terms of stereotypical notions of gender?

   Whilst the show has decided to humanise Thatcher, it holds no qualms with presenting some of its leading male characters as utterly dislikeable. Any sympathy developed for Prince Charles during the course of season 3 has long evaporated by the time the credits roll at the end of the current season. The Crown would not be The Crown if the royal family was not depicted as deep in emotional turmoil. However, the downward spiral of self-pity that seeps through this season is overdone. On occasion, emotional subtly would have served the show well.

    Episode 5, Fagan, stands out as the highlight of the season, not least because it is a rare moment where Olivia Colman really has the opportunity to impress. The episode tells the true story of Michael Fagan who broke into Buckingham Palace on two separate occasions, the second time making it into the Queen’s bedroom. Whilst the break-in itself really happened historical accuracy is left at the bedroom door. Yet, this imagined conversation between Fagan and the Queen provides perhaps the most powerful social commentary of the season.

   In Fagan, The Crown presents the social impact of Thatcher’s economic and social policies writ large. Unemployed and struggling with his mental health, we watch Fagan’s situation deteriorate before he takes a flippant comment from his MP about taking up his issues with the Queen to heart. The Crown builds a rare moment of suspense as Fagan enters the Queen’s bedroom. When the two finally talk, Fagan gives an eloquent plea for the Queen to advocate on behalf of those who are suffering at the hands of Thatcher’s policies. His request is heart-wrenchingly futile. As the show hammers home, this is not an area in which the Queen holds any constitutional power. When the police enter the room, the Queen shakes Fagan’s hand and promises to bear in mind what he has said. In doing so, she treats him with the dignity and respect that has been otherwise lost from his life. Many people suffered as a result of Thatcher’s policies. Distilling these experiences into the story of a single individual (young, white, male) and examining it through a fictionalised conversation was always going to be problematic. Despite this, Fagan is ultimately successful because it feels personal and sincere.

   Yet to be released, the final two seasons of The Crown will see a new cast of actors take over the roles of many of the central characters. They will bring their own style and flair to a show which owes its success to the dramatisation of the relationships between those people closest to the monarch. In The Crown historical accuracy never reigns supreme, but that’s not why we tune in to watch.

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Karianne is EPOCH's Modern History Editor and a second-year History PhD student at Lancaster University. Her research focuses on masculinities and working identity in periods of industrial action. 

Twitter: @Karianne_R_