Princess Diana and Margaret Thatcher Arrive to Tarnish ‘The Crown’ Season 4
“The Crown” finally reaches the much-anticipated Diana years, but focusing on that royal soap opera over the enigmatic queen is one of the series’ first major missteps.
Ever since The Crown first premiered in 2016, its first season covering Elizabeth II’s marriage to Philip in 1947 and coronation at age 27, through the resignation of Winston Churchill in 1955, there has been an unignorable urgency among its Netflix fans to hurry up already.
It’s not that fans didn’t savor the show’s sumptuous production or become rapt in its juicy glimpse beyond the palace walls. But they also had the kettle heating on the stove, ready to sip the tea as the show’s timeline advanced to the tabloid drama of the modern era many are, largely, more familiar with. Basically, as beloved and lauded as The Crown has been, the whispers have been a rally chant: Show us Princess Diana.
Lady Di arrives in season four of the series, which is available to stream starting Nov. 15 on Netflix. She’s played by newcomer Emma Corrin from her time as an innocent, infatuated teenager through the years spent with her marriage’s unrest splashed across global headlines. But so, too, comes Margaret Thatcher, in a formidable performance by Gillian Anderson that is all but certain to dominate awards conversation in the next year.
As in the previous seasons of The Crown, this batch of episodes is framed around Queen Elizabeth’s (Olivia Colman) relationship with the serving prime minister. But the series seems perfectly aware that your preoccupation is likely instead to be with the Princess Diana drama, just as the world’s at the time was.
Elizabeth and Diana's stories are parallel, though distinct, narrative threads that are duly and richly explored in the 10 episodes. In practice, they exacerbate what’s always been a nagging problem with the series’ hopscotching through history, a distracting incoherence.
It’s the first time this is more than just a small gripe with the otherwise meticulously crafted series, which still ranks as the most lavish production on television. You’ll still bask in the production design, the costumes, and the jaw-dropping trips around Britain and the globe, sequences on countrysides, beaches, and city streets cinematic enough to rival the ordered opulence of the scenes set at Buckingham Palace.
The performances are still perfectly pitched to satisfy our voyeuristic eye and tease us into believing we’re watching a documentary; the historical elements continue to be illuminating, especially to neophyte Anglophiles, but the soap-opera suds should never get so much in your eye that they obscure clear vision—this is a dramatized history.
The Diana and Charles arc is undeniably tantalizing, especially for younger audiences reared on fairytales and the legend of Lady Di who may not have been aware of just how ugly the relationship was. (“Actually worse than the newspapers report” is how it’s described by one character in the show.) The shot from behind of the future princess in her wedding dress, teased in the trailer, is worth the price of admission alone.
Watching Anderson’s Thatcher and Colman’s Elizabeth go toe-to-toe, each calculating strategy versus decorum and alternating roles as predator and prey is a thrill. So what goes wrong?
There’s a speech delivered late in the season, as the machinations of Thatcher and the torrid drama of the Diana-Charles-Camilla triangle dominate, that warns us not to forget whom everyone’s focus and emotional energy should always be on: the queen. It’s unclear how meta that was intended to be, after a season that had tempted just the opposite.
For four seasons we’ve revisited the royals’ tunnel-vision focus on not diluting their bloodline, with their own members’ happiness becoming frequent collateral damage. As Elizabeth and Philip disappear as side figures for much of this fourth outing, the same case could be made for the royal narrative, too.
It’s not a catastrophic misstep, like the time Elizabeth breaks the sovereign protocol and expresses judgment about Thatcher (a great episode). But it is akin to the time Diana thought that videotaping herself singing a Phantom of the Opera ballad as a gift to Charles would please her toxically cruel husband (also a plot point!): an understandable and well-intentioned gesture that does not land as intended.
When it comes to the Diana plot, one of the sharpest moves the show makes is to drive home just how young she was when she entered the melee. We meet her as a precocious teenager. She’s bashful and nervous—and dressed youthfully in overalls—when she shares a lingering look with Charles (Josh O’Connor) at their second chance meeting, a smile foretelling the next, what, 40 years of international discourse.
He was 29 when they first met and she was 16—and then just 19 when they got engaged, 20 when they married. As her media star rises and she gains the confidence to assert her own desires over the decade that the season covers, it’s understandable that she is routinely exasperated by her suffocating royal lot in life. Her binding to it so young is almost lecherous in nature, something that a generation that might only know her from interviews and appearances in the last years of her life may not have fully comprehended.
It’s rare that the season diverts from the Diana storyline, and it dutifully depicts the ways in which it preoccupies the entire family.
There is an excellent bottle episode that dramatizes a freak moment in royal history, when a man, fed up with being unemployed under Thatcher’s leadership, breaks into Buckingham Palace, finds Queen Elizabeth asleep in her bedroom, then peacefully engages her in conversation about the state of the country before being arrested.
You’ll notice not much mention of Helena Bonham-Carter’s Princess Margaret or Tobias Menzies’ Duke of Edinburgh, both of whom are egregiously underused. Bonham-Carter, at least, gets a late-season showcase episode, and it may be the most emotional one of the batch, centering on royal cousins who were secretly hidden away at an asylum and falsely pronounced dead so as not to publicly embarrass the family.
It’s also one of the most damning indictments of the family, one that, coupled with the way their treatment of Diana is characterized, injects this season with the most palpable judgment of the royals yet. That context makes the depiction of Thatcher and her interactions with Elizabeth all the more interesting, and perhaps even controversial.
In the same way that people marveled over Meryl Streep’s transformation into the prime minister for her Oscar-winning Iron Lady take, Anderson’s disappearance into the role is so all-encompassing it’s nearly a distraction—which is mostly praise. It’s a mannered, labored mimicry, almost theatrical in the way that Anderson’s lowered, rasped voice and everything from her hunched back to tilted neck work to physically channel Thatcher.
If this season is about how two women—Diana and Thatcher—come to define the crown in this era, then due time is afforded to Thatcher’s life outside Buckingham Palace. It’s yet another “humanization” of the polarizing British figure. (Lest you forget, “Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead” surged on the English music charts following her death.) There’s not much space devoted to what made her so reviled, resulting instead in a sympathetic portrait of a strong-willed woman whose assuredness broke gender barriers.
Critics of this will notice how it echoes what’s become an inevitable truth of a show that centers on the royals: The “humanization” will morph history into a hagiography. It’s the most damning season of the show so far in how it depicts the family, but when it comes to Elizabeth and, now, with her scenes with Thatcher, there’s a bit of “yaas, #girlbosses, work!” cheerleading going on that is... complicated, to say the least.
But that’s the modern lens the audience instinctively puts on a series like this. It will be applied when looking at the icy, borderline abusive way the family treats Diana, in the context of Harry and Meghan Markle’s retreat from the crown. It also shouldn’t be lost on anyone that the first season of the series premiered four days before Donald Trump was elected in 2016 and this new fourth season, chronicling Thatcher’s tumultuous tenure and misread of power, debuts a week after he is voted out of office.
Maybe, for all our interest in the sensationalism, that’s what the show has done so well. In a series so grandiose to be worthy of the monarchy, it distilled the history and the drama to a point of relatability. The royal family, they’re just like us! And they are about as modern a family as one can get.