What will the final scenes be? Take your pick. It may be ending early, but the news that the fifth season of The Crown will be its final season, ending in 2003—and not taking fans through the dramas of the last 20 or so years—does at least make some dramatic sense.
After all, 2003 was a landmark royal year which, handily for the makers of an epic royal soap opera, also included the seeds of the stories now dominating the press. It was the year of the 50th anniversary of the Queen’s coronation. It was the year William and Kate began dating at St. Andrew’s University, and when Camilla and Charles officially moved in together at Clarence House (they would marry two years later). Harry went to Australia in 2003, on a gap year trip between leaving Eton and joining the army. And also that year, then-unknown to them all, a certain Meghan Markle graduated from Northwestern University.
It was also the year that a Daily Mirror journalist, Ryan Parry, masqueraded as a royal footman, and then wrote about all the things he had witnessed within palace walls, such as the Queen’s preference for toast with lightly smeared marmalade, feeding her corgis scones, and footmen being instructed to walk down the edge of carpets to avoid wear and tear.
The Queen was so offended by the intrusion she later launched a legal action (quickly settled) against the Mirror, which was then being edited by Piers Morgan, who has since become the most vocal nemesis of Meghan Markle.
So, in the sense that The Crown has really been about the Queen, and not the royal family, 2003 makes sense because in that year the Queen was still firmly in control of the family and institution, and celebrating a key anniversary of her reign. Meanwhile, the first chapters of next-generation sagas were beginning to be written.
So, there is a plethora of possible final scenes for The Crown—although, most likely, it will end with a final, lionizing, lingering shot on the face of the monarch, who will be played by her third and final portrayer, Imelda Staunton.
But ending the show in 2003 does mean the erasure of the slice of royal history we are living through now. This seems bizarre. Practically speaking, this is a portion of history that younger Crown fans have lived through and seen. It is the most familiar, and also the most tantalizing to dramatize because it has been so bonkers.
We will not get to see William and Kate’s on-off courtship and eventual marriage. We will not follow Harry’s many romances, culminating in his marriage to Meghan Markle, precipitating one of the biggest royal crises of recent times. We will not trace Prince Andrew’s friendship with Jeffrey Epstein leading to yet another, still-evolving royal crisis. We will not see the “Fab Four” falling into line as a royal powerhouse, and then breaking apart—and the tension between William and Harry. We won’t see Harry and Meghan’s supposed isolation and upset within the royal family.
But besides the curtain-twitching, gossipy elements, the erasure of the last two royal decades also means we don’t see how the show interprets the transition of power from Queen to Charles—the planning, practicality and familial impact of royal succession. How does the Queen feel about it? How does Charles? How has it changed or deepened their relationship? To what extent—and how—do mother and son now operate as a team when handling crises such as Harry and Meghan’s royal exit and Andrew’s scandal?
Of course, Charles’ long wait to become king is the longest royal storyline in the show, and a sixth season—bringing the show right up to date—would trace him getting ever closer to the throne, and how that has affected or changed him. The relationship with his sons, particularly Harry, has become more complex over time; a final season would have allowed for a fascinating analysis of that.
Cutting the show off in 2003 also means cutting short a critical examination of how and why the royal family, for all its power and many advisers, keeps getting the handling of family crises so wrong. One would imagine the episodes around Diana’s death will feature elements of this self-sabotaging myopia—but the family hardly learns from its terrible PR mistakes, as recent history has all too candidly shown.
As it is, with an end date of 2003, William and Harry will stay frozen as handsome almost-adults, Charles will be more focused on the public’s acceptance of Camilla, and the Queen will still be ruling with a gloved fist, handbag perched rock-steady on elbow as ever. The year 2003 marks not only the 50th anniversary of her coronation, but also one of the final stretches of time of the old order in place.
This is likely why The Crown has decided not to go further. The show has traced the Queen’s journey, and ending the series in 2003 means she ends the show still solidly installed on the throne. There is a poetic completeness to that, but it is not a truthful end to a series with the title, The Crown.
The last 20 years of royal history have not just seen the kind of turmoil and upheaval that produce tabloid headlines, but also the marriages, births, and scandals that have radically reconfigured the institution itself. In 2020, partly informed by what has happened with Harry and Meghan and Andrew, the future and purpose of royalty is again a subject of public debate.
How will the coming seasons of The Crown deal with not just the titillating stuff, but the bigger questions of how much the royal family costs and what is it for? Perhaps we should expect the coming series to address such things, knowing the audience watching is thinking about them now, even if they may not have been at the forefront of the public imagination in 2003.
The series could compress these issues into the events leading to the 2003 denouement. But they won’t be as fully, and honestly, addressed had the drama not taken us up to now—and the astonishing battery of headlines generated by Meghan, Harry, Andrew, William, and Kate in just the last year. The royal news-setting agenda has gotten faster and more brutal.
It is odd, then, that the makers of a soap opera that revels so classily in its well-researched revelation and supposition do not want to approach the times the royals live in now.
If it isn’t fear of lawsuits from their still-alive subjects, or fear of the bigger questions where the analysis may take them (just what is this family we have been dramatizing for?), maybe it’s another fear entirely—that whatever drama The Crown never-to-be-Season-6 would have shown us, it would never have matched the drama the family has in recent years generated all by itself, with no need of a scriptwriter.