'The Crown' Season 4: TV Review

The Crown
The best season yet.

Gillian Anderson and Emma Corrin join the cast as Margaret Thatcher and Diana, Princess of Wales, respectively, on Netflix's royal history drama.

The fourth season of The Crown (Netflix) begins with one of the most evocative character introductions of the show's entire run. Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor) has just arrived for a date with Sarah Spencer at her palatial family estate — a home as desolate as it is grand. As he awaits in the foyer, Sarah’s younger sister, a 16-year-old girl dressed as a tree for a school performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, hides behind a pair of tall, decorative plants. She’s been told not to show herself to Charles, but Diana (Emma Corrin) can’t help stealing the spotlight, even when she’s just supposed to be the background. Only later does Charles learn from his date that the shy, retreating teen may have engineered their meet-cute. “She was obsessed with the idea of meeting you,” Sarah tuts about Diana. “Obsessed.”

With wholesale cast changes every two years and a heavy reliance on episodic storytelling, The Crown is built to defy calcification. But the new season feels even fresher than the previous one, when Olivia Colman and Tobias Menzies took over as Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, Prince Philip, from Claire Foy and Matt Smith. That’s in large part due to the addition of two new major characters, through whose eyes we see the British royal family anew: Diana, who desperately wants to join the Windsors despite some inkling that her marriage to a man in love with someone else will be a disaster, and Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson), whose (ironically) populist contempt for the residents of Buckingham Palace only grows with each encounter.

With former major players like Prince Philip and Elizabeth’s sister Princess Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter) in reduced roles, the fourth season is the first in which the domestic tensions among the royals is anywhere near as interesting as the British history that unfolds outside the palace gates. Creator Peter Morgan and his writers remain impressive in their ability to condense national events into dramatically compelling crises-of-the-week and flesh out real-life personages through just a few scenes (though, deliciously, the show doesn’t bother to do so for sniveling princelings Andrew and Edward).

Spanning the 11 years of Thatcher’s prime ministership (1979-1990), the season finds Elizabeth caught between two competing visions of the future by two very different, very headstrong women. The youthful, glamorous and compassionate Diana begs for the kind of familial warmth and marital fidelity that are anathema to the Windsors, her loneliness leading to bouts of binging and purging, rollerskating to Duran Duran within the palace’s carpeted hallways, even getting dinner with Charles’ mistress, the callous and canny Camilla Parker-Bowles (Emerald Fennell). Corrin is well cast as the royal family’s longtime most popular member, her Diana still starstruck by her own stardom, which will eventually kill her. And while The Crown has always served up lavish spectacle, Diana’s scenes deliver some of the most memorable costumes of the series' run.

While Diana charms and disarms, Thatcher pares the U.K. down to the bone. One of the underappreciated pleasures of The Crown has been watching prime ministers come and go, often with little ceremony. But in this season, Thatcher is the only PM we see. Dismissed as a “shopkeeper’s daughter” by the ever-snobbish Philip, Morgan’s Thatcher is an even better creation than his Diana — a formidable woman who broke class and gender barriers and was nonetheless on the wrong side of history on pretty much every important issue, including Apartheid. She’s often cooking, ironing or doting on her favorite child, and would likely have no sympathy for a woman who isn’t doing it all at all times. The effortlessly chic Anderson — Morgan’s partner — at first seems terribly miscast, her performance only slightly less mannered than Meryl Streep’s award-baiting turn in The Iron Lady. But the stoop, creaky voice and facial tics quickly gel into a woman as ferocious as she is unassuming, a merciless hawk in the guise of a granny hairsprayed to the heavens.

The Crown travels nearly as widely as its characters do, but its most affecting visit this season isn’t to Australia, where anti-royal sentiment gets kicked up, or to the Bronx, where Diana pushes the boundaries of what royal celebrity can and should do, but to working-class London, which is being devastated by Thatcher’s austerity policies. The contrast between Buckingham Palace and glum neighborhoods just a few miles away is truly jarring and serves as yet another outsider’s less-than-impressed gaze at the Windsor lifestyle.

Ultimately, though, what Thatcher and especially Diana do is land maternal doubts at Elizabeth’s feet. It’s a facet of the queen we’ve seldom seen even on The Crown — a symbol of tradition and continuity wondering if she’s done enough as a mother to prepare her now mostly adult children for the modern world, even as she fulfills her duty to tell her son and his new bride to perform royal romance for the public. As the understandably self-pitying Charles already knows, when Elizabeth has to choose between being the queen and his mother, he’ll always lose.

Cast: Olivia Colman, Tobias Menzies, Helena Bonham Carter, Josh O'Connor, Emma Corrin, Marion Bailey, Erin Doherty, Emerald Fennell

Creator: Peter Morgan

Showrunner: Peter Morgan 

Premieres Sunday, Nov. 15, on Netflix