“The Crown” Ends with a Whimper

The first four seasons of “The Crown,” the Netflix period drama about Queen Elizabeth II’s long reign, covered roughly forty years of British history. For many American viewers, the appeal of the series lay not only in the fair-minded characterizations of the Royal Family and the visual extravagances of one of the most expensive shows ever made but also in the deft incorporation of events that shaped U.K. politics, culture, and national identity. Season 1 revisited the Great Smog of 1952, which killed thousands of Londoners; Season 2 the Profumo scandal, which brought down a Prime Minister; and Season 3 the Aberfan disaster, a Welsh mining collapse that buried dozens of schoolchildren, whose deaths Elizabeth would later wish she had commemorated more swiftly.

By contrast, nearly half of the sixth and final season traverses less than three months in 1997: the weeks leading up to Princess Diana’s death and its immediate aftermath. That time frame underscores the narrowing of the show’s focus. Its creator, Peter Morgan, seems to have lost all interest in Elizabeth’s subjects, except when they turn on her for her conspicuous silence in the days following that fateful car crash in Paris. Prime Minister Tony Blair (Bertie Carvel), too, is most notable for his approval ratings; his popularity, which earns him the nickname King Tony, gives the Queen literal nightmares. Morgan treats the Windsors primarily as media figures—the people watch the Queen on the telly while the Queen watches them back. (Reports suggest that she watched “The Crown,” too.) But the post-Diana episodes are a study of celebrity without the requisite star power.

The show can be divided into the B.D. era, Before Diana, and the A.D. era, After Diana. “The Crown” in the B.D. years was stuffy and prim. Its most moving characters were Prince Philip, the Queen’s husband, and Princess Margaret, her younger sister—perhaps because, while Morgan admires the self-sacrifice it takes to sit impassively on the throne, his heart is with those who must stand next to it for decades with a forced smile. When Diana Spencer (a lively, elfin Emma Corrin) was introduced, in the fourth season, she jump-started the series by unsettling her in-laws and inviting the audience to see the family through an outsider’s perplexed gaze. “The Crown” has clung to her ever since. After her death, Morgan even resorted to necromancy, reviving the People’s Princess (now embodied by Elizabeth Debicki) as an apparition who soothes a disconsolate Charles (Dominic West) and makes peace with a grieving but resentful Elizabeth (Imelda Staunton). Debicki, for her part, turned out to be perfect casting; like Diana, she’s magnetic when she’s trying not to look sad, and failing miserably.

Diana’s story is inextricable from the monarchy’s obsession with optics; she was the family’s most talented exploiter of the media, and also its most tragic victim. The season première finds her as a lonesome divorcée entertaining her boys aboard a yacht owned by the Egyptian businessman Mohamed al-Fayed (Salim Daw). She offers the paparazzi a glimpse of her tan limbs and leopard-print swimsuit in exchange for privacy for her children—a decision that proves, like her trust in Fayed himself, to be a dangerous miscalculation. These photos only create a hunger for more breathless coverage of her nascent relationship with Fayed’s son, Dodi (Khalid Abdalla). The monster that Diana thought she could tame grows bigger—and ultimately swallows her whole.

Diana’s beauty, the fairy-tale veneer of her marriage to Charles, and her refusal to sport a stiff upper lip during its soap-operatic breakdown all helped reduce the Royal Family to tabloid fodder. (No other king has ascended the throne after having his tampon-related dirty talk printed in the nation’s papers.) The season’s strongest episode, “Willsmania,” implicitly links Diana’s influence and the treatment that her elder son, William (Ed McVey), receives after her demise, when the fifteen-year-old was subjected to adoration verging on idolatry that must have been as baffling as it was upsetting. It’s no wonder that, having witnessed his parents sling mud at each other through the press, he shies away from the relentless public scrutiny of his academic and romantic choices.

The Royal Family’s popularity never seemed to bounce back after Diana’s departure from it, and “The Crown” never recovers from her death. As the series draws to a close, Morgan ushers the youngest generation into his portrayal of the Firm. An arc about William gradually shaking off his youthful misanthropy and coming to accept his fate as a future monarch is about as engaging as the post-Diana episodes get. While he’s a sympathetic presence, his diffidence and reserve leave him ill-suited to the rom-com role he’s meant to occupy when he develops a crush on a classmate named Kate Middleton (Meg Bellamy). Compared with the liaisons of their forebears, their slow-burn romance is sweet but painfully mundane: a flirtation that begins with awkward small talk in the university library is a far cry from, say, the star-crossed love affair between Princess Margaret and the flying ace Peter Townsend.

Unfortunately, Margaret and other once-vibrant figures are now constrained by age and infirmity; on two separate occasions, Morgan wrings pathos from the possibility that an elderly family member has died in her sleep. Without a living protagonist fit to carry it, “The Crown” is increasingly populated by ghosts—Diana’s, Dodi’s, even those of the still-kicking Queen, whose younger self informs her, “If you went looking for Elizabeth Windsor, you wouldn’t find her . . . you buried her years ago.” As the more charismatic characters recede into the background, Morgan’s myopic focus on the handful who capture his attention—a coterie that doesn’t include Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson, those other tabloid fixtures of the nineties—begins to feel claustrophobic. War continues in the Balkans, the Twin Towers are obliterated, and Blair’s international standing goes into free fall when his powerful American ally, Bill Clinton, is replaced by George W. Bush, a man he’s never met. If anything happens in Britain during this time other than Blair’s slide in the polls, we don’t learn about it.

Morgan has evidently soured on Teflon Tony since writing the screenplay of the 2006 film “The Queen.” That Blair (Michael Sheen) was equal parts compassionate and canny. This new incarnation is a political Icarus whose blinkered modernity leaves no appreciation for the allure of tradition. Elizabeth’s cri de coeur for employing a Washer of the Sovereign’s Hands, a Warden of the Swans, and a Hereditary Grand Falconer stands out as one of the most monarchist moments of the entire series. It’s almost persuasive, until you think about the public funds required to prop up the divine right of kings.

Inevitably, the season is shadowed by the actual Elizabeth’s passing, last year, which came with its own questions about the relevance and durability of the monarchy. “If I go on another twenty, twenty-five years, a tired, white-haired, geriatric Queen will hand over to a tired, white-haired, geriatric Prince of Wales,” she prophesies. It’s Philip (Jonathan Pryce) who makes the argument against her abdication: “Those that come after you are not remotely ready to take over.” Yet the fictionalized Charles of 2005 appears eminently qualified for the job. That he’s played by someone as conventionally attractive as West is an affront to common sense, as is the depiction of the current sovereign as a doting partner (to Camilla), an emotionally accessible father, and a would-be reformist whose potential is wasted as a perennial heir apparent. Charles is no Diana, naturally attuned to the whims of the people—his spin doctor (Ben Lloyd-Hughes) is rarely far from his side, advising on how to present himself, his children, and his relationship to the best effect. But Morgan seems to believe that “The Crown,” like the institution itself, needs a hero. The real-life King couldn’t have asked for better P.R. ♦

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