When The Crown first debuted in 2016, many instantly looked ahead to the days when Princess Diana and Margaret Thatcher would grace the screen. Their arrival on the international and political scene became watershed moments in the United Kingdom and the world’s history. Each transcended their station, becoming pop culture symbols in their own right. One was a liberal woman who became the People’s Princess. The other ruled an increasingly conservative nation for more than a decade while shattering gender roles in government. The Crown gleefully accepts each force into the latest season, putting Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) in the middle of two forces pulling in opposite directions. The extremely personal and emotional season of Netflix’s jewel closes a chapter on the current cast but gives nearly every performer a standout moment to leave upon.
The Crown’s fourth season begins in the early 1980s, Queen Elizabeth (Colman) meets Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson) for the first time. Simultaneously, Prince Charles of Wales (Josh O’Connor) struggles to find love away from the married Camilla Parker-Bowles (Emerald Fennell). When he meets a young Lady Diana Spencer (Emma Corrin), the two seem like a match made in heaven. Over the next decade, political and personal relationships are tested for everyone in the Royal Family. Once again, the Crown’s stringent beliefs and reliance on tradition clash with the UK’s changing norms and hegemonic forces.
The three performances that will dominate much of the awards discussion this year will be O’Connor, Corrin, and Anderson. O’Connor makes the jump to a leading role, dominating the storyline for much of the season. Any questions on whether he would be a star are answered. O’Connor delivers the bratty, unapologetic nature of Charles with gusto but never lets his appalling dialogue turn you off from the character. Instead, he keeps you locked into his wildly unsettling behavior, even as he destroys his reputation and family.
O’Connor makes the most of his many duets, especially with Corrin ll and Fennell. Corrin brings a mousy, naive quality to Diana despite Peter Morgan‘s willingness to dive into her story’s darker elements. Her struggles with bulimia, clinical depression, and loneliness are well documented during this era. At times, Corrin adds a few too many mannerisms to make the performance feel natural. At other moments, the resemblance is uncanny. She brings the warmth to the screen that one might expect, and the desperation conveyed will eat away at you. Only the most stonehearted viewer will struggle to find empathy.
Anderson gets the season’s showiest role, easily leaving her mark as the most exciting PM on the screen since Lithgow’s Churchill. She leans into the accent, wig, and performative aspects of Thatcher’s public appearance. The sheer amount of time she spends as the Iron Lady gives her a leg up on Meryl Streep’s Oscar-winning portrayal. It’s a different era, but Anderson carries herself with more confidence and swagger than Streep ever does. Anderson’s perfect casting gives the series a necessary foil to Colman.
Late in the season, Prince Phillip (a once again excellent Tobias Menzies) waxes philosophical about the family’s devotion to the Queen herself. Colman remains pivotal to the success of the series, even as she lets other stars emerge. Her composed, withdrawn performance enhances the moments when she lets her audience behind the curtain. Few actors can deliver as much emotion or frustration with their eyes. As a scene partner, she elevates every performer. As The Crown has evolved, Morgan has allowed The Queen to occupy a role similar to one she holds today. We will surely miss Colman’s brilliance in the role, but her willingness to adapt the performance to fit the series’s needs helps paves the way forward.
Meanwhile, reliable members of the family fade into the background. Menzies takes on a supporting role for most of the season, often delivering humorous interjections from the sideline. Helena Bonham Carter receives a diminished and quip-heavy role until a late episode allows her to take center stage. Once again, Carter wows in her incredible turn, and despite a diminished role, another Emmy nomination is within reach. Charles Dance firmly plants himself in the guest actor conversation in his only episode of the season. It’s an emotionally affecting performance that sets up everything to follow over the rest of the season. As the three fade away, the Royal children move into the spotlight.
For the first time, the Royal children make their mark on the series. Beyond O’Connor, Morgan and his team find ways to put Princess Anne (Erin Doherty) in the series as much as possible. The deadpan delivery of her high-minded humor remains a highlight. Doherty excels most as an intimate performer, creating sympathy for an inherently unlikeable aristocrat. Her turn this season deserves awards attention, and Doherty should be highly sought after by future casting directors. The two younger boys, Andrew (Tom Byrne) and Edward (Angus Imrie) play up their upbringing’s spoiled rotten nature. Given their status away from the reigns of power and their looming controversy in the future, they add humor and fanservice for Royal family enthusiasts.
The Crown is the most complete series on television thanks to its craft team. The immaculate cinematography captures brilliant visuals that harken to iconic photos of the era. The variety of costumes that tell the story of class and ideology are just as impressive. Visual effects are deployed as well as any film, adding warships and elk to the environment. More castles and diverse settings are brought to life, and the production budget must have been outrageous. Yet Morgan pushes his series to make sure every dollar spent can be seen on the screen. The visual treats are neverending.
With many excellent performances and incredible craftwork, Morgan would easily rest on his laurels. Yet his writing is sharper than ever. With a conservative icon leading the way, he hones in on the cult of personality. Unlikely storytellers emerge from the shadows, including Nicholas Farrell and Tom Brooke‘s everyman characters. The voice of the people flows through, and despite the economic prosperity that emerged from the U.K. after Thatcher’s reign, there was a cost. Morgan weaves populism, emerging progressivism, and nationalist conservatism to tell a nation’s wholistic tale undergoing change. In the wake of Brexit and two Royal weddings, The Crown rings truer than ever before.
The Crown continues its reign near the top of the TV landscape. Every performer, craftsman, and directors are on their A-game. With the additions of O’Connor and Corrin, even Netflix’s best series takes a step forward. For the first time, a win for Best Series seems truly within reach. A new crop of talented actors emerges with transformative energy, taking the monarchy into contemporary times. Melodrama and privilege can grow tiresome. Despite this, decades of perspective and mythmaking make it impossible to turn away. This season, The Crown takes a step forward and lives up to the historical moments it brings to life.