TV

The Crown season 4: Megawatt performances and bold class statements make for the best outing yet

The entrances of Emma Corrin as Princess Diana and Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher steal the show with tour-de-force performances, but the whole cast elevates their game in The Crown’s most powerful season yet.

If you were to pick one season to tune into Netflix’s The Crown, season 4 should be it. Two powerhouse roles enter for this season only, and they each have a titanic effect on the series.

First off, Emma Corrin as Lady Diana Spencer — later Princess Diana — is a complete revelation. From the moment she enters the scene — costumed from a Midsummer Night’s Dream skulking around the Spencer estate, and subtly charming Josh O’Connor’s Prince Charles — she steals the spotlight from everyone else in the room. Much like the real-life princess, Corrin potently illuminates her surroundings.

A relative newcomer, the 24-year-old Corrin takes on the highly anticipated, popular Diana on The Crown. I’ve written about the ghostly pall her performance casts on the series, but the Pennyworth actor brings so much more than just a well-studied impression. Her Diana exudes a multi-dimensional charisma that builds over layers of vulnerability, charm, and empathy that made her namesake so alluring. You can feel her doomed future in almost every scene, and viewing them left me with either goosebumps or with sad foreboding. It really is like watching a ghost.

Matching her toe-to-toe in performance is Josh O’Connor as the Prince of Whales. All the hype is on Corrin and Gillian Anderson turning in the star turns this Crown season, but O’Connor is also a standout. It’s refreshing to experience the blossoming of their relationship at the beginning, even with all the complications of their obvious age difference, rush to find a “suitable bride,” and Charles’ reluctance to give up Camilla Parker-Bowles. “She’s just a child” is how Charles describes his fiancé.

Their incompatibility only exacerbates throughout The Crown’s fourth season, but the moments where the two connect offers a fresh reminder of how the two captivated at the time, and their growing hostility provides some of the most intense scenes where neither emerges the winner. Since we know the outcome of their marriage and the impending death of the “people’s princess,” each interaction between Charles and Diana can’t help but come with a sense of dread. Diana cleaves to a desperate need to be loved — making all the Windsors uncomfortable in the process — while O’Connor’s emotional isolation as Charles has never been more keenly felt.

One Crown episode centers on who is the favorite of each of the “women running the country,” (as Philip puts it, as the “last thing England needs.” Suffice it say, he’s unimpressed by Thatcher as PM, even if he is resigned to his wife as Queen). It’s no wonder that Charles is no one’s favorite: not his mother’s, not Diana’s, not the public’s, and certainly not his father’s (that would be Anne). Only Lord Mountbatten has a soft spot for Charles, and he dies, due to an IRA bombing incident on his boat, at the beginning. Charles doesn’t even get the chance to mourn him properly without his father (Tobias Menzies) expressing jealousy that Charles supplanted him in “Dickie’s” favor (in a beautifully acted scene between Menzies and O’Connor).

Watching Diana’s struggles emerge in this season (bulimia, unpreparedness at an alarmingly young age for an overwhelming role, and lack of affection) gets mixed up with sympathies towards an underappreciated Charles. Diana’s misery is only compounded by an equally miserable Charles, all for separate and escalating reasons. It is simply heartbreaking to watch this marriage disintegrate. The Crown does a wonderful job of still making the marriage dissolution feel freshly upsetting. It is a shame that we just get a season to witness a ten-year span of their declining relationship, most especially with actors O’Connor and Corrin at the helm.

In addition to Josh O’Connor, everyone ups their game this season in The Crown. Tobias Menzies doesn’t chew up the scenery like he did in episodes “Bubbykins” and “Moondust” in season 3, but he along with the rest of the cast grow more comfortable in their roles, including Helena Bonham Carter as Princess Margaret and most especially Olivia Coleman as Queen Elizabeth II. It truly will be sad to see this cast go next season.

Coleman may have come across as reserved and remote in The Crown’s third season, however, she finds her groove in her sophomore year as the Queen. Her scenes with Gillian Anderson’s Margaret Thatcher are a particular delight. There are so many similarities between the two — being born just six months apart, strong relationships with their fathers, persevering against all the odds as remarkably powerful women — but that is where the similarities end. Anderson’s exaggerated bow to the queen at the outset imbues their first meeting with symbolism.

But soon the two will diverge in their thoughts on the direction of the country. Anderson moves beyond the mannerisms (and wig) of Thatcher and imbues her with an inner strength that stands up to the pomp and snobbery of the queen and her ilk. In one particular moment Anderson’s Thatcher employs a deft touch by quoting Charles Mackay, “You’ve been a coward in the fight,” directly at the queen, after Thatcher ruthlessly sacks “privileged” cabinet members, coming on the heels of enduring a humiliating weekend at Balmoral.

In their own disparate ways, Diana and Thatcher shake up the veneer of class, power, and tradition. You admire their efforts to break through all the pompous behavior, like the ridiculous, endless protocols, or the right way to play “hey dibble dibble” or such nonsense, or the proper shoes and attire to wear during a stag hunt through the highlands. You champion both disruptors’ ability to bring a fresh, new perspective through either hard work (Thatcher) or magnetism (Diana).

Despite their revolutionary energy, they progress only so far until they come up against the great machine. Coleman’s Queen Elizabeth and her clan maintain a tenacious ability to retain their balance of stability and longevity. We constantly hear talk about Charles being the “heir to the throne,” but even to this day, QEII remains the longest reigning monarch in England’s history.

As tensions escalate between the Windsors and Diana, Prince Philip confronts the popular princess and makes it abundantly clear who matters, who endures, who remains the heart of the people of England, regardless of changing fascinations or politics. The Queen is the “only person who matters, the oxygen we all breathe, the essence of all our duty.” It’s no wonder that Elizabeth remains the longest lived (while Diana and Thatcher are deceased), the happiest despite circumstances, and retains the most satisfying marriage among all her family members (sister and children). Perhaps it’s a product of her unflappability, or that everyone else sacrifices for her happiness. It’s a question that always hangs in the air on The Crown.

Each person who comes up against this juggernaut seems to get bowed under. The fourth season is seeped with symbolism. The prize stag that establish the first episode hasn’t been seen in those parts for decades and all of Balmoral is fascinated to catch such a unique, spectacular creature. At one point on The Crown S4, I felt the stag represented Diana, then Margaret Thatcher, but really, the stage is anyone who tries to pierce the impenetrable royal wall, which has stood firm for hundreds of years. Queen Elizabeth II is the finest example.

And it’s not that she’s a particular bad person. In fact, Coleman manages to bring layers of sympathy in the role this season on The Crown. We glanced just a glimpse of it in last season’s “Aberfan,” but even more this year when Michael Fagan breaks into Buckingham Palace in the middle season episode, “Fagan.” Just when you start to get fed up with the way the royals behave, The Crown creator Peter Morgan manages to shift the tables and illustrate that Elizabeth can read her people better than the “Iron Lady.” After breaking into her bedroom, Fagan has a heart-to-heart with the monarch where he expresses what “real people” are going through in the country. He describes the current state of England has a “mirage of democracy,” explaining the painful toll being unemployed has taken on his life. “They say I have mental problems now. I don’t. I’m just poor.”

This moment of humanity is what stands out the most on The Crown this season.

The Crown Season 4 premieres on Netflix November 15. It is riveting.