The unspoken norm, especially when it involves the martyrdom that comes with being dead, is that no one should speak ill of Princess Diana. Who later became just “plain” Lady Diana in the wake of her very public and very tumultuous divorce with Prince Charles. The Crown’s fifth season explores the final breakdown of the doomed-from-the-start marriage, this time with Elizabeth Debicki in the role. Admittedly, her forebear, Emma Corrin, was slightly more likable—and, to be frank, Debicki looks better suited to play Paris Hilton than Diana Spencer. But that’s nothing compared to the physical upgrade Prince Charles gets in the form of Dominic West (whose real-life son, Senan West, plays Prince William). This being just one of many initial telltale signs that the series’ creator, Peter Morgan (who wrote every episode of this season), is determined to present Charles in a more favorable light than he’s ever been accustomed to.

But before Morgan paints his pretty picture of a rather hideous man, the requisite “metaphor” is established for the season. Specifically, the four-thousand-ton yacht created for Queen Elizabeth (shown as Claire Foy in the flashback scenes). Appearing at the launch of the yacht, dubbed Britannia, in 1953, the queen declared to a public in Scotland that was still under the trance of worshipping her, “I hope that this brand-new vessel, like your brand-new queen, will prove to be dependable and constant.” If by that she meant “stoic and rigid,” she fulfilled her promise.  

A pan over from the young queen of yore to the queen of the present-day (set in 1991)—played by Imelda Staunton—as she gets a check-up from her doctor finds her being asked a “personal” question. That being: is Balmoral her favorite home? The queen coyly answers, “There is another that’s even more special to me.” Obviously, it’s the royal yacht, the only “dwelling” ever created expressly for her tastes, whereas everyplace else she inhabits is haunted by the tastes of other rulers. Just another case of the laughable amount of sympathy we’re supposed to feel for her when this is expressed. “Oh you poor thing, the various castles you live in don’t suit your personality? How badly we should feel for you!” But anyway, Morgan does his best to evoke “empathy” not only for the monarchy as an institution, but for Charles in particular. Not just because he’s so “full of potential” and such an educated man (as anyone given his education could be) who can never make his mark in any real way while he waits for the role he was “destined” for. But also because he’s been “saddled with” Diana. She with her “middle-class” interests like shopping and pop culture. This divide is drilled further into the viewer’s mind as the episode, called “Queen Victoria Syndrome,” shows Charles and Diana on their “second honeymoon” in Italy. Namely, off the coast near Naples, where Charles’ own yacht, the Alexandra is enlisted.

As Charles’ sole motive for agreeing to the so-called second honeymoon is to benefit from the goodwill of a new poll that posits most would be in favor of the queen abdicating early to give up her crown to someone younger and more “modern,” Diana is once again led down the primrose path of believing her marriage might have a chance. Moreover, when she expresses an interest in beaches and water sports and shopping as Charles goes over a historical value-oriented itinerary, Morgan makes his message clear: neither he nor Charles saw Diana as an intellectual equal. Coming to her defense on the shopping desire is William (Timothée Sambor) and Harry (Teddy Hawley), the latter barely seen in this season (perhaps some kind of undercutting shade at his current overall absence). And yet, he being the first to raise his hand to defend Diana in her desire to shop feels like a poignant moment for showing their deeper affinity.

The continued displays of their lack of similar interests are further made manifest by Diana riding away on a boat with William and Harry to the mainland as she blasts “Emotions” by Mariah Carey and calls out, “Bye Charles! We’ll miss you while we’re having all the fun!” Unable to handle his “petulant” wife any longer, Charles exits the friend-filled “honeymoon” early under a pretense, then angles for favor with Prime Minister John Major (Johnny Lee Miller) by using the poll as a launching point to poison him against his mother—the first of many instances in this season. Which, no, doesn’t make Charles come across as noble, so much as a backstabbing little twat who can’t handle a woman in power. Even a superfluous one who does repeatedly show herself to be out of touch. And, after telling Major she welcomes any comparison to the long-reigning Queen Victoria intended to be an insult, she then requests the funds necessary to refit her royal yacht—again, the “grand metaphor” of the season meant to hit us over the head with the analogy that she, like it, has become a liability that few people have use for. Least of all “common” people. “We’re in the middle of a global recession,” Major has to remind her before suggesting the royal family bears the cost of repairing the yacht themselves. Needless to say, the queen is scandalized by such a response.

The next episode, “The System,” veers away from the queen and Charles to give us a requisite glimpse into the goings-on of Prince Philip’s (Jonathan Pryce) life at the time. It was comprised mainly of carriage driving and forming a close bond with Penny Knatchbull (Natascha McElhone), the wife of Lord Romsey a.k.a. Philip’s godson, Norton Knatchbull (Elliot Cowan). When Penny is brought closer to Philip in the wake of her daughter Leonora’s death at the age of five, it gives him more clout in terms of suggesting she take up his same invigorating hobby of carriage driving.

But while the senior royals are having their fun and frivolity, Diana’s resentment is gathering—prompting her to take up an offer presented by her close friend, Dr. James Colthurst (Oliver Chris), in being interviewed secretly by journalist Andrew Morton (Andrew Steele). The eventual biography that results, Diana: Her True Story, is released in 1992—the queen’s self-declared “annus horribilis” (also the title of episode four, in which Princess Margaret [Lesley Manville] is given her biggest storyline of the season with the reemergence of her one true love, Peter Townsend [Timothy Dalton]). Notably, the illustriously terrible (mainly for Diana) Christmas of ’91 is only glossed over (even in the finale of season four), with primary emphasis on Penny being seen publicly with the queen (per Philip’s request, lest the media “get the wrong idea” about his increasingly close relationship with her) in episode six, “Ipatiev House.” Perhaps because Kristen Stewart in Spencer already got to cover that ground from Diana’s perspective so thoroughly.

In any case, the Andrew Morton biography of ’92 would be nothing compared to the bomb set off by her infamous Panorama interview for the BBC in 1995, which episodes seven through nine, “No Woman’s Land,” “Gunpowder” and “Couple 31” all address in a three-act format. “Couple 31” serving to show the “fallout” of what Diana “hath wrought,” even though many responded favorably to the interview (regardless of it being obtained via extremely nefarious methods). Especially with regard to her frank discussion of her eating disorder, exhibiting a candor that undoubtedly gave many others the courage to come forward about their own.

Alas, that wouldn’t be in keeping with season five’s overall determination to portray Diana as a very insecure and unstable woman. And Charles as an intelligent man dealt an unfortunate hand for wanting to actually use that intelligence. Enter a flashback to 1989 in the most pandering-to-Charles episode, “The Way Ahead.” Opening on a scene during Christmas as Charles sits at a table of close friends, he complains, “Previous princes of Wales have been happy to spend their life in idle dissipation, but my problem is, I can’t bear idleness… In any other professional sphere, I’d be at the peak of my powers. Instead, what am I? I’m just a useless ornament stuck in a waiting room, gathering dust.” Here, too, the amount of “empathy” we’re supposed to feel for this person is perhaps overshot by Morgan.

Morgan’s subsequent attempt at making Charles seem “with it”—of the people and among the people—isn’t very successful either. This occurring in the final scene of “The Way Ahead” that features him attempting to breakdance with non-white youths to the tune of Eric B. & Rakin’s “Don’t Sweat the Technique.” A moment meant to spotlight his triumph in overcoming the scandal of his Tampongate conversation with Camilla being released to the public (thankfully, for there was a moment there when one was led to believe The Crown might never bring it up).

Almost as though fearing Charles in his new current role as King of England, this midpoint episode is also the only one to offer the kowtowing written-out epilogue, “Prince Charles founded the Prince’s Trust in 1976 to improve the lives of disadvantaged young people. Since then, the Prince’s Trust has assisted one million young people to fulfill their potential.” That last phrase sounding vague enough to make the prince seem very charitable indeed. The last title card concludes, “And returned nearly £1.4 billion in value to society.” If Morgan says so…

With the finale, “Decommissioned,” we’re brought back to the most unique episode of the season, “Mou Mou,” in which it is gradually revealed how Diana came to be in Dodi Fayed’s (Khalid Abdalla) orbit. The answer being, according to Morgan, a result of Dodi’s father, Mohamed “Mou Mou” Al-Fayed (Salim Daw), being some sort of sycophantic Anglophile. This prompting him to do everything in his financial power to get the queen to notice him—even buying Harrods. Unfortunately, the queen’s inherent racism and elitism appears to have made her averse to sitting next to Mou Mou at the Harrods Cup Polo Match. Per The Crown, this led the queen to send Diana in her place while she sat with Margaret.

In “Decommissioned,” it is Mou Mou who suggests that Diana bring William and Harry to St. Tropez for the summer on his new yacht, the Jonikal. This being yet another symbolic moment in which, as the queen’s own Britannia is put into retirement, Diana appears to be getting a shot of life via this new yacht. As we all know, that life would be cut tragically short after her vacation, the one that featured the iconic telephoto lens-procured image of Diana in a blue bathing suit perched at the edge of a diving board—so much about that being a type of foreshadowing and a summation of her entire life. Something Morgan wants to stretch out into a final season that will focus on her death and its aftermath.

Hence, the anticlimactic ending of the season… even if meant to be a cliffhanger, of sorts, as it offers scenes of Diana as she gets ready for her summer in the South of France with the boys and Dodi as he proposes to model Kelly Fisher (Erin Richards). The last scene then shows Diana and the queen looking in a mirror, as the latter says goodbye to her precious royal yacht (invoking nothing except the reaction of “oh boo-hoo, you don’t get a massive boat paid for by the British people anymore”).

Charles, meanwhile, is given another moment of “grace” and “sagacity” when he forewarns his mother, “If we continue to hold on to these Victorian notions of how the monarchy should look, how it should feel, then the world will move on. And those who come after you will be…left with nothing.” A.k.a. he will be left with nothing. And it remains to be seen if Charles truly will practice what he once preached when it comes to “rallying” for a more “progressive” monarchy.

Incidentally, “A house divided” is the tagline for the season. And yet, it applies not only (even now) to the House of Windsor, but to those who can see the monarchy for what it is—parasitic and long outmoded—and those who would cling to it as the crux of British identity.

Genna Rivieccio

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