The Crown season four opens with a bang. Quite literally.
For three seasons, creator and lead writer Peter Morgan had been reticent about the Troubles in Northern Ireland. While incidents like Aberfan disaster and the UK miners’ strike of 1972 were given the time they deserved, the escalating conflict across the Irish Sea never got a look in.
The presence of Lord Mountbatten (Charles Dance), however, made tackling the subject an inevitability. Episode one, ‘Gold Stick’, deals with his death in 1979 at the hands of the Provisional IRA (the season covers the years 1979 to 1990).
While lobster fishing off the coast of County Sligo, a bomb is detonated from underneath Mountbatten’s boat, killing him and two of his grandchildren. A montage of real-world footage from Troubles-era protest and violence is cut and spliced between scenes of Mountbatten’s funeral, which is recreated for the show.
These scenes are overlaid with a voice over by an IRA volunteer, who lists the injustices perpetuated by the British state against the people of Ireland. Although sounding like it was written by someone trying to grasp the complexities of the ‘other side’, it is effective nonetheless.
Scenes like the above are not new ground for Morgan who, as a writer, is neatly attuned to opinions outside of his immediate social circles. This is what has made The Crown, throughout the course of its run, a sort of litmus test. Staunch royalists can take pride in lavish rooms and dresses – the pomp and circumstance of royal occasions.
Viewers with a more republican bent, however, cannot help but watch scenes where Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies) mocks the clothes foreigners wear and feel vindicated in the belief that the monarchy is a stuffy institution, unfit for the modern world and better left in the history pages.
Season four may be the most anti-monarchy of the bunch yet, though. While Morgan doesn’t go so far as to outright vilify Queen Elizabeth II (Olivia Colman), he presents her as someone who has internalised and perpetuated the Crown’s repressive notions of duty, much to the detriment of her family’s well-being.
In seasons past Elizabeth may have struggled with protocol and tradition. Here we find her fully in step with what it is she is supposed to be. This is not by any choice of her own: Colman successfully depicts the Queen as a woman who occupies a position inherited. She didn’t make the rules, but is duty-bound to uphold them, in spite of any internal conflict she may face.
Colman is often filmed in close-up to articulate the insularity of the character. In her world, little breathing room is given to anyone or anything else but the crown.
The status quo is rocked by the introduction of Princess Diana (Emma Corrin), whose youthfulness strikes a blow to the institution of the monarchy. Although given lessons in royal decorum by a stern tutor, Diana still rollerblades through Windsor Castle, dancing to 80’s pop music. Her clothes are bright and vibrant in contrast to the grey suits or pale dresses of her contemporaries.
Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor) marries her out of duty, not love. He is still hopelessly enamoured with the married Camilla Parker Bowles (Emerald Fennell), their union shunned by a Queen who strives to maintain royal order (historically, divorcees do not make for ideal royals). The Diana-Charles marriage is a smoke screen, although Charles is more aware of this than Diana.
The Windsors’ emotions are stifled, and we rely on physical cues that hint at their internal world. Not so for Diana, who wears her heart on her sleeve, and forces family members into emotional confrontation. Corrin elicits a great deal of emotion in her portrayal of someone who was (is?) the most popular royal.
In episode five, titled ‘Fagan’, Elizabeth is confronted by a world she chooses not to see. In a prior season, great fuss is made about the Crown ‘lowering the drawbridge’ to members of the public. In season four we see this for the farce it really is. Only ‘suitable’ members of the public are chosen for an audience with royalty, and the Windsors object to any “actual conversation” with them.
This changes in 1982, when a young man named Michael Fagan (Tom Brooke) breaks into Buckingham Palace and forces the Queen to converse with him for a full ten minutes. He tells Elizabeth how bad Britain is under Margaret Thatcher (played wonderfully by Gillian Anderson as a steely, dominating force), how men like him are constantly out of work, how services people could once depend on are being closed with abandon. How there seems to no longer be a sense of community or common good.
The scene ends with Elizabeth agreeing to speak to Thatcher personally about these issues. But Thatcherism, much like the Troubles, Apartheid in South Africa, or conflict within her own family, is just another thing she cannot discuss in her apolitical, unfeeling role as Head of State. She takes a backseat in her professional and private lives, out of a sense of duty to an institution the pre-dates her and will outlive her.