The 1980s have come for the British royal family, whether they like it or not.
Of course, the ’80s hit the real Windsors 40 years ago, but in Netflix’s lavish retelling of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, “The Crown,” the timeline has caught up to the era of Margaret Thatcher and Princess Diana in Season 4 (streaming Sunday, ★★★½ out of four), bringing big changes to a show that has become less about the reigning monarch with every season. But their additions add some necessary verve to the lavish series, which flagged slightly in Season 3 when the original cast members were swapped for slightly older thespians to indicate the passage of decades.
Season 4 largely succeeds because of the way Diana (Emma Corrin) and Thatcher (Gillian Anderson) are integrated into the cast and stories, and how creator Peter Morgan is able to use both characters as broader symbols for the monarchy’s continual crash into modernity. It also doesn’t hurt that Corrin and Anderson are both excellently suited for their roles.
The new season picks up in 1979 and covers the 1980s, including the assassination of Lord Mountbatten (Charles Dance), the Falklands War, Charles (Josh O’Connor) and Diana’s wedding, Apartheid and more. Thatcher’s rise to power and subsequent conflicts with the queen (Olivia Colman) and Diana’s ascendancy to “People’s Princess” are the two narratives on which the season is built, with brief standalone episodes that cover Princess Margaret’s (Helena Bonham Carter) mental health struggles and the queen’s relationship with her four grown children.
Anderson is extremely accomplished as an actress and easily slides into the role of Thatcher (wigs and all), potentially making the controversial prime minister a bit too sympathetic by the standards of her detractors. Her battles with Elizabeth – and in Morgan’s version of history the two battle furiously in private – are among the best and funniest scenes of the season. Anderson and Colman are as matched as acting foils as Margaret and Elizabeth were as political ones.
Corrin, however, is the real revelation. The largely unknown actress took on the task of playing arguably the most beloved figure in modern British history with ease. While she bears a strong resemblance to the former princess of Wales, Corrin isn’t doing a “Saturday Night Live” impression. Corrin’s take on Diana is vulnerable and revealing, as the series explores her both before and after she entered Buckingham Palace (the 12-year age gap between the royal couple is illuminated strongly in early scenes where Diana is a young teen and Charles a full-grown man).
But what makes Corrin a good Diana is that she too possesses an inherent charm and appeal. She remains sympathetic throughout, even in scenes with O’Connor when the two are shouting at one another as their marriage collapses. There is a bit of a missed opportunity to dig deeper into Charles and Diana’s marriage. Covering more than a decade this season, “The Crown” takes a macro view of their relationship, among many other historical moments, and the viewer is still left wanting more.
The existing cast is also strong in the new season, if slightly marginalized by the newcomers. It’s a shame when it comes to Princess Anne (Erin Doherty), whose marriage and family life never get fully explored on screen, but welcome when it comes to Philip (Tobias Menzies), who was featured too prominently in Season 3 without much reward. It’s a shame the cast is relegated to two-season stints in the roles because it’s only in this year that Colman in particular comes to own the role. But in Season 5, she’ll hand her character over to Imelda Staunton.
The unique delight of “The Crown” is the ability to relive a story we all think we know. The series has benefited from the fact that interest in the royal family hasn’t much wavered from its highs in the past it portrays to the present day. In an early-season episode in which Diana is given princess lessons and hounded by the press, it’s easy to draw comparisons between her and Duchess Meghan, another outsider who married into the royal family. The fictionalized peek behind the curtain feels almost like insight into the royals now. Almost.
While the cast and eras may change, “The Crown” will continue its reign, as long as we are hungry for more information about the royals. And even in a year as tumultuous as 2020, that hasn’t changed.