Netflix Elizabeth Debicki as Princess Diana, Imelda Staunton as Queen Elizabeth and Dominic West as Prince Charles
Premiering two months after the real Queen Elizabeth’s death at age 96 and bringing in a brilliant new cast, season 5 of The Crown is thrilling, messy, bitter and not very kind — perhaps unavoidably so, considering the ’90s were a difficult time for the royal family. This season would sting royal sensibilities, regardless of memories of the late Queen, because the show has now reached the low point of the reign (with Princess Diana’s fatal accident still to come in season 6).
Small, button-eyed and topped by a wig that appears to have been wedged down on her head by the heavy hand of destiny, Imelda Staunton (Vera Drake) is perhaps the most authentic Elizabeth yet: Firm in her duty, she’s nevertheless battered by the indignities of the age (and age), whether it’s operating a TV remote, examining the rubble of the Windsor Castle fire, being scolded and blamed by her unhappy adult children or — probably the season’s most controversial instance of “true or false” dramatization — told by her husband Prince Philip (Jonathan Pryce) that he has no intention of ending what he describes as his “spiritual” friendship with a widowed family friend, Penny Knatchbull (Natascha McElhone). Worse, Philip expects Elizabeth to make a public show of treating Penny as her friend, as well, to forestall gossip. And Elizabeth goes along with it. She blinks away a few tears — royals don’t do ugly-cry face — then goes back to having her own solitary fun, playing with the corgis.
At times it can get rather sad, like watching a hedgehog getting whacked by a croquet mallet.
Imelda Staunton in The Crown season 5 (2022)
Viewers probably will be most interested in the media bloodsport of Prince Charles (Dominic West), florid, intelligent and somehow repulsively articulate as he spews fresh ideas for the realm, and Diana (the uncannily good — almost distractingly so — Elizabeth Debicki), who for all her charm comes off as a desperate oversharer, burdening even young Prince William (Senan West) with her sense of aggrievement. in fact, The Crown suggests Diana may have come to regard her sorrowful, revealing Panorama interview as a costly strategic blunder: Elizabeth, informed of the news special as a fait accompli, tells her: “All any of us want, Diana, is for you to be happy. And one day to be our next Queen.” (As to Camilla Parker Bowles, who’s here for the infamous “tampon” phone conversation, she’s played with gruff good humor by Olivia Williams, her face hidden by a lampshade’s worth of hair.)
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Netflix Dominic West as Prince Charles and Elizabeth Debicki as Princess Diana in season 5 of The Crown
There is also a remarkable stand-alone episode — possibly the season’s best, certainly its most original — that focuses on the rise of Mohamed Al-Fayed (Salim Daw), the Egyptian tycoon who acquired the grand British department store, Harrods, and whose son, Dodi (Khalid Abdalla), died alongside Diana in a 1992 car crash in Paris. It’s a sharply ironic study of assimilation to an imperial power that (additional irony) is on the wane. The elder Al-Fayed, determined to be worthy of the Queen’s company (and, more importantly, to have welcome access to capital from the establishment), learns how to be a proper gentleman from Sydney Johnson (Jude Akuwudike), who was born in Nassau, the Bahamas, and had been valet to the Duke of Windsor (Alex Jennings, seen in flashbacks). It was the Duke who instructed Sydney how, among other things, one should include PG Wodehouse in one’s library and wear a midnight-blue dinner jacket (never black) for engagements in town. Viewers expect The Crown to lift the veil on the workings of the royal family, but these two men are content to leave it lowered, watching the entrancing shadows projected from behind.
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Netflix Imelda Staunton in The Crown season 5 (2022)
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But the season is ultimately about Charles and Mummy, staring at each other across the divide of power. The Prince, of course, believes he is on the wrong side: He considers Elizabeth too fusty to reign — the phrase “Queen Victoria syndrome” comes up repeatedly — and tells her so. Actually, he buttonholes just about everybody among the kingdom’s elites and complains about his desire to rule, although usually, he dresses things up with phrases about “youth” and “energy.” It’s not especially becoming behavior, but it’s not irrational, either, and it gives Charles a clarity of purpose and feeling lacking in all those “spares,” in-laws and ex-in-laws who find themselves so lost, miserable and petulant on The Crown. “No one with any character, originality, spark, wit and flare has a place in this system,” says Prince Andrew (James Murray), who at this point is still Mummy’s favorite and on the verge of splitting with Fergie.
Thoughts, Harry and Meghan?
At any rate, at the very end of the season, Elizabeth squares off against Charles and trumps him with a simple fact: “This job,” she says, “is for life.” Besides, she adds with what may be disappointment but sounds more like scorn, the public doesn’t even like him.
Season 5 of The Crown Premieres on Netflix Nov. 9.