Princess Diana and Margaret Thatcher shake up The Crown in its riveting 4th season

Furnished with luxurious production values, elegant writing and impeccable performances – Peter Morgan’s royal family prestige drama has been the crown jewel of Netflix’s original programming for three seasons now. And through its nuanced and lavish detailing of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign over the United Kingdom, The Crown has remained a remarkably consistent winner, even with its sweeping cast changes and decades-bridging breadth. That being said, perhaps no other season thus far has been as attention-grabbing, riveting or heartbreaking as its highly-anticipated fourth.

Spanning the tumultuous years from 1977 to 1990, this latest 10-episode run has plenty to chew on – most notably with the introductions of Emma Corrin as the beloved Princess Diana and Gillian Anderson as the ultra-conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. And that’s not to mention the 1983 tour of Australia and New Zealand, the Falklands War, Michael Fagan’s break-in at Buckingham Palace, the IRA’s assassination of Lord Mountbatten (Charles Dance), and the births of Princes William and Harry. There’s a lot of monumental geopolitical ground to cover, but as always, The Crown shines when it frames those big events through the personal contexts of its primary figures. 

The saga of House Windsor is most engrossing when its scope is focused on character, shading humanity into the private lives of public caricatures. And no story in Buckingham Palace is as tragic and compelling as Diana’s “very drastic transition from teenager to royal princess,” as the Queen Mother (Marion Bailey) puts it. So much of Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor) and Diana’s courtship and marriage has been played out in the news media already, that one might assume Morgan would have trouble portraying any of it without those moments looking like sleek reenactments. Amazingly though, The Crown manages to redefine footage most of us have seen, enriching the familiar with emotional textures we never knew about.

Huge credit has to be given to the tremendous acting on display, with particular emphasis on Corrin’s transformative turn as Diana. She doesn’t just nail mannerisms like the late princess’ shy head tilt and pleading upward gaze perfectly – she does admirable work pulling off her effortless glamour, genuine compassion and inner turmoil. In essence, this was a woman tricked into a sham marriage with devastating consequences – but Corrin’s Diana is neither the perfect angel the adoring masses made her out to be, nor was she the calculating glory hound some in the royal family painted her as. She is savvy and kind, but also lacks the maturity to understand the treacherous family she married into.

A large portion of season four graphically tackles Diana’s deteriorating mental health – ranging from her struggle with bulimia to her anguish over her husband’s infidelity and petty jealousy over her celebrity. As the forlorn Diana’s star rises, Charles feels increasingly overshadowed, so he lashes out cruelly at his young wife. O’Connor is uncannily skilled at portraying the prince’s chimeric moods – the arrogance and entitlement, as well as the insecurity and yearning. Season three laid a lot of groundwork for Charles’ painful motivations, so that while you root for Diana and hate his wretchedness in season four, your heart still breaks for him.

Likewise, Anderson’s performance as the “Iron Lady” is brilliant as well. She is armoured, raspy and formidable – the one premier since Winston Churchill capable of standing ground against the weight of the crown. Indeed, Thatcher’s testy relationship with Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) provides this season with its best moments, where we catch glimpses of the raging fire under Colman’s impressive stoicism. The showdowns between Thatcher and Elizabeth, as they clash over foreign and domestic policy, are to be savoured. These scenes are a masterful study in the subtleties of power dynamics and differences in upbringing –  reflecting the everlasting struggle between the working and upper classes.

There is a lot to despise about the degradation and deprivation of Thatcherism. It led Britain into civil unrest, crippled trade unions, sparked economic strife and began an entirely unnecessary war. Yet even her famously coarse and cold demeanour seems sympathetic next to the boorish royals. For the life of her, Thatcher cannot fathom why an unelected family, who’ve done nothing to earn their positions, should have so much sway over decisions made by an official chosen by the people. And we absolutely get where she’s coming from. By vividly fleshing out her personal perspective and interior life, The Crown once again deepens our understanding of a divisive politician to great effect.

With the doomed love story of Diana and Charles, and the faceoffs between Thatcher and Elizabeth at the forefront, it’s easy to forget that everyone else on the cast is doing sterling work as well. Perhaps the only detriment to this fantastic fourth season is how many major characters feel sidelined. Nevertheless, Tobias Menzies as Prince Philip and Erin Doherty as Princess Anne continue to find the tiny cracks in their side dish characters and make full course emotional buffets out of their sparse appearances. Every season has that one token episode checking in on Princess Margaret, and while we wish Helena Bonham Carter had more to do, her delicious line readings and her alluring chic (that makes second-fiddle resentment look oh-so stylish) remains a delight when she gets the rare spotlight.

While previous seasons have always made a case for the value of the monarchy, for the first time ever, The Crown begins to argue that the revered institution is coming precariously close to outliving its usefulness (if it hasn’t already). This season’s exploration of classicism, privilege, sexism, and racism in British governance – as displayed through the humaneness of Diana, the callousness of Thatcher, and the out-of-touch sovereigns – remains irresistible television.

Rating: 8/10

The Crown season 4 is available from November 15 on Netflix.