'The Crown' tackles the Princess Diana and Margaret Thatcher years

The fourth season of the award-winning series "The Crown" returns to Netflix on November 15. CNN takes a look at new cast members and who will be recast next season.

Posted: Nov 12, 2020 3:20 AM
Updated: Nov 12, 2020 3:20 AM

The fourth season of "The Crown" is dominated by two women, and neither is the Queen. The stately Netflix drama rather pivots to the tragic tale of Princess Diana and the ascent of prime minister Margaret Thatcher, operating along those parallel tracks while as usual punctuating the narrative with signature events from British history.

Thatcher -- who bore the nickname "The Iron Lady" -- is played by "The X-Files" star Gillian Anderson, the partner of series creator Peter Morgan. They deliver an extremely complex portrait, and Anderson so fastidiously captures the 1980s leader's carefully enunciated speech pattern that it's almost painful listening to her squeeze out words.

That's actually the meatier part of the story -- capturing Thatcher's intense discomfort around the Royals, and her prickly interactions with Queen Elizabeth II (Olivia Colman) -- if not the showier and more commercial one. Of course, that hinges on Diana (Emma Corrin) and her unhappy marriage to Prince Charles (Josh O'Connor), who, despite pressure to settle down, never gets over his infatuation for Camilla Parker Bowles (Emerald Fennell).

Morgan zeroes in on the dark side of Diana's fairy-tale story, as it's noted that Charles -- 12 years her senior to begin with -- acts old and stodgy for his age, while she acts younger. He's resentful of her popularity and appalled by her public displays, such as performing a surprise dance routine for his birthday.

Diana's angst and pain is depicted in a number of ways, including an eating disorder, and her own extramarital dalliance as Charles stays away and rejects her. The key episode unfolds during the couple's whirlwind trip to Australia, a triumph for her and source of profound discomfort to him.

Yet for those fascinated by the levers of power, Thatcher's arc possesses more heft, including the misogyny that she faced, and her harsh approach to other women despite those dynamics.

"The way those men patronize me," she fumes to her husband, while leading England into war in the Falklands and resisting efforts to sanction the South African government.

The Royal Family doesn't exactly take a back seat over the 10 episodes, perhaps because Colman and the rest of the core cast remain fabulous, including an episode where an intruder improbably finds his way into the palace. In the "Oh, to be a fly on the wall" department, Morgan fills in the gaps.

The Queen even finds herself second-guessing her parenting skills, given how the now-grown children have turned out, a subplot that takes on a slightly different meaning in light of questions surrounding Prince Andrew's relationship with accused sexual predator Jeffrey Epstein.

The new season starts out a bit slowly, but the action quickly picks up. All told, the show remains an utterly enjoyable binge, even if the latest season doesn't quite measure up to the previous ones -- a byproduct of the years and conflicts encompassed.

While this material encompasses what's perhaps the most media-friendly period in terms of subject matter, the emphasis on Diana and Charles can't help but feel more People magazine-ish, and thus less revelatory. (By contrast, the earlier struggles of Princess Margaret, played by Helena Bonham Carter last season, were a highlight, and her role is diminished.)

That quibble doesn't significantly detract from the show's status as one of Netflix's -- and indeed TV's -- best. Like everything else associated with the much-examined lives of the Royals, chalk it up as another high-class problem.

"The Crown" premieres Nov. 15 on Netflix.

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