Review: The Crown Season 4 is the series’ most majestic achievement yet

In many ways, The Crown could be considered the “crown jewel” in Netflix’s current line-up of original programming. Screenwriter Peter Morgan’s lavish historical drama charting the reign of Queen Elizabeth II is the kind of show the streaming giant relies on: a must-watch TV event so immaculately crafted that it justifies (however fleetingly) rising subscription costs in an increasingly competitive market.

So, it’s fair to say that the powers that be at Netflix have a lot riding on The Crown Season 4, and fortunately for them, their latest big budget gamble has paid off in spades. The series’ latest offering is its best yet – a sweeping snapshot of a tumultuous new era, and the monarch unprepared to face it.

That new era is 1980s UK, a time that will be defined by two decidedly different women: Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson) and Princess Diana (Emma Corrin).

Together, they bring upheaval into the ordered world of Queen Elizabeth II (Olivia Colman). Thatcher sows discord with her ruthless ambition and hard-line policies, while Diana’s rocky relationship with husband Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor) is rapidly approaching breaking point.

Once again, the Queen is forced to choose between the emotional needs of her family and what duty and tradition dictate, and how she ultimately decides to act could spell disaster not just for the monarchy, but for the entire country itself.

Like the last three seasons, The Crown Season 4 is an extended meditation on what happens when the arch symbolism of an institution like the Royal Family is forced to contend with the harsh realities outside Buckingham Palace (and vice versa). And whether it’s the contrast between Thatcher’s controversial actions in the top job and Queen Elizabeth’s hands-off role as Head of State, or Diana’s harrowing struggle to cope with the decidedly unidyllic “fairytale” life she’s unwittingly signed-up for, The Crown makes it abundantly clear that the monarchy and reality are utterly incompatible.

It’s not just those outside “The Family” who run afoul of this inescapable truth, either. Among The Crown’s stable of silver spooner chompers, Prince Charles suffers the most visibly, a poster child for “hurt people hurt people” who vents his heartbreak on the perfect wife he will never truly love. It’s not just Charles, either. Princess Anne (Erin Doherty), Princess Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter), and even flinty old Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies) also carry the scars of being raised in an environment where every need is catered for unless it’s an emotional one.

As with Seasons 1-3, Morgan – who wrote all 10 episodes of Season 4 solo, except for the fifth (a collaboration with Jonathan D. Wilson) – does an impressive job of keeping these gilt-edged plates (and more) spinning. Indeed, the pacing of each individual instalment as well as the overall series itself is as impeccable as ever.

Yet what really elevates The Crown Season 4 above its predecessors is how much more focused it all feels. Morgan has been criticised by some for taking more liberties with establish fact this time around, yet ironically, playing fast and loose with history has resulted in a far tighter narrative.

Previous seasons adopted an almost novelistic approach that embraced the episodic nature of serialised storytelling, breaking up the main storyline with semi-detached vignettes. Conversely, every narrative detour in Season 4 spins out of and reinforces its intertwined core plot threads of Thatcher’s ascent and Diana’s decline – and the result is Morgan’s most binge-worthy effort yet.

Quality scripting is nothing without actors capable of bringing it to life, though, so it’s a good thing Morgan has assembled as good an ensemble as The Crown has ever seen.

In her final outing as the Queen before handing over to Imelda Staunton for the final two seasons, Colman delivers her definitive statement on the character. She allows us to see just enough humanity beneath Elizabeth II’s borderline inhuman exterior for us to care and occasionally sympathise with the otherwise remote monarch.

The same goes for Anderson’s stunning turn as Thatcher. Like Colman, she goes beyond mere mimicry – although her pinched facial expressions, stiff body language and distinctive vocals are all spot-on – to unearth disarming emotional depths in the so-called Iron Lady. Thatcher’s conviction, grit, and dedication as portrayed by Anderson are equal parts beguiling and chilling, and she’s the most compelling non-Royal character since John Lithgow’s Churchill way back in Season 1.

Watching sovereign and prime minister verbally spar is one of the two main highlights of The Crown Season 4. Colman, Anderson, and Morgan work hard to showcase the similarities and differences between the two women in charge, and the “meeting of the minds” moment they share in the final episode is a genuinely moving scene that will leave only the most stone-hearted anti-Thatcherites dry-eyed.

The other main highlight this season is Corrin’s performance as Diana. Embodying one of the most photographed and scrutinised public figures of the last 50 years is an unenviable task, but Corrin proves up to the challenge. She deftly captures the many paradoxes that defined Diana – her fragility and her strength, her innocence and her flirtatiousness, her timidity and her love of the spotlight, and her naivete and her worldly common touch – to paint an unflinching portrait of a young woman misunderstood and underestimated by those closest to her.

Not that Colman, Anderson and Corrin are the only outstanding cast members in The Crown Season 4; everyone is on stellar form. If certain supporting players are less prominent than last season – an unavoidable side-effect of Season 4’s more concentrated storytelling – that doesn’t mean they don’t get their moment to shine, with O’Connor, Bonham Carter, Menzies and Doherty shining brightest. Unlike the Royal Family itself, there are no weak links here.

But then, there are no weak links anywhere in The Crown Season 4. The production values – the lush cinematography, inspired direction, exquisite set and costume design, and evocative scoring – are all worthy of royalty (or cinema, at the very least).

If proceedings occasionally lapse into melodrama or even low-key comedy of manners, the artistic and technical craft on display in The Crown is so first-rate, that it’s able to stop just short of wandering into the sort of “period soap opera” territory occupied by superficially similar (yet infinitely less accomplished) shows like Downton Abbey.

The Crown Season 4 doesn’t just represent the Netflix series’ best output so far – thanks to its top-shelf scripts, powerhouse performances, and unmatched production values, it’s the finest example of what the entire medium itself is capable of. And if Peter Morgan and his cast and crew can maintain this level of quality for the remaining two seasons, expect The Crown’s reign as the top event show on TV to continue at least a little longer.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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