Cast: Imelda Staunton, Elizabeth Debicki, Dominic West, Jonathan Pryce, Khalid Abdalla, Salim Daw, Olivia Williams
Writers: Peter Morgan, Meriel Baistow-Clare, Daniel Marc Janes
Directors: Alex Gabassi, Erik Richter Strand, May el-Toukhy, Christian Schwochow
Available on: Netflix
In episode 4 of the latest season, Prince Charles (Dominic West) chastises Queen Elizabeth (Imelda Staunton) for reserving her empathy towards the public who were processing the sudden loss of Princess Diana (Elizabeth Debicki) in manic droves. To this, she retaliates defensively. She characterises the possible state funeral for Diana, who is “amputated” from the family at Prince Charles’ beckoning, as a “tawdry spectacle”. If it wasn’t for the stiff upper lip of prestige TV, it could have been from a British saas-bahu serial. As it stands, this is one among the many examples of the Royal family’s poor pulse on the shifts in public perception of what the monarchical institution represents, and an indication of how restrained The Crown is in its sixth season.
It is hard to resist the temptation to zoom out and apply the philosophy underlying this conversation to Morgan’s creative stance for this season, which avoids “drama” to offer something safer. It puritanically parses over the journalistic images available to carve out a story that contains Hallmark-style impulses, a curious and overly-sympathetic portrayal of Prince Charles, as well as a slight disregard to the international anguish that had followed Princess Diana’s death. (Some culture critics have cheekily remarked that West, who is incredibly attractive, has been cast as Prince Charles to evoke sympathetic responses.)
The several-awards-winning hit series The Crown has gone the route that Stranger Things did in its fourth season, and will be released in two parts instead of one. The first four episodes focus on Princess Diana’s tender relationship with her sons (a reversal from the rift in the previous season), her short relationship with Dodi Fayed (Khalid Abdalla), their fatal accident in Paris, and the public image wars Prince Charles and Princess Diana navigated in the course of a relationship that appears to have been spiteful, competitive, but, at times, also cordial. There is also Mohamed Al Fayed (Salim Daw), who is shown to be gratuitously interested in his son’s love-life, and repeatedly admonishes him for not putting a ring on Princess Diana’s finger as soon as possible.
The show, in the past, has been subjected to much scrutiny by high-profile figures like. As The Crown has progressed, it’s reigned in its wilder speculations, stuck to publicly available data and yanked lascivious scandals by their throat to transform their portrayal into something more domestic and sweeter. Take, for example, the tampon scandal of season five. The sexual details of the call between Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles still reverberate, almost three decades later due to how graphic the call was. In the show, it is depicted as a cutesy moment between two adults behaving like adolescents, and the public outcry is deemed as disproportionate and feral. Perhaps, it was. One could argue that it is hard to sympathise with a man who has generational capital and is comfortably profiting off of the values he brazenly flouts. It’ll be a case study for later generations to see if The Crown’s portrayal of that incident proves to have a longer shelf-life than the tabloid-driven criticism that did much to damage Prince Charles’s public image at the time.
The safe approach feels more jarring in season six, in which arguably one of the most famous car crashes in the history of the world is observed from such a respectful distance that it feels purposefully avoidant. The accident itself is shown from the point of view of a stranger who is walking his dog, and the impact of the damage is obscured from the viewers. Too much has been made of Princess Diana and Dodi’s car crash in the press, Reddit threads, Youtube conspiracy videos, several documentaries as well as Peter Morgan’s own film, The Queen (2006), starring Helen Mirren. With such a heft of information and public processing of the accident, The Crown’s decision to meekly focus on the royal family, who were residing in Scotland at the time, and few switches to Mohamed Al Fayed — he’s shown mourning but still insistent upon capitalising the opportunity to grow closer to the royals — feels underwhelming.
To be fair, Morgan’s preoccupation is not to present what is known, or obvious, but imaginatively recreate what may have happened behind the façades. Yet the family discussion is around the divorce, and how Princess Diana is technically not a part of the institution and its privileges anymore. The perspective feels unoriginal, like a dissatisfyingly safe take on a delayed public response, which in its time rattled the public, was examined threadbare by tabloids and television news, and required the British royal family’s public relations teams to do much damage control.
It’s not just the lack of bite in the speculation that chafes, but also the absence of actual events that had followed Diana’s death. If the show is to be believed, the public was reasonably assured by the Queen’s televised address — only the second one since the Gulf war — when in reality, it was widely considered disappointing and and suspiciously restrained, leading to some of the more outlandish theories around the Princess’s demise.
Yet such is the command that The Crown has over us that despite this sanitised and restrained quality, the first four episodes still feel like a must-watch and leave the audience in anticipation for the second drop. The show retains its authoritative ability to weave multitudes within one action of a character. When Princess Diana drives her boat out to meet the paparazzi and asks them to leave her and the kids alone, she is wearing a sexy leopard print swimsuit. Here, the show implies, it is both due to her wanting to whisk away the spotlight from Camilla Parker Bowles (Olivia Williams) and Prince Charles on the former’s 50th birthday, but it is also a genuine plea on the behalf of her older son who is feeling overwhelmed at the prospect of the continuous scrutiny. Miles away, Prince Charles throws a loving party for Camilla, but the very next day is upset at Princess Diana’s sultry images which grab plentiful headlines as opposed to very few, but warm headlines for Camilla’s party. The Crown has always been able to humanise these characters (and deliciously dull their sheen) without absolving them of their vengeful instincts.
Still, where’s the biting reproach of season 2, when journalism exposed the decrepit state of the values of people upholding the institution and the numerous affairs of Prince Philip, played by the roguishly charming Matt Smith, were peddled as a fact? The restraint in the newer seasons has made the series a lot less fun. Much of The Crown’s charm emanated from how it wickedly revelled in using real-life people to spin a sophisticated commentary on the monarchical institution, while allowing itself to luxuriate in the soapy gossip and acidic rebukes made possible because of the show being a drama, rather than a documentary. Perhaps, the show’s decision to play safe is a side effect of reaping the consequences of its own audaciousness and popularity?