There was a lot of anticipation heading into the fifth — and penultimate — season of The Crown. The Netflix drama has never shied away from controversial moments surrounding the Queen of England and the royal family. However as the series progresses it also approaches more modern (and therefore fresher) pain points within the walls of Buckingham Palace, leading some to disapprove.
In the show's fifth season, which debuted roughly two months following the real Queen's death, there was a ton of drama to cover. The 1990s were a time of royal strife for the family, including three divorces, a nasty fire at the Queen's home, the decommissioning of the HMY Britannia, and ongoing cynicism from a British public who was no longer convinced of the need for a sovereign state.
Over 10 episodes, the season dug into all of that and more, focusing on the drama between Prince Charles (Dominic West) and Princess Diana (Elizabeth Debicki), as well as the evolving relationship between Queen Elizabeth II (Imelda Staunton) and Prince Philip (Jonathan Pryce), the Queen's sisterhood with Princess Margaret (Lesley Manville), and the publicity frenzy that followed this crew wherever they traveled.
By the end, the show was setting up for its sixth and final season, a run that is expected to include Diana's death, the introduction of Kate Middleton, and more chapters from this famous family.
For now, Metacritic digs into the biggest and most shocking moments from Season 5, from Prince Charles' modern ambitions to the unexpected Romanov reveals.
The decommissioning of the HMY Britannia was devastating to the Queen, not only because it was the one home she had made for herself throughout her reign, but also because of its symbolism. The Queen launched the royal yacht in 1953, but it was aging just as she was and was now being put out to pasture. Meanwhile, the Queen was often being put out to pasture in the press and in the court of public opinion. Many wondered if Elizabeth had overstayed her welcome on the throne, and if it was time for her more modern son to take her place. Many accused her of Queen Victoria Syndrome, aka not knowing when it was time to step aside.
As Elizabeth grappled with public perception and whether an aging woman (who was only in her 60s at the time) could carry on, it felt very much in line with the modern conversations about the double standards surrounding age and sex. Meanwhile, Elizabeth also dealt with the personal effects of aging, including weight gain, appearance, and feeling less-than when in the presence of younger women.
One of the most appalling things about the season was the way Prince Charles continuously tried to push that age narrative behind the scenes, both with the Prime Ministers and the press. He not only looked like a bad son in the process, but throughout the season he was constantly whining about his life and lack of importance. Often his friends didn't know how to console him. Meanwhile, he continued to self-destruct by proving how unfit he was to head up an entire institution through the ways in which he treated his own family. As the episodes unrolled, the public opinion of the Prince also shifted dramatically — especially as his affair with Camilla (Olivia Williams) came to light.
Queen Elizabeth rarely showed emotion in public. But in 1992, after the devastating fire at Windsor Castle (which destroyed 115 rooms, including nine state rooms), she broke down during a speech addressing her 40th year of her reign. In it, she admitted it had been an "annus horribilis," or a horrible year. Not only was part of her home destroyed, but also all three of her children had separated from their spouses, and criticism of the crown was at an all-time high. For such a monumental period in the public figure's life it was surprising The Crown only dedicated one episode to it, but perhaps that's symbolic of how quickly the Queen herself hoped to forget about the bad year.
Princess Margaret has always been one of the show's most magnanimous characters, but her light was dimmed in the fifth season. While part of that was to showcase the effects of living within the institution and to draw comparisons to Princess Diana, it also worked to highlight the importance of when her former lover, Peter Townsend (Timothy Dalton) resurfaced. For one night only Margaret returned to her vibrant, younger self in the presence of her one true love. She drank, perched herself on the edges of sofas and chairs, and even performed for the laughing crowd.
The night also brought up buried feelings for Margaret, who later confronted the Queen about her sacrifices. In the end, the sisters made up, and Elizabeth even gave her sister a mention during the aforementioned "annus horribilis" speech, resulting in one of the season's most surprisingly emotional moments.
Knowing that paparazzi followed Princess Diana everywhere and seeing it play out onscreen are two very different things, so the fifth season didn't shy away from the high public interest surrounding the character. The way the character was constantly surrounded by crowds in public only highlighted her isolation and loneliness in private.
While there was plenty to dig into with the character and her arc, her two most pivotal moments were tied to how she told her own story: the tell-all book and the Panorama interview with the BBC. The show paid plenty of attention to both, not by honing in on Diana's desire to share her words, but by examining the people who wanted to exploit her by being involved in that telling. While many average viewers probably knew most of the details of Diana's life in the institution, not everyone was aware of the depths some reporters and acquaintances reportedly went to in order to exploit the Princess or feed into her fears.
By the time William (Senan West) went to boarding school, his relationship with his mother was strained. Diana leaned on her son as one of her only friends, and that role made him extremely uncomfortable. In turn, he began spending more time with his grandmother, who treated him more as a parent. William eventually helped The Queen with technology (namely upgrading the TVs to a satellite system), which helped her to feel more in touch with the modern world. While there have been many reports over the years about the relationship between Elizabeth and her grandchildren, watching them hang out together added a special softness to the character that the writers couldn't have achieved by relegating Elizabeth to grown up and professional relationships.
One of Philip's biggest storylines of the season was his own special relationship with a young person — but not in the way some thought. Following the tragic death of her 5-year-old daughter, Penny Knatchbull (Natascha McElhone) and Philip grew close. The relationship turned out to be one of the things that gave Philip meaning and joy, something he was forced to explain to Elizabeth following their trip to Russia. There was no sexual interest, only companionship and friendship — something Elizabeth herself eventually agreed to by being seen out and about with Penny, setting her up as a mutual friend.
While the royal couple remained firmly committed to each other until the end, Philip's friendship sparked an entire discussion about what makes a soulmate and how sometimes having little or nothing in common with a partner is actually the secret to a successful marriage. The story also called attention to the sacrifices each character made for their country over the years.
One of the hardest episodes of the season to watch was Episode 6, "Ipatiev House." For those who didn't know the story of the Romanovs, their execution was laid out for all to see, with few gory details spared. There was a connection to the royal family (George V and the Czar were cousins) and the episode explored how the family could have potentially saved the Romanovs from their awful fate. In the present day, those decisions were still felt by Philip and Elizabeth, who each had familial relationship with the slaughtered family and felt differently about their demise. While Elizabeth was content to bury her head in the sand and focus on the pleasantries, Philip was the kind of man who wanted to ask questions, learn more, and dig in.
The introduction of Mohamed Al-Fayed (Salim Dau) was a larger-than-life addition to the Season 5 cast — a surprising one considering it's his son Dodi (Khalid Abdalla) who was the one in a relationship with Diana at the time of their deaths. That relationship didn't start in Season 5, but a fun friendship between "Mou Mou" and Diana did. The season's third episode focused on Mohamed's life and his obsession with the royals, an obsession the Queen never played into. In the end, that only highlighted the monarchy's resistance to change as the Al-Fayed fortune and importance in Britain grew.
There were plenty of cameos throughout Season 5, including Claire Foy reprising her role as young Elizabeth once again, as well as flashbacks to Ben Miles and Vanessa Kirby as Peter and Margaret, and a storyline involving Alex Jennings' take on the abdicating King Edward VIII. Whether those guests returned because the fifth season was initially scheduled to be the series' last is unclear, but the appearances certainly gave the season a tone of nostalgia and of being full circle.
The amount of screen time dedicated to all of the royal canines wasn't shocking or surprising, but it was memorable in Season 5. There was one particular scene in which the Queen played with her Corgis and let down all guard, a rare moment for viewers of the show. But Margaret's dog Rum also got ample screen time. At one point, the pups even served as a conversational piece between the sisters as they joked about getting sloshed. While dog lovers undoubtedly appreciated all of the pooch references and cuddles, their inclusion also highlighted the long and standing tradition of furry friends at the palace.