The royal family spirals further into dysfunction, 1980s-style, during the richest season to date of The Crown, Netflix's juicy drama about life among the Windsors. I kept picturing Harry and Meghan watching with relief that they'd escaped this hornet's nest while they could.
"What does one have to do to get some kindness in this family?" squawks a frustrated Prince Charles (Josh O'Connor, stooped with angst) when he can't find a sympathetic ear after his latest domestic row. He's one to talk. His young wife, Diana (played with a cunning mixture of shyness and slyness by Emma Corrin), is universally adored everywhere but inside the palace, where her popularity is a source of unamused resentment. So much for fairy tales.
But The Crown's creator-writer Peter Morgan has never bought into the fantasy of royal life, dwelling instead on the personal sacrifices made in the line of duty. Charles and Diana are repeatedly told that their marriage is not allowed to fail, though it's doomed from the start by his devotion to another woman (Emerald Fennell as a sympathetic Camilla Parker Bowles).
Though we know how it will end, this doesn't make it any easier to watch a vivacious sprite like Diana hollowed out by boredom and isolation, her depression manifesting in graphic depictions of bulimia.
As for Queen Elizabeth (the supernaturally restrained Olivia Colman), who can't help flinching when a desperate Diana hugs her while begging for support, she worries that she abdicated her maternal obligations long ago. But then she rationalizes: "I mustn't blame myself. I'm already mother to the nation."
That role becomes paramount as she clashes for the soul of Great Britain in a series of riveting audiences with the unyielding first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, embodied with haughty, icy resolve by the astonishing Gillian Anderson (The X-Files). "I don't have time to be nice," Thatcher insists, and she keeps proving it, defending draconian reforms that lead to high unemployment and arguing against sanctions to South Africa's apartheid regime, a rift that the usually neutral Queen conspires to make public.
Colman brings such a wry, pragmatic and quietly sorrowful intelligence to her interpretation of Her Majesty that we're bound to miss her just as much as we do Claire Foy, who played Elizabeth so luminously through the first two seasons. (When we glimpse the younger monarch during a flashback, it's breathtaking.) While I have no doubt Imelda Staunton will be terrific in the final seasons, The Crown has a way of making you regret the inevitable march of time.
As in past years, Morgan takes fascinating detours with lesser-known stories, including Princess Margaret's (the great Helena Bonham Carter) disturbing discovery of unknown relatives kept out of public view because of mental illness. "Darwin had nothing on you lot," she snaps. The best of the stand-alone episodes involves a working-class man (Preacher's Tom Brooke), a victim of Thatcher's policies, who breaks into the palace and surprises the Queen in her bedchamber, unburdening his woes: "I just thought it might be good for you to meet someone normal." If he only knew.
The Crown, Season 4 Premiere, Sunday, November 15, Netflix