Season 4 of 'The Crown": female leadership in the spotlight
Sertan Sanderson | Verena Greb
November 16, 2020
The drama that reinvented the stiff upper-lip continues: Queen Elizabeth II faces strong competition in season 4 of "The Crown" as Margaret Thatcher moves into Downing Street — and Diana enters her Prince Charles' life.
It's the 1980s: shoulder pads, cocktail dresses and big hair celebrate their heyday, as feminism takes its uphill battle to the next level — or so it seems. The decade sets the stage for women to claim their rightful place in all strata of society, from the corporate boardroom to political chambers. But it is also a decade marked by a new brand of conservatism around the globe.
These currents and fashions also affect the British establishment, as shown in the latest season of "The Crown," released on Netflix on November 15. The series portrays the world in the 80s in a state of flux, with women as the driving forces behind these changes, especially in the UK.
Coronated in 1953, the Queen has already been asserting herself not only as "Defender of the Faith" and "Queen of This Realm" per her title, but also as a woman in the modern era all along — but there is some steep competition waiting in the wings.
The dawn of Thatcherism
Since its launch in 2016, "The Crown" has been telling the story of the British monarchy under the leadership of Queen Elizabeth II. But the trailer of the latest season has made it amply clear that the narrative will would no longer be focused exclusively on the Queen (portrayed in seasons 3 and 4 by Olivia Colman) and her sister, Princess Margaret (played by Helena Bonham Carter), as her reluctant sidekick, as well as the Queen's marriage to Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh (played by Tobias Menzies).
Instead, there is a new political relationship that comes into focus in the latest season, as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (played by Gillian Anderson) takes office. In one scene, the "Iron Lady" tries to assert her seniority: Stressing that she is a few months older than the monarch, Thatcher states firmly that her primary goal is to "change the country" and not to have any sort of harmonious relationship with the Queen.
Though liking the prime minister at first, the monarch seems taken aback by this comment, as all previous prime ministers under her rule — including Winston Churchill, Harold Macmillian, Harold Wilson and Edward Heath — have always sought to find a common ground with the official head of state — or, at least, that's the way "The Crown" has portrayed it.
Thatcher is seen resenting the crown: "I'm struggling to find any redeeming features in these people at all," she says in the second episode of the season. Whether the prime minister truly held the Queen and the Royal Family in such low regard in real life is not entirely clear.
From high heels to Wellington boots
With Thatcher's election in 1979, the UK had a female prime minister for the first time in history. To this day, she continues to divide public opinion. Thatcher introduced a series of economic reforms to save the British economy from collapse, only to be met by widespread social unrest due to the country's skyrocketing unemployment.
Meanwhile, the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland hit close to home for the monarch with the assassination of Louis "Dickie" Mountbatten, Queen Elizabeth's second cousin once removed, by Irish Republican Army (IRA), which sought to end British rule in Northern Ireland. The scene of the explosion at sea that killed Lord Mountbatten in episode 1 sets the tone for this fourth series of "The Crown" — unsettling events are sweeping the country, and the royal family is in no way shielded from this.
The Queen is seen feeling helpless. By the time Thatcher declares war on Argentina in defense of the Falkland Islands in 1982, Elizabeth looks decidedly weary. While Thatcher marches down the corridors of Downing Street in her heels, the Queen retreats to her private estate in Scotland to gain a sense of perspective of where she belongs in this new power dynamic.
Anderson's portrayal of Thatcher is complex and arresting. The actor said she had fun in the role, diving into the conflicts and compromises of her character. She told Variety magazine that playing Thatcher reminded her of another role she had taken on the National Theatre stage in London five years earlier: Blanche Dubois, the tragic heroine in Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire."
But as opposed to Dubois, whose main preoccupation was to gloss over imperfections in a bid to escape from reality and present herself in a favorable manner, Thatcher hides nothing about any of her attitudes: no matter how ugly the truth, her credo is that the job has to be done, and that she certainly is just the right woman to do it. Anderson's portrayal of the prime minister is almost even more ruthless than the reputation that usually precedes her, while it is every bit convincing.
Three people in one marriage
But Thatcher is not the only woman stealing the limelight in season 4. After a brief and much-publicized courtship, the Queen's son, Prince Charles (played by Josh O'Connor in seasons 3 and 4), marries Lady Diana Spencer in 1981. The marriage descends rather quickly for Diana from a fairytale-like happy ending to little more than a depressing nightmare. This dismays the Queen, who always places her duty to lead by example above all personal grievances.
Charles simply cannot forget his former lover, socialite Camilla Parker Bowles (portrayed by Emerald Fennell). This love triangle drives Diana to despair; over the years, she develops bulimia, trying to live up to global expectations of embodying the most beautiful woman on earth.
Diana's struggle with her self-image is highlighted early on in the fourth season. Actress Emma Corrin, who plays Diana, says it was important to her that Diana's illness was shown openly on "The Crown" and that her portrayal of the princess couldn't do her justice if pain wasn't shown as an integral part of the show.
Being honest about mental illness
Corrin, who was born in 1995 and says she has no personal memories of Princess Diana, is already being hailed as the newest star to come out of "The Crown" franchise.
"In retrospect, I think it made it easier in doing this season,to bring my own interpretation to the character, to her," Corrin told Variety magazine. "I had a sense of the tragedy of what had happened to her, and also I suppose her spirit that people speak of — her being this very generous, empathetic person who broke the mold of the royal family."
The tragic death of Diana is not part of season 4 of "The Crown"; fans of the series will likely have to wait until 2022 to see how director Stephen Daldry approaches this chapter in history, as the global coronavirus pandemic delayed the production schedule.
'You really know nothing, do you?'
"The Crown" is driven as much by the drama of its real-life narratives as it is by the tragedy of its protagonists and their relationships to each other. With Martin Phipps' foreboding score, Peter Morgan's poignant writing and Daldry's heartfelt direction, the drama comes across as almost Shakespearean at moments.
When Diana meets Camilla Parker Bowles for lunch for the first time, the gravity of the situation she is in seems to finally sink in; she has married into an institution that beneath its shiny veneer hides a web of secrets, lies and betrayal.
"Darling, you really know nothing, do you?" Parker Bowles asks after probing Diana about everything from royal protocol to Prince Charles' preferred cuts of meat. Corrin simply returns the famous "Lady Diana" smile.
With so much despair, conflict and antagonism coming to a head in season 4, a "Previously on The Crown" introduction could have helped summarize the 30 hours of prior programming in seasons 1-3. Actress Claire Foy portrayed the young monarch in seasons 1 and 2, which focus on her struggles with royal protocol, while Olivia Colman took over to play the middle-aged monarch in seasons 3 and 4, which examine the changing nature of the British Empire after World War II.
The two seasons yet to come will feature BAFTA-winning British actress Imelda Staunton as the Queen in her most contemporary self. Meanwhile the series keeps breaking records: the production of series 1 in 2014 was already the most expensive Netflix production at that time, costing upwards of $80 million (€68 million).
The future seasons are rumored to deal with the Queen's "Annus Horribilis" of 1992, when a blaze tore through much of Windsor Castle and a wave of divorces tore the Royal Family apart. Five years later, the death of Diana caused the biggest constitutional crisis in the United Kingdom since the abdication of Edward VIII in 1936 - another world event that the series can hardly ignore. Finally, the adolescence of Diana and Prince Charles' sons, Princes William and Harry, may also feature prominently in feature seasons, including their marriages and own families.