Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover: last spring my wife Anne and I binged the first three seasons of Netflix’s The Crown and soon caught up with the rest of fandom. One slight hitch: while Anne is a major history aficionado, that was never my forte, especially not the story of Queen Elizabeth II and her ruled subjects, some of whom are incidentally also her family:
Compared to my blissfully ignorant self, Anne is far more knowledgeable of history in general and British royalty in particular. My interest in their reigning family went dormant for decades beginning on the morning of July 29, 1981, when my family woke up at 5 a.m. — over summer vacation, mind you — to watch Prince Charles marry Princess Diana, two strangers I knew only as frequent costars of my mom’s favorite tabloids. Their wedding lasted approximately six days and was performed entirely in slow motion with British golf commentators prattling through the lengthy silences in between the happenstances of nothingness. For the next 15-20 years I retained nothing of British history apart from their role as the Big Bad in the American Revolution. Frankly, I’ve learned more about their country’s storied past from my wife and from Oscar-nominated movies than I ever did from school. Sad, unadorned truth.
So far I’ve enjoyed The Crown anyway, and understood most of what’s gone on…
Season four may be its best yet. Olivia Colman gets comfy enough to have fun on the throne, Tobias Menzies bemuses and is bemused from the sidelines (for a while, anyway), Helena Bonham Carter selectively empathizes with other outsiders in their own skewed orbits, and Josh O’Connor triples his screen time as Prince Charles, the put-upon whiner who thinks he’s aged into a thwarted hero, doesn’t see himself becoming the villain. They’ve managed to survive into those lovable ’80s, when two new names emerged to take places for themselves in the British pantheon. Gillian Anderson transforms into Margaret Thatcher, the uncompromising Prime Minister who inspired thousands of destitute punk bands and numerous low-budget films about the political rage and hopelessness she instilled; and Emma Corrin (Pennyworth) as young Diana Spencer, who inspired thousands of tabloid reporters, paparazzi, impressionable little girls, and fabulous fashion mavens.
Meanwhile behind the scenes, things were falling apart. Season four covers the decade that was, comprising the complete arc of Thatcher’s rise and fall, as well as Princess Diana’s sometimes fanciful, sometimes battle-scarring journey from her first meet-cute with Charles to teetering on the brink of separation two childbirths and several adulteries later. Not a single character is truly happy all throughout, though Prince Philip comes closest if only because he’s made peace with the terms of his existence that bedeviled his Matt Smith incarnation. At least he has screen time and scenes to relish, more so that some of those back-burnered to make room for the newcomers. Deepest condolences to Erin Doherty’s Princess Anne, whose own story as my wife tells it is an awful lot to leave on the cutting room floor. And we muster up a fond wave to the Queen Mother in the distant background like she’s a prim Easter egg. Yet all must accept the reality of their station: self-subjugation is mandatory for those orbiting the most important woman in England. “Like it or not” is a false choice in their world.
As with the first three seasons, this one contained more standalone episodes than the average Netflix series, thus making The Crown vastly more easily lent to arbitrary rankings not unlike this very entry. I wouldn’t call any of them clunkers, but some are overtly superior to others. Same disclaimers as last time:
Speaking as a male who’s clearly having his hand held through the real-world historical aspects while independently respecting the sheer artistry on display throughout much of the proceedings, I present here my biased yet sincere choices of favorite episodes so far. No scores were kept and everything’s subjective. I didn’t applaud mere historical accuracy, nor did I deduct points whenever they elicited sympathy for real-life people who committed unlikable deeds. I hold only the vaguest notions as to whether any or all of them bear any resemblance to actual persons living or dead.
Once again, Your Mileage May Vary. And it should! Odds are tremendously high that you know European history better than I do and are far more deeply invested in the real-life soap opera that is the British empire. Just a hunch on my part.
10. “Avalanche” (episode 9). By this point we know Chuck and Di are doomed. All the falling apart is no longer behind the scenes; it is the scenes and the public know it. We get the picture and wish they’d just go settle it with pistols at dawn. So we’re in for more sulky love triangle melodrama, leavened by Diana the self-labeled “townie” trying to appease her increasingly more hateful husband by “singing” him some opera and then by dancing to “Uptown Girl” as his birthday present, which was a bit like buying him a pearl tiara with “DIANA” etched across it.
9. “Gold Stick” (episode 1). Mostly a lot of introductions and setups for the sake of all those later payoffs. Thatcher is domineering and off-putting from the get-go, and never passes up an opportunity to tell you how her hardworking father who himself up by his bootstraps to become a self-made winner and therefore anyone can do it, and anyone who doesn’t is a failure who should just try harder until they do, as long as they can do so without money. Meanwhile, Diana is a happy teen wood nymph.
The violence in Northern Ireland sets up the IRA as possible villains, who then return nevermore. Charles Dance returns exactly once more as Lord Mountbatten, striding proudly toward the front of the long line of people waiting to slap sense into Prince Charles (much like that one scene from Airplane!) before the episode telegraphs his closing moments so loudly that the shock is clearly preordained even if you’re like me and had never heard of him before this series brought him up.
8. “Terra Nullius” (episode 6). Charles and Diana try reconciling and perhaps even enjoying some quality time together on a royal tour of Australia, still attached to England’s apron strings. Richard Roxburgh (Moulin Rouge, Van Helsing) politely seethes as the new Australian Prime Minister who dreams of independence for his home continent but finds his plans thwarted by a new variable: Australians love, love, LOVE the elegant superstar that is Princess Diana, who’s down-to-Earth and compassionate and acts absolutely nothing like all those other stuffy and oppressive royals, so they’re okay with staying England’s second-favorite offspring, the Tommy Smothers to Canada’s Dick Smothers.
Soon we’re back to the Couple tearing into each other anew. Charles is upset at being upstaged on his tour and pines for the comfort of his beloved Camilla. Diana struggles with bulimia, depicted so frankly and alarmingly that Netflix actually appended content warnings to each pertinent episode along with contact info for those who need help with their own disorders. Then, to leave us smiling, one last comedy bit has Diana awkwardly hugging a mortified Queen. NO ONE HUGS THE QUEEN.
7. “Favourites” (episode 4). Thatcher and her husband Denis had children, and trust her to be the kind of taciturn, unfair mother who picks a favorite among them. Then we’re reminded Elizabeth and Philip have four children of their own, a fact barely explored in previous seasons. Philip, then, thinks it’s funny to ask Elizabeth if she’s aware which one she likes best. She scoffs at the very idea, then proceeds to prove him right. Obviously it isn’t Charles, but the other three unwittingly compete for affection in their own vignettes. It’s tough to tell Andrew and Edward apart as teens till, if you pay close attention, you catch the precise moment in Andrew’s sketch when Peter Morgan and his writing team toss some quick, heavy shade from deep within the heart of the Jeffrey Epstein saga.
Oh, and there’s the larger plot about the Falkland Islands insisting they’re all sovereign and non-ruled now, which was such a big deal back then that even I remember those headlines. But they can’t just up and leave the British Empire, because Thatcher cherishes all her properties equally, even the tiny ones who barely mattered in all the world’s geography classes until that very minute. She’s also stressing because her favorite son has gotten lost during an epic-length off-road auto race, so she focuses on things she can control, such as tiny island nations. And the worst possible thing you could get from Thatcher is her undivided attention. Alas, the Falklands’ bid for escape ends about as well as Diana’s, and cost slightly more to foil.
6. “48:1” (episode 8). Coexistence between two rulers fractures as the Queen and Thatcher differ wildly over whether or not to take a strong public stand against apartheid even if it means cosigning a document alongside a few African dictators with questionable human rights records of their own, or at least that’s Thatcher’s stated qualm. Whether the show implies her motives are crueler than that or whether she truly had a salient point is a debate left to the viewers to hold over Thanksgiving Zoom chat if that hadn’t already been contentious enough.
I waited with bated breath for Elizabeth to declare that this was the last straw before she finally tells off Thatcher but good…but that isn’t quite how it went, or how the Queen rolled. But there’s just enough subtle, under-the-table true feelings inferred that we’re led to a hilarious moment when Charles thinks to himself, “Well, if SHE can say what she thinks for a change, then so can I!” and proceeds to roast Prince Andrew with 400-degree flames, which in turn leads to the season’s heaviest but not entirely inaccurate profanity.
Bonus points for the episode’s prologue, which brings back a former cast member we never expected to see again. A delightful surprise.
5. “The Hereditary Principle” (episode 7). Helena Bonham Carter’s big episode, in which Princess Margaret discovers a forgotten branch of the Royal Family that must never, ever see the public eye, lest their adoring fans find their entire family tree…imperfect. Flawed. Unclean. Ordinary. While Our Royals enjoy the high life, their disparate lessers are covered up in a sort of faraway quarantine where their squalor can’t shame or taint Her Majesty, who doesn’t even know they exist. It’s a fascinating mystery without a satisfying happy ending, in which we learn the value placed upon passive eugenics to maintain the appearance of pure bloodlines for the sake of the monarchy’s centuries-old narrative…one which Margaret is loath to upend because it serves her even in her diminished capacity. At best her takeaway is that she’ll always be in her sister’s shadow, but at least she’s afforded some status and luxuries. Life could be worse: she could be rotting away in the British equivalent of a 60 Minutes nursing home.
4. “Fairytale” (episode 3). It’s the ideal ironic title for “Crown Origins: Charles and Diana”. He’s not getting younger or handsome, and is being pressured into mating with a non-married woman for the bloodline’s sake. She’s a humble workaday gal who does cleaning and childcare, and can’t believe she’s about to be whisked away from all that into a magical world of galas and luminaries and servants and horse-drawn carriages and cartoon mice doing all her chores. Then reality hits: they’re a total mismatch with nothing in common except their skin color. Diana begins to feel less like she’s joined a new family and more like she’s trapped in a cult whose brochures were severely misleading.
Soon the arguments and the petulant screams begin, and the earliest schemes even before the wedding. The ugly truth of bulimia takes the stage. Camilla Parker-Bowles tries to show Diana the ropes but instead confirms for Diana that she herself is the “other woman” in this triangle. And yet, the royal needs must march onward despite the protestation of Princess Margaret. She knows better than anyone else in Buckingham Palace where this relationship is going as she asks, “How many times can this family make the same mistake?” But if there’s one thing a Royal Family simply cannot do, it’s change their ways. And hey, maybe this time it’ll be different and won’t end in misery and divorce! Charles and Diana could learn to love each other! Clap harder for that fairy’s wings!
3. “War” (episode 10). The grand finale in which the Prime Minister falls and the dream marriage fails. The Queen gives Charles the delicious lecture he’s been needing for years and gives the ousted Thatcher an “At Least You Tried” medal. She can’t tell off Thatcher explicitly, but she can totally tear new holes in her son, particularly when his incessant two-timing behavior begs for it.
Princess Diana’s consolation prize is a trip to New York City (obviously filmed anywhere but there), during which she wows the media and becomes America’s Sweetheart. Then she comes home to utter ruination and a lecture from Prince Philip. Till now he’s sympathized with her as a former “outsider” himself, not to mention someone who may have played fast and loose with marital boundaries, but he can’t stay quiet anymore as he’s watched Diana make the Royal Family all about her in the world’s eyes. She’s forgotten what her job, her title, and her responsibilities are really all about.
It’s about the Crown. And the Crown isn’t on her head.
2. “Fagan” (episode 5). A short story based on true events starring Tom Brooke (from season one of Preacher) as Michael Fagan, a down-on-his-luck bloke who broke into Buckingham Palace twice (!!) and on his second attempt finagled himself a one-man audience with the Queen. The episode elides the possibility that he may have been high on mushrooms at the time, but Fagan is no terrorist, no serial killer, no deluded seeker of fame. He’s like many of those condemned to live in Thatcher’s intense austerity state, where cost-cutting measures have put unprecedented numbers out of work and on the dole, basic services are compromised, and not all the bad aspects of his life are of his own doing. Some are, but not all of them.
Like many folks, Fagan hates being ignored and overlooked, is tired of feeling downtrodden, and just wishes someone would listen to him. So he figures, why not start at the top? Leaders are supposed to listen, right? You’d think? Or wish they would, at least? One can dream, especially where ‘shrooms are involved. His pair of misadventures capitalize on a palace that had guards but largely assumed no commoners would really think to intrude upon the royal grounds, now would they? Of all the season’s outsiders, Fagan is the most distant and out of place in the Queen’s presence, but he’s also among the few that she doesn’t merely command away. That’s partly because he could’ve been a madman who’d slay her where she sat for all she knew, but somehow that lack of familiarity (and unsettling weirdness) perversely works in his favor. Granted, he changes nothing and is expediently arrested, and they didn’t confab nearly that much in real life, but still.
Also key to this high ranking: thanks to its setting of ’80s discontent, “Fagan” has the best soundtrack of any Crown episode ever.
1. “The Balmoral Test” (episode 2). The one that best exemplifies the overall theme of perceptions of the Royals from the outside. In this version of their world, everyone think they’re an outsider and nobody really fits in. Nobody. Even the Family themselves are prone to fall out without notice.
Diana arrives to meet the family and impresses them with what she knows so far of manners, etiquette, and deer hunting, to applause from Charles’ family. From Charles himself, maybe a tad less while he’s trying to multitask in pursuing Camilla on the side. At the same time, the Thatchers arrive at the Royal Weekend Getaway Castle to share in the festivities only to learn apparently they have six hundred pages of unwritten Royal Family Rules to memorize that no one bothered to mention. A study guide might’ve been nice. As it is, the new PM and her man flunk a clothing test, a hunting test, a dinnertime test, a dippy parlor game test, and who knows how many other tests that I couldn’t perceive because I flunked them myself unknowingly from home.
And yet, it’s the one episode where Thatcher isn’t a bad guy, not exactly. She and Denis are a loving couple with their own shared jokes, rhythms, and sincere affection for each other, even if it extends barely beyond their personal auras. Later she’s a monster, but here she isn’t quite. Here she’s an outsider, like Diana. One passes their tests; one doesn’t. Yet we daren’t feel sorry for her, because of course we shouldn’t feel sorry for a woman who learned from her hardworking father how to pick herself up by her bootstraps to become a self-made winner and therefore anyone can do it, and anyone who doesn’t is a failure who should just try harder until they do, as long as they can do so without her remorseless pity.
Margaret doesn’t vow revenge in so many words, but while the season premiere tried to keep her disdain to a manageable level, one wonders if the Balmoral experience further goaded the grocer’s daughter to feel as much enmity for her Queen as Charles would later feel for his own wife.
…so that’s how it worked out for me, though I could change opinions again if I let this list sit for another hour. For now, it’ll do. Maybe we can do this again when The Crown returns in November 2022! Preferably sooner!