Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover: at the start of the pandemic 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 subjects, some of whom were her own trod-upon relatives:
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…
I found myself so entertained by Peter Morgan’s principally fictional creation that I was compelled to compile my ten favorite episodes of those first three seasons based on my own finicky and sometimes underschooled impressions. That listicle unexpectedly became this site’s most popular entry of 2020 for lack of competition during an unprecedentedly sedentary year. Naturally I was compelled to post follow-ups as they happened — a sequel listicle for season 4 and a recount of that time on Labor Day weekend 2021 when we attended a Dragon Con fan panel about the show but suppressed our responses and ripostes behind our sweaty pop-culture COVID masks in a rather Royal Family manner.
Season 5 has arrived at last, as has the obligation to keep writing about the show until whichever runs dry first, my well or Morgan’s. Anne and I finished watching the season within six days after release, but I procrastinated this entry because this time I wasn’t nearly as enamored. Blame the fact that the show finally began encroaching on my few childhood memories of the subject as well as my complete apathy at the time, or blame a change in Morgan’s approach that gave us fewer done-in-one episodes in favor of a more standard serialized approach, perhaps befitting a couple whose tumults and travails demand and, I concede, warrant deeper coverage and a much larger field for their war reenactments. The main storyline and the few digressions never felt as revelatory as previous seasons had. Once again we have front row seats for emotional bloodsport as someone is ground up in the monarchical machinery, but she isn’t even new fodder. It’s the further adventures of beleaguered Diana, aching and yearning for freedom and treading water until The End, which to our surprise has been procrastinated until season 6.
I’m surprised to have been disappointed despite the show fronting its latest replacement cast with two actors I’ve immensely enjoyed elsewhere. Longtime MCC readers who are by now used to me name-checking The Wire at every possible opportunity, no matter how contrived, can rest assured I was looking forward to Dominic West (most recently sighted in the second Downton Abbey film) taking over as Prince Charles. He doesn’t disappoint, and steps into those shoes so deftly that I don’t care that he resembles Charles about as much as I do.
I was even more impressed by Elizabeth Debicki, quite the highlight in past works such as The Night Manager and Tenet (and did what she could within the smaller confines of Widows). She captures the sometimes delicate, sometimes pained, sometimes flighty, ultimately revered essence of the controversial personality whose charity works are widely known (yet barely hinted at here) and whose fandom remains massive to this day after all those years she spent overshadowed and often overpowered by her in-laws and their institutionalized perpetuation in The System (a name the show embraces and used multiple times, for slower viewers who don’t get rebellion as a concept). Her enunciation and her very body language are painstaking recreations, demurring and deflecting as she tucks her chin to show Diana’s humility and to minimize how much she towers over her castmates. She’s sympathetic to those below her station who invoke it in her, and vulnerable sometimes to her own detriment. At times she also elaborates on predecessor Emma Corrin’s frustrated petulance, which has matured but by no means vanished.
As for the very show that brought West and Debicki together so that it might tear them apart: the prophecy of Tommy Lascelles’ glorious season-1 speech about “the rot” is fulfilled and then some (man, do I miss Pip Torrens) as every marriage within the Family is tested and nearly none of them survive beyond the 20th century. For all the youngsters’ talk of modernizing the monarchy, the primary goal of much of their lip service is a longing for autonomous sex lives. Occasionally they do a good deed that they might not have in decades past, like The Prince’s Trust, an uncommon concession that poverty does indeed exist in Britain and perhaps there are steps The Rich can actively take to curtail any aspect of it. But mostly they’re mad at Mom for harshing their libidos. For Diana it’s far more complicated than that, but at times her rage against the machine gets lost in the gears of Morgan’s selective artifice.
Anyway, one again it’s ranking time! For any new guests in the house, here’s the disclaimer I used in the first two listicles:
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.
Some of that is no longer trues. You’ll find out which parts shortly. Yet again, Your Mileage May Vary. And it should! Odds are tremendously high you might have read more newspapers in the 1980s, as well as far more issues of People Magazine than I ever will. You may be far more deeply invested in the real-life soap opera that is the British empire. Just a hunch on my part. Enjoy anyway, or feel free to abandon ship! I’ll understand. We sally forth nonetheless.
10. “No Woman’s Land” (episode 7). The one episode that had my isolated self asking more loudly than the other nine, “Did this really happen?” The doomed romance between Diana and Dr. Hasnat Khan (whom I’d sincerely never heard of) might be more endearing as a meet-cute short film if she weren’t on the rebound and he weren’t ultimately treated as a disposable casualty, as the only man who ever comforted Diana outside Charles’ arms, and as (ugh) an insinuated stepping stone toward her later dalliance with Dodi Al-Fayed (played by Khalid Abdalla from Marvel’s Moon Knight), which has also been put off till season 6 so Morgan and his crew can have more time to craft the culmination of so much undermining. Diana’s gushy swoons over Khan in front of her friend the cancer patient is, to understate wildly, also not a flattering depiction of the People’s Princess.
Elsewhere in subplots, we meet BBC journalist Martin Bashir, whose famous interview with her has since been revealed to have been arranged based on a massive amount of fraud. The show references this fleetingly as momentary tools in his con, but focuses mostly on his verbal wheedling. His sins are treated with no sense of Spotlight-style takedown recrimination as I might’ve hoped (once I’d learned of it), as the narrative is far more interested in the ends than in the means. It might’ve been ahistorical to condemn what he did in-story, but considering how many other dates and events were shifted around for the sake of dramatic effects, the shifty glance into it is infuriating.
9. “Ipatiev House” (episode 6). The Queen takes a break from Diana for a few minutes (a luxury afforded few other characters) to visit the USSR and meet party monster Boris Yeltsin (whom I’ve rarely seen fictionalized anywhere beyond cameo-length) in hopes of negotiating the eventual discovery (and more dignified treatment) of the remains of the Romanov family, who happen to be distant relatives of the Queen. The ensuing DNA research process concerns our new ruler Imelda Staunton but carries no weight for us at home, even after a scientifically fascinated Prince Philip (welcome Jonathan Pryce!) teaches the audience what a DNA is and how them DNA magics work. Once again the Queen learns her homeland ancestors had their moments of self-preserving cruelty and felt constrained to limit any regard for ancestors beyond their borders, but at least Staunton gets to play with her adorable corgis, so there’s that.
After the end credits, Anne helpfully cataloged the multiple inaccuracies in the Romanov-massacre prologue (the show’s most violent scene to date), some of which even I, the aforementioned world history ignoramus, had been aware of from our past talks and experiences. It isn’t the first time she’s delivered this lecture to a one-man auditorium, as similar occurrences came after the three-hour-long 1971 Best Picture nominee Nicholas and Alexandra and Netflix’s dreadful 2019 true-crime/softcore-porn hybrid miniseries The Last Czars. Nicholas and Alexandra haven’t shown up in American works as often as their frenemy Rasputin, but at this rate it wouldn’t take much for them to catch up.
8. “The System” (episode 2). Philip’s only real showcase this season permits him to make one (1) new friend, which of course earns him stern glares in a later episode. But he teaches grieving mom Penny (Natasha McElhone from The Truman Show and The Devil’s Own) how to find new light at the end of the mourning tunnel. It’s more sympathy than he’ll ever show Diana this season after effectively washing his hands of her at the end of season 4, but in his defense, neither of Diana’s children died while she was alive.
But while Philip is finding purpose away from his wife (still his thing after all these years, albeit in a more mature manner in his advanced years), our latest center of attention is imminent Diana biographer Andrew Morton, whom I recall seeing interviewed long ago, though I can’t remember why I didn’t change the channel. But at least he was an entry point I recognized. He and his associates enable Diana’s first public backstabbing attempt as an exit ramp from the Family, but her verbal-listicle montage of all the heartaches strewn along her rocky trails aren’t quite affecting enough when tossed at us as short, dulled shards. They’re too easily softened as they’re relayed through Morton’s proxies, all while Morgan flips with a smirk through Diana’s Rolodex of favored New Age practitioners and quacks. The episode loses most of its points for its tired ending, a paraphrase of the 21st century’s cheapest foreshadowing cliche: “A WAR IS COMING.” Yeah, yeah, we KNOW, guys.
7. “Gunpowder” (episode 8). Part Two of the infamous Bashir interview sees his BBC superiors’ internal squabbles over morality to a limited extent and over What Will Her Majesty Think to a far greater extent. More interesting here is first-time performer Senan West as young Prince William, who’s at Eton learning about treason, whose curiously timed scene could be arguably applicable to either Bashir or Diana depending on whoever rankles you more. V for Vendetta fanboys who were hoping the Guy Fawkes history lesson might amount to more were surely disappointed if they even gave this series the time of day, but it gives William much to consider as he relates to his family off-campus. He and Grandma Queen still get along lovingly, but he finds it more challenging to deal with Mom’s unceasing bursts of TMI love-life confessions that have nothing to do with him. She’s so relieved to be listened to at long last — through Morton and Bashir by proxy, amplified worldwide — that now she won’t shut up and assumes everyone wants to hear her unfiltered. William, who hasn’t stopped loving his dad like some people he could mention, has objections.
Meanwhile, the Queen realizes the limitations of ye olde TV antenna and finally springs for cable, with some assistance from loving grandson William and some irresistible bait (One imagines her yelling at top volume “I can watch HORSE RACING? WHY DIDN’T YOU SAY SO?” while ordering her secretary Robert Fellowes to phone Comcast UK now now NOW NOW NOW.) For once the march of progress might tentatively expand her (and the Queen Mother’s) awareness of the outside world (Beavis and Butt-Head is right at their fingertips!) while further adding to the large pile of obvious metaphors that are cluttering the palace carpets.
6.”Queen Victoria Syndrome” (episode 1). The requisite transition from past Elizabeths and seasons isn’t necessarily irritating; it’s just that episodes of setup and continuance provide necessary backbone and tend to rank lower through no qualitative fault of their own. After a prologue that once again welcomes Claire Foy back to the milieu (alas, no new flashbacks for Olivia Colman to inhabit), our latest Elizabeth-and-Philip are aghast at the state of the royal yacht Brittania, a symbol so blatant that they might as well have had a picture of the Queen’s face on the bow. It’s yet another expensive possession that upsets some folks in the country-at-large and leads to someone being mean to the Queen, who’s newly aghast as if such effrontery has never happened before and punk rock didn’t exist in our timeline. Once again she’s deemed totally square and out-of-touch, an archaic holdover from past centuries, a rehash of the old implication that monarchs should have term limits or at least pass an annual license renewal test, like an elderly driver. But this time the discontent isn’t entirely with her: it’s with her relatives who are binning the Family’s self-designated job responsibility as role models — at least for the country, to say nothing of that old-time religion.
Meanwhile, our new Charles and Diana are trying to Just Get Along at their elders’ insistence, but the Sunken Cost Fallacy is no broken marriage’s friend and they inevitably renew their wrath rather than their vows. Their never-ending battle is hardly new, but it’s a good warm-up exercise for West and Debicki that they’ll need before later fights. We also meet new Prime Minister John Major, played in several episodes by Jonny Lee Miller as a statesman who’s spent a lifetime crafting a poker face that’s dutifully immobile on the outside while its inner layer has rows of claw marks slashed into it by his manacled true feelings. Major is no season-4 Margaret Thatcher, but every scene of his eyes lit with unspoken thoughts is an opportunity for MST3K fans to insert the perfect monologues into his dignified silences.
5. “Decommissioned” (episode 10). The dilapidated yacht metaphor, of which Elizabeth was already keenly aware, drifts into its final port in the season finale. This needed way more sightings of that famous yacht, which was barely depicted. What little we did get was clearly done on a far more modest budget than the Succession season-2 finale “This Is Not for Tears”, whose real-life yacht setting may have been the most extravagant TV cruise since The Love Boat and was a beautifully offensive excess exemplar compared to Lilibet’s prized invisible antique super-clipper.
Diana meets Mohamed again in Part Two of the Diana/Dodi trilogy, eventually To Be Concluded in season 6 if they don’t drag things out even more. The cliffhanger has no urgency to it, only our knowledge that one day Morgan shall be forced to grapple with Diana’s final night and shall be persecuted by one or more crowds no matter how he handles it, whether he turns it into all-out graphic car-crash porn a la Final Destination 2 or cops out and begins season 6 the next night after Diana’s death. I can totally imagine this happening, but have a higher expectation.
This finale, in the meantime, has two great things going for it: a stiff-upper-lip farewell to Miller’s Major, who loses the election to Tony Blair (played by Bertie Carvel, a.k.a. Banquo from Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth) and whose lone comfort is that his fear of The Monarchy ending on his watch proved unfounded; and an anxious Mr. West showing how Charles may have aged, but the stifled Josh O’Connor is still inside him, still the petulant boy spoiled in innumerable ways except for the one indulgence he really, really, really wanted in this world, as opposed to all the other tangible stuff he ever wanted and got pretty much every single time.
4. “Mou-Mou” (episode 3). After “No Woman’s Land”, this one was most likely to have been cut if Morgan had ended the show with this season as he once briefly contemplated. Barely including the main cast at all, it’s the tale of Mohamed Al-Fayed, portrayed as the world’s richest Anglophile who chases his lifelong dream of buying his way into the Royal Family’s graces, going so far as to hire his own fully accredited assistant to give him advanced tips and tricks. As interpreted here, real-life employee Sydney Johnson becomes his Henry Higgins by way of Bagger Vance and shows him how to fit into the highest of high societies, or something like that, which feels sketchy despite any necessary anti-racist speechifying. The riches-to-respectability fable works anyway thanks to an insightful performance by Salim Daw (FX’s Tyrant) as Mohamed Al-Fayed, the billionaire who always wanted more, whose sometimes stern behavior — followed by the occasional apology where warranted — feels refreshingly quaint and modest next to some of today’s too-rich megalomaniacs…when he’s not being as racist as them, at least.
Interesting highlights from his journey include the time he and his adult son Dodi produced the Best Picture Winner Chariots of Fire (the lone highlight of Dodi’s film career) and the final scene in which Mohamed is this close to rubbing elbows with the Queen at last, only to settle for a consolation prize: face time with a delightful Diana. It’s one of Debicki’s warmest, most reaffirming moments as she trades good-natured quips with him in the outsiders’ penalty box. Bonus points are awarded for a flashback inviting another pair of outsiders from seasons past — Alex Jennings and Lia Williams as our favorite ex-royal antihero couple, David and Wallis, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. It has been a while.
3. “The Way Ahead” (episode 5). The One with the Bawdy Tampon Chat, which Anne saw coming from miles ahead and which I…well, I learned about its existence the hard way by watching this very episode. Seriously, I did not keep tabs on these people back in the day. (This is almost as embarrassing as the time Donald Glover’s Atlanta taught me about Juneteenth, which was never a thing here in the Yankee states. But apparently Tampongate was worldwide news at the time.) It’s one of two episodes (see next capsule) directed by May el-Toukhy, the only ones that visually arrested my eye boldly enough to make me go back and note the credits.
Despite some historically accurate cringe moments as we eavesdrop on a conversation that was never intended for an audience, it’s the most humanizing segment in the lives of the adulterers Charles and Camilla. To my surprise, Olivia Williams (Dollhouse) finds a surprising vein of relatability in Camilla, who I’m still not standing up and applauding, but at the end of the day she’s a sinner like the rest of us. Camilla wasn’t born into queen-level affluence and isn’t Of The Royals, and Williams’ complex bears no surface pretensions, no feeling of gold-digging or fame-chasing or other unseemly motivation like the world ascribed to her for decades. Adulterers still aren’t my favorites in my stories, but it’s the only episode in which we get an honest sense of how she became the only person to encourage Charles to let down his guard and step out of his imperially demanding persona around her and virtually nowhere else.
All of this is a marked contrast from the contemporaneous media’s unanimous vilification of her. The litany of insulting tabloid headlines and unflattering photos remind me in hindsight of the way my mom used to talk about every single woman my dad ever paired with after her. Williams brings so much game that she forces West to elevate his own performance, especially at the end when (again, a true story off my radar till now) Charles tries his hand at breakdancing, with exactly the results you’d expect. That’s the direct opposite of his previous scenes without Camilla that place vain hopes in finding his own Andrew Morton in the form of UK TV talking head Jonathan Dimbleby, who isn’t nearly as helpful to the future King as Camilla seems to be here. He still did Diana wrong on multiple levels, no two ways about it, and we’ll get back to that in moments, but absolutely nothing about his years with Diana could possibly explain who could’ve loosened him up enough to breakdance.
2. “Annus Horribilis” (episode 4). I never paid Princess Margaret a single second of attention during her life, but her episodes are consistently among my favorites, as if Morgan loves her best of all his fictional children. Lesley Manville, the glorious MVP of Phantom Thread, picks up the tiara previously worn by Vanessa Kirby and Helena Bonham Carter — equally tough acts to follow — and, incredibly if too briefly, catches up with them in no time flat. Margaret would apparently remain sidelined for the remainder of her days, a cruel fate made all the more galling as she watches the Royal Whelps screw up their marriages one by one and have their exit strategies validated by her sister the Queen to varying degrees of permissive resignation — not just Charies and Di, but the new dalliance between Princess Anne and her equerry, and then there’s the collapse of the fairy tale of Prince Andrew and Princess Not Appearing in This Series. (No room is made for Fergie, only for the toe-sucking scandal — which is yet another new thing I now know about, which I could’ve gone my entire life cheerfully never knowing. This show is making me hate learning new things.)
Margaret is wounded to the core that change is slowly coming to the Royal Family that eventually allows everyone to defy long-held church practices so they can divorce or otherwise mitigate their own fractured relationships. Everyone, that is, except her — she’ll never forget or forgive how she was forced to lose her first true love, her sister’s divorced equerry Peter Townsend. Nor does she look fondly upon her ultimately dreadful marriage to Antony Armstrong-Jones that ended in a divorce which became a studious red blot on her Royal Permanent Record. In a winning episode where the sight of a fiercely burning Windsor Castle is a subplot, the A-story is her reunion with a much older Mr. Townsend played by Timothy Dalton, worthy successor to season 1’s Ben Miles (whose most recent gig was on Disney+’s Andor). Peter’s divorcee status and her youth were a forbidden combination way back when; decades later, they reach out to spend a few final moments together for all it’s worth. Their relationship postmortem doesn’t exactly achieve closure, but at the very least it allows a touching farewell that leaves her heart twice broken. So yeah, screw the Royal Kids These Days and their E-Z impulse breakups.
1. “Couple 31” (episode 9). My divorce was 26 years years ago and this episode still hit me harder than anything else this season. After the Bashir interview roiled England and dropped jaws everywhere, Elizabeth has finally HAD IT with Charles and Diana, and is all like, “Fine, I hereby grant thee permission to divorce, DO IT, PLEASE end this embarrassment,” and signs off on their split. The granting of their mutual fondest wish leads to their relationship postmortem, one last conversation over an impromptu home-cooked breakfast in premature amity that swiftly relapses into the same old wrath.
What makes the episode isn’t just the bitterest duel between West and Debicki, but its juxtaposition with a series of ordinary, aching snapshots of marriages in ruins. One by one, former couples take turns reluctantly holding a meeting and airing their grievances. We can diagnose (perhaps judgmentally) the faults, the sins, the communication breakdowns, and the slow-motion drifts onto separate islands. We see their last accusatory glares at each other — among those who can bear to look at their exes, that is — before the courts efficiently and unemotionally go through the motions that legally rend them asunder. And long before death do they part. Though we knew Everyone’s Favorite Beloved Royal Couple far longer and far more in-depth (for better and worse), on paper they’re the same as any other finalized divorce. Even the fanciful magic of royalty was useless against the cold reality of two hearts that refused to beat as one.
I’ve seen it written elsewhere online, and echo here, that “Couple 31” would’ve been a far more apropos season finale here, especially if presenting it as “Diana: The Final Chapter” was never their Plan A. Alas, the filmmakers wanted one more hour to wrest the spotlight away from those two for at least a few moments so we might turn our gaze back toward the Queen herself. Remember her? Lady in all the trailers, holds all the power, feels about as “main character” here as Cassian Andor, supporting costar of TV’s Andor? Yep, we needed to run out the clock on the yacht metaphor even though the Britannia and its favorite passenger each concluded their reigns in very different manners.
…so that’s how it worked out for me, though I could change opinions again if I let this list sit till tomorrow and Anne reminds me of six more things I’ve forgotten. For now, this’ll do. Maybe we can do this again when The Crown presumably returns in November 2023 with The Final Days of Princess Diana Finally, Peter Morgan’s take on 9/11, the introduction of Kate Middleton in some probably-downplayed capacity, and the debut of the Queen’s must-read TV review column “What’s Elizabeth Watching?” in which she gives a jolly thumbs-up every time Beavis and Butt-Head mock a punk band.