The Heroine’s Journey in “The Crown”

Some things are more valuable than the finest jewels and most lavish homes, more prized than the richest collection of fine art and any closet overflowing with couture could ever be. “The Crown” suggests a few such things: family, honesty, privacy, loyalty, and love. But there’s something else as well, and the excellent series make that one thing perfectly clear: a great actor is nearly priceless, but an ensemble full of them is worth all the jewels in the family vault, and then some.

“The Crown” is a treasure, all by itself. Netflix’s famously lavish series is a sumptuous visual delight, its richness both a treat for the eyes and a requirement for the story being told.

Stories building on the already-complex relationships between Elizabeth, Philip, Margaret, the Queen Mother, and other members of the Royal Family and their retinue to create something even more layered and rich.

On a character level, it’s a story about a woman struggling with her own insecurities and jealousies, how such feelings can create distance and how that distance can be erased; how strength can emerge from those uncomfortable emotions and how quickly that strength can curdle into pettiness. That’s all covered with relative ease in one hour, along with political intrigue, gorgeous costuming, and the ever-changing relationships that anchor Elizabeth in her life. They even leave room for a dance scene.

That’s what sets “The Crown” apart most. Peter Morgan and his fellow writers and directors have three incredible gifts with which to create: history and its ceaseless supply of good stories, an ensemble as gifted as any on television, and more money than God. What they’ve chosen to do with those gifts is remarkable, cruising past the easy world of by-the-numbers storytelling and instead exploring both history and the complexities of marriage, parenting, sisterhood, governance, femininity, agency, and growth—and they’ve been able to achieve this in part because of the performer who sits at the center of the swirling storm.

The tumultuous lives of Charles (Josh O’Connor) and Anne (Erin Doherty) were added to the mix, joining Elizabeth (Olivia Colman), Philip (Tobias Menzies), and Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter), among others, in the show’s well of stories. As always, those stories are punctuated by Elizabeth’s regular audiences with the Prime Minister of Britain, a role in the fourth season filled by Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson), and historical events of the time, usually distilled down into a crisis-of-the-week (the assassination of a member of the royal family, a fateful avalanche, and the truly bonkers story of Michael Fagan, to name a few). And once again, the season arc hinges less on either those audiences nor the historical record than on one or more doomed love affairs and ill-fated marriages. This time, however, it’s really just the one: The doomed union between Lady Diana Spencer (relative newcomer Emma Corrin) and Charles.

It would be all too easy to get caught up in Corrin’s uncanny resemblance to the very famous woman she’s playing, and forget entirely that you’re watching a performance. The relationship between Charles and Diana—and inevitably, that between Charles and the former Camilla Shand (Emerald Fennell) —plays an even more central role here than any previous such storyline has done, save the marriage between Elizabeth and Philip, and anything less than excellence on Corrin’s part may have tanked the season. But she more than rises to the challenge. “The Crown” takes great pains to underline Diana’s isolation, and that places a hell of a burden on the young actor bringing her to life. Her most frequent scene partner is no one at all, and the scenes of Diana alone—rollerskating through the palace, studying ballet, or simply pacing her lonely apartments—are among the season’s finest.

That’s the element of the season most like a soap opera, and that’s not a term used here disparagingly. The tangled royal web Morgan weaves makes for addictive viewing, but it never diminishes the emotional experiences of the characters. Indeed, as with the early seasons, Morgan seems far more interested in the inner life of one of his characters than audiences might be, though O’Connor’s tormented, selfish Charles has supplanted Matt Smith’s younger Philip as Morgan’s favorite.

The story stumbles nearly every time it attempts to really wrestle with the implications and legacy of Thatcherism, though Anderson never does. However, when “The Crown” allows itself to simply enjoy having a clear-cut villain played by a world-class actor, it’s incredibly satisfying. That the show does best with Thatcher as a character when she’s painted with the broadest brushstrokes should be a failing, but Anderson never allows it to be; the performance is always layered, even when the writing is not. And when the focus shifts to Thatcher as a foil for or reflection of Elizabeth, the story soars.

That’s what comes of putting Olivia Colman and Gillian Anderson alone in a room together, one supposes. The season’s standout fourth episode, “Favourites,” stems specifically from the potency of this pairing, though the two spend most of the hour apart. The inciting incident here is the disappearance of Thatcher’s son, who she openly describes to the queen as her favorite; it’s a remark that sends Elizabeth, who believes that she does not have a favorite, off to spend time with each of her four children individually. It’s the season’s funniest episode (always a relief with “The Crown”) thanks in no small part to both Colman and Anderson’s knack for landing punchlines that aren’t punchlines (an example: Elizabeth asks her private secretary for a dossier on each kid’s hobbies and interests, because “one wouldn’t want to appear uninformed”). But it’s also its finest character study, allowing the audience to plumb Elizabeth’s psyche and see the four young royals through her eyes by using Thatcher’s distress as a springboard.

“The Crown” is chockablock with fatal flaws—in characters, in relationships, in entire systems—and it is at its best when those flaws sit front and center, especially where Elizabeth is concerned. When “The Crown” falters, it’s usually because the focus has shifted elsewhere, typically to the crisis-of-the-week, and the more complex that crisis, the less substantial the episodes seem to be. Get ready for an engaging power struggle between the Queen and Thatcher, in which the subject over which they’re coming to blows is something of an afterthought. That subject is apartheid.

But when Morgan is at his most Aristotelian, “The Crown” remains a triumph; it relishes both the complexities of character and the tidbits that might make the tabloids. This marks the end of the reign of Colman, Menzies, Bonham Carter, and the rest; when the series returns, there will be a new queen in town. But Colman’s tenure on Morgan’s fictional throne was an excellent one, a 20-episode masterclass in subtlety and restraint. It’s from her that so much of that authenticity stems; she never lets the series stray completely from the story of a woman who has long ago deemed herself insufficient as a mother and wife, subservient to the role which was thrust upon her head, quite literally.