The newest season of The Crown may take place during the 1980s, when David Bowie or Elton John needle drops were all the rage, but the troubles of the era’s royal family are best encapsulated by Halsey’s 2007 hit “Bad at Love: “Always make the same mistakes, yeah I always make the same mistakes, ‘cause, I’m bad at love.”
The Crown is an outlier for Netflix, having reached season 4 with a greenlight for seasons 5 and 6. And with that breathing room, creator Peter Morgan has prodded palace intrigue, interfamilial squabbles, rigid etiquette, and dogmatic traditions to reveal the weaknesses of a family beholden to an antiquated sense of duty. He’s chronicling a queen who has pledged to compartmentalize her political disagreements and personal opinions so she might protect the essential power and spirit of the crown.
While Europe’s most powerful dynastic empires fell after both world wars, the Windsors remained, transitioning from authoritarian lawmakers to figureheads with the Parliament Act 1911. As Morgan depicts in the series, their resilience comes from an instinct for survival. But their misunderstanding of matters of the heart, which arises again in full force with the courtship of Prince Charles (played by a forlorn Josh O’Connor) and the future Princess Diana (the ebullient Emma Corrin) in season 4, brings the family closer to ruin than any world war or devaluation of the pound ever could. And the season’s second episode, “The Balmoral Test,” reminds viewers that for all the fairytale pageantry, lavish weddings, and romantic countryside palaces, the Windsors are, as Halsey puts it, bad at love — a symptom of their long-standing outsider-vs.-insider worldview.
We first see this weakness in the season 1 episode “Smoke and Mirrors,” and later the season’s finale, “Gloriana,” when the royal family objects to the union between Edward VIII (Alex Jennings) and his wife Wallis Simpson (Lia Williams) due to the latter’s divorcée status. While the family further fractured after details of Edward’s overtures to Nazi Germany came to light, their distaste for Simpson also stems from her being an interloper. As an American, she’s brash, abrasive, domineering, and antithetical to the upper-lip British establishment. It’s why no matter his past offenses, Edward is allowed to return for special events, such as Elizabeth’s coronation during season 1, but Simpson is exiled. Edward is one of them. Simpson is not.
The Queen’s husband Philip (Matt Smith), through season 1 and 2, also grates against the family’s insider phalanx, partly formed from their disapproval of Philip’s background. After the Greek military overthrew his family, he was a royal without a kingdom, whose most prominent siblings were married to prominent Nazis. For much of the first two seasons, he endures passive aggressive slights from the establishment, such as his suggestions to televise Elizabeth’s coronation. Morgan found little room for these tensions in season 3: Over the course of 13 years (1964-77), Edward passed away, while Philip entrenched himself as an insider by protecting the crown with steadfastness.
Season 4 rekindles the outsider-vs.-insider emotional ailment by episode 2, “The Balmoral Test,” when Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) invites Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson) and her husband Denis (Stephen Boxer) to Scotland’s Balmoral castle. Morgan has hinted in prior episodes, such as “Tywysog Cymru” in season 2, at the different ways the royals observe conjugal love, as opposed to commoners. In this episode, he addresses those contrasts directly. For instance, when the prime minister and Denis arrive, they’re surprised to be given separate bedrooms. Thatcher is also flummoxed when a maid unpacks Denis’ suitcase. She exclaims, “that’s a wife’s job.” The wait staff of the royal family, who represent an extension of their bosses’ value system, interprets the Thatchers’ surprise, not as their observance of traditional marital roles and customs, but as faux pas that could only be committed by interlopers. It’s a cold snap judgment that Morgan shows is ironically common for the Windsors to make.
While Morgan isn’t in Thatcher’s corner, one gets the sense he enjoys poking fun at the royalist prime minister, allowing the new leader to engender pathos. Consider the Thatchers attending drinks, which they interpret as black tie, only to discover the family dressed semi-casual. The pained full-curtsy the prime minister gives to Elizabeth should clue the royals to the Prime Minister’s embarrassment. Instead, a rude Philip asks if the couple will attend dinner in their pajamas next. A round of “ibble dibble” doesn’t go much better. Much like Simpson, the outsider Thatcher is fighting a losing battle. Morgan displaying the viciousness the family attacks societal intruders with foreshadows how they can turn a committed royalist into an enemy.
In her disastrous experience with the Windsors, the Prime Minister discovers a familiar foe: privilege. The shopkeeper’s daughter, now the first woman prime minister, has a cabinet filled with entitled men from established aristocratic families. Men who are more like the royal family than Thatcher. For instance, while presenting an austere budget at a cabinet meeting, her ministers, with insults reeking of sexism, ridicule her for lacking “experience” and “sense.” They lecture her in the protection institutions, and warn her not to move too fast. To follow protocol. Their patronizing put-downs aren’t too dissimilar to when an irate Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter) finds Thatcher working on a bank holiday from Queen Victoria’s chair. Margaret instructs Thatcher to relax, to not move too fast, because time lends perspective.
While the first two seasons of The Crown witnessed Elizabeth grappling with an unhappy Philip and pushing against the same stuffy, patronizing men who scoff at Thatcher in the ‘80s, by season 3, everyone is on the same page: Elizabeth is the queen. Her word is final. The writers reformulated the third installment of The Crown to feature more standalone episodes based around Philip, Margaret, and Charles, but Thatcher, through Anderson’s determined wheeze, brings back the outsider conflict that fueled the first two seasons. And it’s Charles and Diana who rekindle a fairytale love not seen since Margaret and Townsend in the show’s first two installments.
Segregated by the Windsors from Camilla Shand, the woman he loves, Charles invites Diana to Balmoral to, in the words of Anne, see if she might sink or swim. While tabloids would later dub her the “people’s princess,” referencing her dedication to charities and everyday civilians, she was raised as the youngest daughter of nobleman John Spencer, 8th Earl Spencer, near the royal family on their Sandringham estate. Morgan notes the fact in “The Balmoral Test,” in a dialogue scene between Diana and Philip. The showrunner portrays Diana as a person caught between being both an outsider and an insider. She knows enough to charm the family but not enough to know their true nature.
Whereas Thatcher leaves windy, cold Balmoral determined to upend the establishment that shunned her, Diana comes to woo them. She aces their games and is the belle of their dinner parties. She also changes her personality to fit their milieu. In a sequence in which Philip takes Diana with him to stalk the stag, she tells him she’s a country girl at heart. But in a later episode, she admits to loving the city and despising the country. By expressing her love for cleaning and ironing, she not only feeds into Philip’s conception of the perfect wife, but alludes to why she’ll later be called the “people’s princess.” Morgan is showing us the creation of the Diana fairytale, while offering a fuller portrait of her, one opposed to her mythification, where she’s neither a saint nor a villain. Instead, she’s a young woman who desired to be loved, and foolishly entered a marriage, and a family, who couldn’t offer her that love.
By casting the family’s misinterpretation of the Thatchers’ conjugal love in parallel with their misunderstanding of Diana’s desire for true love, Morgan further shows how, for the Windsors, passion is second to survival. Because to the Windsors, true love is a formality, which might arise in due time if one remains committed to the duty of survival. Consider Elizabeth’s 25th wedding anniversary speech during the season 3 episode “Imbroglio.” She claims a successful union can only be forged in the “crucible of family relationships,” through “fealty, allegiance, obedience, and devotion.” She describes marriage not as an act of love, but as a “proposition,” formed by like-minded individuals not only promising to further conform to one another, but to the comfortable standards of the royal family.
“The Balmoral Test” harks to the family’s central weakness. They prize familiarity over what they see as common love. Their blindspot made the abdication worse than it had to be. It tested Philip and Elizabeth’s marriage, made an enemy of Thatcher, separated Charles from Camilla, and forced him into a shortsighted marriage with an innocent Diana, a marriage that will ultimately end in tragedy. Once more, the second episode of the fourth season returns The Crown to what makes this soap opera so delectable: It’s a royal family trapped in archaic rituals cowering in palaces in the hopes of continued survival. Yet every generation is burdened by the same mistakes. Mostly to do with love and humanity.