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A Heavy Head: A review of The Crown: Season 4

In its own messy but fascinating way, the popular series about the British monarchy offers insights into human nature, authority, patriotism, selfishness, and sacrifice.

Olivia Coleman stars as Queen Elizabeth II in Season 4 of "The Crown" (Image: Netflix)

The Crown: Season 4
Netflix, 2020
MPAA Rating: TV-MA
USCCB Rating: NR
Reel Rating: 4 out of 5 reels

For three hundred years after entering the Promised Land, Israel’s government was a loose confederation of tribes united by a common faith and the occasional judge but without a centralized human authority. While this was not without its problems, the arrangement gave the Israelites an unprecedented amount of personal autonomy. Yet by the turn of the first millennium BC, the people had grown annoyed with both their own freedom and divine favor. They demanded the prophet Samuel appoint a king over them “so they could be like other nations.”

“Give them what they ask,” God told him. “For it is not you they have rejected but Me as their king.” It was the start of a slow, sad spiral downward that led to exile and misery for God’s people. It’s an ominous warning for all monarchies, but especially for the now middle-aged Queen Elizabeth II in the fourth season of Netflix’s The Crown. At least King Solomon had actual power, but what is the point of such a figurehead in the modern world?

Jane Austin opened Pride and Prejudice by saying that “a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor), now in his early thirties, certainly has a good fortune but seems perfectly content with his adulterous affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles (Emerald Fennell). His family, especially Queen Elizabeth II (Olivia Coleman) and Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies), thinks it high time he settle down with a nice girl “who the people will love as a princess and, in time, as queen.” The second storyline involves the rise and fall of Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson), Britain’s first female prime minister, although she has little interest in glass ceilings but intense interest in the gutting the government’s voluminous budget. In the second season, the Queen complained that all her prime ministers were “too old, too ill, or too weak” and “didn’t last the course.” With Thatcher, she gets the exact opposite and may soon regret it.

The one thing this new season had to get right was Princess Diana, and newcomer Emma Corrin could not have given a better performance. Corrin portrays Diana Spencer as a naïve teenager who got caught up in a world that is way over her head. She really did love Prince Charles, but he saw their marriage as a convenient arrangement, not a true relationship. Even still, there is evidence that it could have succeeded had both partners been willing to put in the hard work any vocation requires. Despite her flaws, Diana really did try. Charles, however, not only refused to stop seeing Camilla but found ways to deliberately thwart Diana’s plans for reconciliation. It was reminiscent of the relationship between another pair of royals: Saul and David. While both were quite sinful, Saul never gave his heart to God and always skimmed off the top. When confronted with his own evil, David repented and prayed genuinely for the Lord’s help.

Rightly or wrongly, Charles is the clear antagonist of the season. Not only is he terrible to his wife but, as a future king, demonstrates exceptional mediocrity. He constantly complains about his problems, which are usually self-imposed, and spends inordinate amounts of time in silly little projects like instructing his gardener to prune the bushes of his summer home in a circular manner “to maximize calm energy.” His ideas are small, petty, and “lack grit,” in the words of Margaret Thatcher. Charles never feels duty bound and instead bases all his decisions on personal feelings. He erupts at Diana when she outshines Camilla in the public eye, yelling that when “she hurts her, you hurt me.” He sulks around his estates, face constantly down at his shoes, like a depressed ghost. Even his beloved sister calls him “Eeyore.” My favorite moment of the season is when the Queen finally tells him off after his whines about his marriage for the umpteenth time:

You are not suffering. We are all suffering having to put up with this. When people look at you and Diana, they see two privileged young people who through good fortune have ended up with everything. No one, not a single, breathing, living soul anywhere sees cause for suffering. They know you betray your wife and make no attempt to hide it. They know that, thanks to you, she has psychological problems. All anyone wants is for the pair of you to pull yourself together, stop making spectacles of yourselves, and make this marriage and your enormously privileged positions in life work.

Based on what I know of the politics of Peter Morgan, The Crown‘s creator and showrunner, I made a prediction when I heard Thatcher would be a prominent feature of this season. I foresaw her as cold and aloof to the nation’s problems but nonetheless inspirational because of her work ethic and position as the first female prime minister. I was mostly correct. There are many things that irk liberals about Thatcher, but a primary complaint was her refusal to dabble in identity politics. She was far more interested in her conservative policy agendas then celebrating her femininity. She surprises the Queen when she appoints no women to her cabinet, finding them “too emotional for high office.” She also never compromises in her radical vision for a “self-reliant” United Kingdom and is more than willing to make “enemies left, right, and center” in the process. This hubris proves ultimately to be her undoing as she alienates even her closest allies. Yet, beneath it all, there is a sense of respect for what she accomplished. No one—except perhaps the Queen herself—worked harder and sacrificed more for her country.

In the first season, a young Elizabeth is sternly told by her grandmother that her most important task as monarch is to “do nothing.” “The less we say or think or exist, the better,” she warns. Elizabeth takes this fully to heart, but Charles challenges her. What is the point a monarchy with not only no power, but no soul? Elizabeth tries speaking her mind briefly in opposing Thatcher on South African sanctions but quickly recoils when confronted. Perhaps that is why her favorite child is Prince Andrew, who boldly volunteers to fight in the Falklands War despite his privileged position. Without power, the only other reason for the monarchy is an ideal, a symbol of British values. Yet, as the family photo taken during the last scene indicates, that reason is crumbling fast.

As an American far removed from European history, it is easy for me to find the British royal family fascinating (although with the recent crisis in the U.S., one can sense a taste of monarchical despotism in the actions of governors across this land). Yet, we are all called to be kings and queens in our own home. The family is a domestic church. In that sense, a monarchy does have meaning when it provides a model for its citizens to follow. When it does not, the meaning ceases. Unfortunately, that is where The Crown seems to be heading.

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About Nick Olszyk 207 Articles
Nick Olszyk teaches theology at Marist Catholic High School in Eugene, Oregon. He was raised on bad science fiction movies, jelly beans, and TV shows that make fun of bad science fiction movies. Visit him online and listen to his podcast at "Catholic Cinema Crusade".


    • Did Netflix drop that program because of protests?
      I haven’t been following the news about it but I don’t subscribe to Netflix because of what they’ve produced and promoted.
      Ive watched the first episodes of The Crown from library DVDs . I thought it was fairly respectful and well done but I think it’s in poor taste to continue the series through poor Princess Diana’s lifetime.

  1. The series seems to me to be very well done. The House of Windsor, however, would seem to be on its last legs. Charles for a year or two, then William. But beyond William, it’s over for the British monarchy. Andrew, Harry…please.

  2. Excellent synopsis Nick! My wife and I just finished viewing the last episode and, like the other three seasons, one cannot help but to be in awe of the acting. The Brits do it right, that is for sure. Thanks for the review.

  3. The Crown is mostly make-believe. I also think it is designed to depict the Royal Family in a negative light to encourage anti-monarchical attitudes. Unfortunately, the behaviour of Prince Harry and his grasping bride, Prince Andrew ,and at times Hamlet-like Prince Charles contribute to that negativity. Modern “media” also contribute to a decline in respect due to conflating royalty with celebrity. Queen Elizabeth should be respected as faithful to her responsibilities. The British monarchy are not celebrities. Celebrities are airheaded Hollywood or coastal forgettable figures, mostly without much achievement as they mouth words made up by others.

  4. “Yet, we are all called to be kings and queens in our own home. The family is a domestic church. In that sense, a monarchy does have meaning when it provides a model for its citizens to follow.”

    Our model is some earthly monarch but Christ Himself…

  5. I don’t subscribe to Netflix and never will, but I’ll try to watch this series some other way. The Royal family is like a traffic accident; I feel I really should look away, but I can’t. We can think the Royals have outlived their usefulness, but we Americans don’t fully appreciate the value of the British Commonwealth. The Commonwealth manages to get countries who are natural enemies to cooperate, and we should not underestimate its value. Just watch cricket World Cup, and be amazed at who’s playing on the same pitches together, with civility and savor. If the monarchy dissolves, I think the Commonwealth could dissolve, and we really don’t want that.

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