Television

The TV Club, 2020

Entry 7: Why The Crown’s Diana Season Got So Good

Princess Diana on The Crown
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Netflix.

My dearest Uptown Girls,

I think it’s pretty clear how The Crown got so good in its fourth year. The show gained two supremely compelling antagonists to the royal family in Diana Spencer and Margaret Thatcher, whose perspectives and biases and even naivetes are so much more relatable than the Windsors’. I had a pleasant enough time with the second and third seasons of The Crown, but I also got the sense that Peter Morgan and his writers had run out of new things to say about their cosseted characters. Elizabeth is dutiful. Margaret is wasting away. Charles is a horny, self-important prig. Only Philip, who occupied the role that Diana would later take over as the family newcomer, felt like he hadn’t fully given way to the mannequinization that is royal life, though the wonderfully existential moon-landing episode in Season 3 revealed that his uselessness was starting to weigh on him, too. (Can you tell he’s my favorite character? Don’t @ me about what an ass the prince is IRL; I’ve already gone down the Wiki rabbit hole.) In the show’s first three seasons, practically none of The Crown’s domestic storylines held a candle to, say, the Aberfan disaster, the 1966 coal-mining disaster that killed half the children in the Welsh town. Whatever was happening outside the palace gates always seemed much more interesting than the grimaced fretting within.

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Now, suddenly, the royal drama enthralls. A lot of viewers—many who’d never bothered with The Crown before—got excited about the introduction of Princess Di, partly because it covers a decade within living memory of the millennial chatterati, partly because pop culture of the past few years has primed us for recuperative narratives of the Wronged Women of the ‘90s (your Monicas, your Tonyas, your Marcias). But Season 4 is also when the decay and detachment that marks the middle age of the royals begin to bear rotten fruit. The reticence and stoicism that they prize above all else—combined with their extreme wealth, prominence, and power—is transformed from an arguable virtue to complicity with injustice. All the best episodes of the new season develop this theme: “Favourites,” in which the queen realizes she’s so cut off emotionally from both her children and herself she doesn’t know how she feels about them individually; “Fagan,” in which we get a glimpse of how terribly Thatcher’s war on the poor is going just a few miles from Buckingham Palace; and “48:1,” in which Elizabeth finally realizes that her studied passivity is no longer tenable on the issue of apartheid, but fumbles when it’s time to actually make a move.

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Then there’s the spring breeze of modernity that Diana brings to the palace, with her Walkman and her roller skates. There’s a hint of Princess Margaret in her willingness to embrace her sexiness—especially in front of a camera or a crowd—but Diana ultimately belongs to herself, not to her responsibilities. As a friend remarked, Diana’s expectations for her marriage to Charles were startlingly modern; not even Elizabeth expected monogamy from her prince consort, and she’s the freaking queen. It doesn’t hurt the season that its parallels to Meghan Markle’s troubles with her in-laws are obvious. And even though The Crown never suggests that Thatcher was anything but an unmitigated disaster for most of the U.K., it’s also easy to connect with her populist contempt of the castle-vacationing, wildlife-murdering, faux-homey gajillionaires whose actual favorite blood sport is freezing out one or more of their relatives. Season 4 is great because it became closer to that show we all miss: Succession.

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By the way, did it break anyone else’s brain to see Dana Scully as Maggie Thatcher, with that copper scouring pad atop her head (which Kathryn wrote about beautifully)? In my very first watch of Season 4, I actually had to shut off the premiere about 10 minutes in because my mind was melting. I eventually got used to all the various tics and mannerisms that Gillian Anderson employed, and I think I was impressed by all the Acting? But it also kinda bummed me out because Anderson’s never been the kind of actor who’s made her performances seem so … effortful.

I have to say, I’m a bit surprised to hear Emily so nostalgic for the never-ending shows of the ’90s. It seems like it was the 22-episode, 11-season runs that we associate with that era’s most iconic programming that led to so many critics wishing that American TV would emulate the British system more, with its tidy six episodes and return-when-they-wanna second and third seasons. (Remember the endless hand-wringing about how much better the British Office was than the American one? Is anyone still going back to the Ricky Gervais version?) TV is now getting closer and closer to that UK model, with shorter episode orders, three-season runs (especially on Netflix), and a larger pool of who gets to be the creators and stars. And here we are, grumbling about premature cancellations and the overwhelming newness of it all. Are we just impossible to please?

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To answer Willa’s question, I haven’t been watching very many reruns this year,  which is strange for me, because I usually like to have a beloved sitcom (30 Rock, Bob’s Burgers) play in the background while I do dishes or fall asleep. (I’ve conservatively run through Tina Fey’s sitcom 50 times, mostly as ambient noise.) But the samey blah-ness that Emily so expertly diagnosed made the familiarity of those shows intolerable in 2020. My quarantine life was already stiflingly mundane. Even my nostalgia needed an element of novelty.

Reader, I’ve watched so much reality this year, and not the edifying kind that occasionally jolts Willa from her fuzzies-allergic misanthropy. Selling Sunset, the Real Housewives of Potomac and Salt Lake City, international editions of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Asian and Asian American representational trash like Indian Matchmaking and Family Karma, and of course my guiltiest of guilty pleasures, 90 Day Fiancé—I couldn’t have gotten through the pandemic without them. I’m not the biggest reality fan; the genre is usually too much of a time-suck for often excruciatingly formulaic entertainment. But there’s an endless amount of catfights and toxic relationships to fill those long summer days and winter nights cooped up indoors. And one of the best ways I’ve found to keep up with friends I can’t see anymore has been sending each other Big Ed memes and off-screen gossip about reality participants. Once you start diving into Reddit rumors, a reality show never has to end.

Please bury me in Christine’s goth wedding dress,

Inkoo

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