‘The Crown’ Season 4 Enters a New Era With Margaret Thatcher in Power and Royal Romances Crumbling

What began as a drama centered on one monarch now evolves into a grand tragedy where several women are pulled into a storm of state and royalty. Netflix’s fourth season of “The Crown” leaves the colorful, at times slightly more hopeful, atmosphere of the ‘50s and ‘60s and now enters the drearier ‘80s. Her majesty Olivia Colman returns with regal wisdom as Elizabeth II, but the stage truly belongs to Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher. “The Iron Lady,” as Thatcher remains known, enters the Queen’s world as a portrait of intriguing contradictions just as Buckingham Palace transforms further into an arena of clashing desires and entrapped personalities. With this season, “The Crown” is now entering a timeline much more familiar and closer to our own, with famous faces and intimate tragedies.  

The season opens in 1979 as unrest brews in Northern Ireland, where the IRA has declared a renewed, armed struggle against British rule of the territory. At Buckingham Palace talk is stirring over two key issues. One, the continued fallout of Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor) staying stuck on his very married beloved, Camilla Parker Bowles (Emerald Fennell), and second, the ascendancy of Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (Anderson). Thatcher is the first woman in England to ever hold the post and it naturally fascinates Elizabeth, although her husband Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (Tobias Menzies), is skeptical out of old fashioned misogyny. Yet Thatcher soon proves to be a contentious figure, rattling her own party with a push towards radical free market reforms. There is also conflict brewing when the IRA assassinates Lord Mountbatten (Charles Dance) and Argentina starts making aggressive military moves near the British-ruled Falkland Islands. For the royals better times seem around the corner when Charles meets 18-year-old Lady Diana Spencer (Emma Corrin). A school teacher and amateur dancer, Diana looks like the refreshingly young and fun prospect the royals have wished for Charles. She also has just the right bloodlines conscious monarchs require. But as their courtship commences, Charles is aware he only feels true happiness with Camilla.

There is a welcome, absorbing quality to jumping back into “The Crown.” Waiting for a new round of episodes can be the equivalent of eagerly anticipating the next book in a literary series by Hilary Mantel. This is because creator Peter Morgan keeps the narrative flow so flawlessly structured. Every new season has the feel of a family we have come to know entering another decade where age and history keep flowing along. Colman’s Elizabeth II is now slightly older, more observant of all matters and even growing harder when it comes to bending the rules. By now tradition and protocol absolutely rule her life and even Philip seems to have gotten over the midlife crisis streaks he endured last season. Now the royal couple becomes witnesses to everyone else’s follies. 

This is not to say all is perfect, far from it. Instead of scars or pains in the relationship, Elizabeth and Philip feel the sting of their own children’s flaws or pitfalls. “The Crown” has always been a work of elegant iconoclasm. Sometimes it seems to go over some critics’ heads how it can have the feel of a refined critique of the institutions and privileged class it is dramatizing. The only truly likeable royal this season is Princess Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter), who has accepted her fate as the queen who never was and basks in telling stories about meeting Imelda Marcos, scoffs at Thatcher for refusing to take a day off and snickers at Diana for not memorizing proper court protocol. She’s the only one who notices Charles and Diana are a disaster waiting to happen and warns the rest of the stubborn family. Elizabeth, amid the glow of celebratory fireworks, holds back any reservations and basically tells a teary-eyed Charles he must go through with it out of devotion to what they represent. This is not a world for happy marriages, something Charles’s sibling, Princess Anne (Erin Doherty), knows all too well since her own marriage is also in shambles (and she feels resentment at how much the press loves Diana).

Into the orbit of the properly dysfunctional royals comes Thatcher, played with an impressive, award-worthy combination of sternness and empathy by Gillian Anderson. For Anderson it’s an even more mature evolution of the sense of discipline and intelligence from her most famous role, Agent Dana Scully in “The X-Files.” Here Thatcher arrives to the Parliament as a conservative neo-revolutionary. Coming from a working class background, she feels like an alien in the privileged world of the monarchy and doesn’t even know what to wear when the queen invites her to go hunt for an injured elk that has crossed into royal grounds. Thatcher can only confide to her dutiful husband that this is a decadent, ossified society. Of course her solutions are no better. In a sense Thatcher is a mirror reflection of the kind of right-wing politics now practiced even in the U.S. under the Trump era. She despises the privileged, liberal elites. But her answer to balance the economy is to impose fiscal austerity, slash public programs and stay determined even as unemployment and social unrest climb. In one awkwardly fascinating episode a struggling worker manages to break into Elizabeth’s room and bring to her in person the plight of her subjects. Thatcher also has no qualms about standing against sanctions on the apartheid regime in South Africa (in real life she also adored Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet). 

Yet the writing is so good, as well as the directing, in how Thatcher also has her own, complex dimensions. Her politics may be stern but she is also a human being behind closed doors. Anderson wonderfully captures the stresses of power and of being a woman trying to overturn a social system run by older, entrenched males. “The Crown” is one of those rare shows that can make parliamentary politics quite intense and thrilling. Thatcher would like to rule by decree but this is a system where she has to wheel and deal, intimidate and hold fast. She gets some breathing space when the Argentine military dictatorship makes its own play for popular support by going to war with the UK over the Falklands, a conflict Jorge Luis Borges described as “two bald men fighting over a comb.” But for Thatcher it helps boost nationalist passions behind her just when she needs them. She also poses the challenge to Elizabeth about how sometimes gender solidarity gets trumped by class. When the two meet she seems taken aback when Thatcher subtly hints the privileged lack grit.

The other key storyline this season is of course that of Charles and Diana. “The Crown” takes the most famous royal couple of the last 30 years and turns them into a lavishly adorned yet pitiful Greek tragedy. Per this show’s take, it all boils down to Charles under the pressure of duty giving in to marrying someone too young but also too different in character. Emma Corin’s Diana is a down to earth, likeable young woman prone to rollerblading down Buckingham Palace while listening to Duran Duran. Charles is just more snobbish, and bored by her lack of interest in his more sophisticated pursuits. When she surprises him publicly on his birthday with a dance performance of “Uptown Girl” (an event which did take place), he reacts with an explosion of embarrassed fury. The stress compounds and Diana privately struggles with an eating disorder. Charles also remains stubbornly attached to Camilla, carrying on an affair nearly out in the open. Tellingly enough, and powerful in a narrative sense, the show only gives us the dress rehearsal of their famous 1981wedding. The fairy tale was always hollow.

“The Crown” transcends typical depictions of queens and princes by using the court of Elizabeth II as a gallery of our universal human frailty. The music is still lush and evocative and every frame shines like a work of art. Yet though we may not all be royals or granted immense wealth, selfishness, love and envy have no class or national boundaries. The pristine portraits hide harsh truths. It is the same with political power. Thatcher may be ruthless with her cabinet but seems powerless when doting on her brat of a son. She and Diana are linked in a strange and alluring way this season. They are two completely different women navigating a world of unshakeable tradition where image can easily come before empathy. And standing above them is Elizabeth II, who feels the same pains but has to save face under the weight of her crown. 

The Crown” season four begins streaming Nov. 15 on Netflix.