‘The Crown’ Season 5 Takes the Sheen off the Royal Family

Time has a way of changing people, even if someone’s character remains the same. The weariness of experience becomes more evident, and some memories can stay bitter, even if you are a royal. The fifth season of Netflix’s “The Crown” has a different, darker tone than its predecessors. Still an excellent drama and one of the streamer’s best originals, the gossipy glitz combined with eloquence now gives way to the jumbled uncertainties of a new generation coming into focus. Of course, there is a new resonance to the series with the recent passing of Elizabeth II, and while showrunner Peter Morgan assures us this series is a love letter to her historic reign, this season in particular can be far from a hagiography. Much of the focus isn’t even on her, but on the offspring and younger Windsors who are now part of a generation that doesn’t just ignore its dirty laundry.

Part of the show’s uncanny effect in evoking the passage of time is how it continuously changes the cast, now for the last time since the next season is reportedly the big finale. Her majesty the queen is now played by Imelda Staunton, who plays Elizabeth in her late 60s, with an even more reserved, more observant air. Elizabeth’s husband, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh is now embodied by Jonathan Pryce, still tough but now enjoying new hobbies such as carriage riding. The late ‘80s and early ‘90s are bringing new tremors to Buckingham Palace not always having to do with national politics. From the beginning, it is obvious that the marriage of Prince Charles (now played by Dominic West) and Princess Diana (a near carbon copy Elizabeth Debicki) is an ongoing train wreck. Diana feels eternally suffocated by the demands of royal life and its insistence on maintaining a pristine image no matter what, despite everyone knowing about Charles’s ongoing affair with Camilla Parker Bowles (Olivia Williams). Her first real salvo at attempting to let the world know of her troubles is by secretly agreeing to collaborate on a book with journalist Andrew Morton. But it is only the beginning of even greater conflict to come.

“The Crown” season five on some levels does not reach the absorbing or piercing quality of the previous seasons. It could be that Morgan is simply becoming entrapped by history. Despite the expected controversies of dramatic license, in general the ‘90s for the Windsors was a downward slide framed by a post-Cold War world lacking in the kind of personalities and events that colored the ‘50s through the ‘80s. No longer is Elizabeth a young monarch dealing with the end of the British Empire, coup plots against leftist prime ministers, Northern Ireland in armed conflict or the economic machinations of Margaret Thatcher (played unforgettably last season by Gillian Anderson). Now the drama is trying to frame to an even more precise degree the scandalous slips of the younger generation raised within an institution whose absolute necessity we can wonder about (especially post-Brexit). In the first episodes we don’t see intimate details of Charles and Diana’s life, except through arguments over ending yacht vacations too early or his despair over how in public they look great, while in private all is bored misery. Morgan’s writing is still far more insightful than other attempts such as Pablo Larrain’s movie “Spencer,” starring Kristen Stewart as Diana, which attempted to make sense of its subject with meandering, dreamy photography and fairy tale allusions. This season of “The Crown” casts Diana as a mischievous type who should have never married the stuffy Charles. She can easily flirt in public, he wouldn’t know how.

Elizabeth tends to recede at times, which doesn’t become too glaring in some of the stronger episodes. One of the best tells the story of Mohamed al-Fayed (Salim Daw), who we first meet as a working class street merchant in late 1940s Egypt, who dreams of being accepted into British society. The episode richly evokes the bygone Cairo aristocracy overthrown by the Nasser revolution in the ‘50s, before turning into a sharp study of a go-getter mentality shaped by an inferiority complex. When al-Fayed becomes a major property owner in London, he tries to fire a Black servant so as to not scare away high society, but then quickly changes his mind when he discovers the servant, Sydney Johnson (Jude Akuwudike), was once valet to the Duke of Windsor (Alex Jennings). Al-Fayed asks that Johnson teach him the ways and manners of an English gentleman. It’s a keen character study that leads to a major plot point those who know this story by heart can already guess, for al-Fayed’s son, film producer Dodi (Khalid Abdalla), will have a fateful link to Diana later on. 

Other chapters take on a wistful sense of what it feels like to look back at the past once you’ve reached a certain stage in life. Princess Margaret (Lesley Manville) is less of a party animal but can still bite with her temper, but the restless spirit of before now observes more patiently from the shadows. When she receives a letter from her great love fans will remember from back in the first season, now aged and wanting to take care of their cache of letters, Margaret falls into that melancholy of wondering what could have been. The episode is also one where Elizabeth has to confront the realities of the psychological toll her position has taken on those around her. Her grown children no longer see marriage as the iron commitment of years past and nearly beg for divorces, such is the case of the still controversial Prince Andrew (James Murray), who shocks his mother with how casually he accepts his marriage is simply not working (and becoming the stuff of tabloid front pages). He’s not surprised his wife, Sarah, is having affairs and seems to expect it. Charles practically has to plead with his mother to let him divorce Diana. Morgan is obsessed with allegories and one of the most potent is how he presents all this familial dysfunction with the 1992 Windsor Castle fire, which Elizabeth helplessly watches as much of her family’s old history goes up in flames.

Because this history is also so recent and took place at the dawn of 24-hour news cycles, other sections of “The Crown” can now feel like a parade of famous moments. Included, for example, is Diana’s tell-all interview with Martin Bashir (Prasanna Puwanarajah). But Morgan still maintains the show’s elegance, iconoclasm and good writing. The focus of the previous seasons may be getting wobbly now, but this is far from boring television. Instead of Jackie Kennedy, the Queen now meets Russia’s Boris Yeltsin and one of her castles gets satellite TV. The actors bring their own touch to these characters as well. Jonathan Pryce’s Philip has less of a rough edge and helps a friend learn the joys of carriage riding, even if she happens to be younger and attractive, which can spark a rare insecurity in Elizabeth. Dominic West may not look as close to Charles as Josh O’Connor last season, but he evokes the frustrations of a privileged man stuck in a system that won’t let him get out of a bad marriage so easily. Now in real life Charles is king, which adds another extra layer of fascination. Imelda Staunton’s Elizabeth is more tired and in a sense more unsure than Olivia Coleman and Claire Foy. By this season she has reigned for 40 years, but with everything changing so fast, she feels the sting of being out of step. Elizabeth Debicki’s Diana is vivacious and yet sad, making her more human than icon in her best episodes. Each actor captures something about why “The Crown” resonates even as it portrays such an enclosed world where family is meant to symbolize the nation. They may be royalty, but they are as flawed, selfish and haunted as us all.

The Crown” season five begins streaming Nov. 9 on Netflix.