The House of Windsor is burning. At least on screen, that is. In the fourth episode of season five of The Crown, Queen Elizabeth II (Imelda Staunton) finds herself outside Windsor Castle in the early hours of dawn, watching the royal residence engulfed in flames and falling in on itself. It’s the punctuation of a year the Queen herself described as one of the worst in her reign, both in the show and IRL, but the image feels apt for the hit Netflix series as well. Whereas previous seasons, which covered Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation until the 1980s have been applauded for peeling back the layers around the royal family and changing how the public views them, the latest season has been called “deficient” and “boring.” Which is a surprise, because this season, at least on paper, should have been the most dramatic and relevant to today’s audience, years they might actually remember from 1991 and 1997 that included the dissolution of Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s marriage and the months and years leading up to her death (the car crash and her death will reportedly be handled with care in Season 6).
Much of this disenchantment can be chalked up to one thing: Regardless of the fact that the series is fictionalised and inspired by real events, what’s being depicted on screen is too close to our current time, allowing viewers to project their own feelings of the royal family and events depicted onto the series.
It hasn’t always felt this way. Since premiering in November 2016, The Crown has been heralded as an example of prestige TV, giving viewers an intimate look into the history and inner workings of the most well-known royal family and institution, casting the first royal marriage we see as a to-die-for rom-com (Claire Foy as a younger Lilibet and Matt Smith as her Prince Phillip had *chemistry*).
But as the series has inched closer and closer to the present day, swapping Foy for Olivia Colman and now Imelda Staunton, which wider audiences might best recognise as Dolores Umbridge from the Harry Potter franchise, as the head of the monarchy, something has changed. The Queen — the actual Queen — has died. In light of Queen Elizabeth II passing in September, there has been a renewed conversation about what exactly she — and the British monarchy — mean to people across the world. While there are undoubtedly people who have a fondness for the late monarch (people like Dame Judi Dench have come to her and the royal family’s defense in the lead-up to the latest season), there’s also been a lot of vocal and justified opposition, specifically around the Crown’s history of colonialism, and the symbolism of having the Queen as the head of such a system. These are valid convos, and also make the series a tough watch. Because it’s difficult to dissociate from these ideas; and also, we probably shouldn’t.
But more than that, viewers are closer and closer to the actual events in real life. The dramatisation of the early days of the Queen’s reign, watching the early days of her marriage in Malta, her romantic African safari honeymoon, and historical moments like the 1966 Aberfan Mine Disaster were palatable with viewers because there was some sort of historical distance to them; chances are that many of the people watching the series during that time didn’t have personal memories or recollections of it (a 2017 Nielsen’s SVOD Content Ratings report found that of the average 1.3 million people who tuned in to season 2 of the show, nearly 600,000 were between the ages of 18 and 49).
For many younger viewers — myself included — the death of Princess Diana is an early, formative memory. Despite what Crown creator Peter Morgan put on our TV screens, viewers are more able to imbue their own memories and opinions of these events onto the show, guaranteeing that they’ll have thoughts — whether positive or negative — about what they’re seeing, and the way these events and figures are depicted. It’s tough to compete with people’s lived experiences, a truth that became glaringly evident in the lead-up to the latest season’s premiere, when a clip of Princess Diana’s infamous BBC Panorama interview began circulating on Twitter. In the clip, Elizabeth Debicki’s Diana comments on the fact that “there were three people in [her] marriage,” hinting at Prince Charles’ (Dominic West) infidelity with Camilla Parker Bowles. Side-by-side comparisons of the show’s clip to the real interview, as well as Twitter users’ own recollections and interpretations of the Princess’s true intentions were rampant; most found fault in the way the series and Debicki chose to portray Diana at this moment.
Maybe part of the issue with this season is the fact that it portrays Diana at all. Despite whatever disclaimers the show may give about the reality of the scenes, the fact is that it doesn’t really matter that it’s only inspired by true events because it becomes more difficult and less likely that viewers will be able to consciously separate fact from fiction. And in the way we contemporarily think of figures like Britney Spears and Marilyn Monroe, women whose traumas have been dissected and trotted out for public consumption for years, Princess Diana and her death have been similarly belaboured and picked apart time and time again in film and television, like 2021’s Spencer starring Kristen Stewart and docs like HBO’s The Princess.
And perhaps most upsetting of all is that the season only highlights just how little progress has been made since the '90s when it comes to the royal family in general. Many of the same conversations highlighted in this season are ones that the public are still having now. The alleged treatment of Princess Diana by both the British press as well as within the royal family when it came to her mental health parallels that of the alleged treatment of the former Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle, herself an outsider and commoner. (During a 2021 interview with Oprah Winfrey, Markle revealed that during her lowest points while a member of the royal family, she had suicidal thoughts).
The start of The Crown season five began with the public questioning the necessity of the Queen and whether or not the monarchy actually represented real people; a question people across the world are grappling with IRL as King Charles III has moved onto the throne. In many ways, we’re stuck in the same cycle, again highlighted by Queen Elizabeth II’s death, and these topics and convos that the public are still having around the royal family is drowning the show out. The series is set to end after its sixth season, taking the show and its viewers into the early 2000s and introducing characters like Kate Middleton before she becomes the Duchess of Cambridge into the show’s orbit. But we know what happens next, we’re still directly dealing with it. And that makes watching it play out feels a little pointless.
The Crown Season 5 is available to watch now on Netflix.