Two-thirds of the way through The Crown’s fourth season finale, Charles unknowingly echoes his father. Back in “Favourites,” Philip lovingly teased Elizabeth by saying, “Your lack of self-knowledge sometimes is breathtaking.” In this episode, Charles cruelly insults Diana by sneering, “Your capacity for self-delusion never ceases to amaze me.” Both lines speak to a central theme of The Crown, particularly this season: The British monarchy is a rigid, unforgiving system that’s all but designed to crush your authentic sense of self. To survive within it, you must adapt to your prescribed role. And if your personality is too big to fit the position you’ve been given, you better be prepared to have your spirit broken.
This finale largely centers around the two women who have defined and defied this season’s take on the monarchical system: Margaret Thatcher and Princess Diana. Both reach breaking points and both respond to them in very different ways. After an improbable eleven-and-a-half years as Prime Minister, the Iron Lady finally crumbles against opposition from within her own party. Meanwhile, nine years into her unhappy marriage, Diana finally starts to find an iron will of her own. Though this finale marks the end of Thatcher’s time on the series, it suggests that Diana’s story is just beginning.
While this season has mostly presented Lady Di as either a sympathetic victim or an attention-seeking young woman, “War” is the first episode to really focus on her compassion. Whatever cruel insults Charles may throw at her, it’s immensely clear that Diana’s decision to hug a child in a Harlem hospital’s pediatric AIDS unit is not a selfish PR move on her part. Instead it’s the first moment she realizes that her beloved public persona can be used for something much bigger than herself or the monarchy. With a simple gesture, she can help challenge a cruel cultural stigma and change the conversation around HIV and AIDS. She finds a new sense of power and purpose during her solo trip to New York City—one that inspires her to reclaim her voice and start to gain control over her binging and purging.
Instead, Charles is the one who displays the impressive capacity for self-delusion. He can’t step outside the narrative he’s written of his own life to see what it looks like from the outside. Camilla gently tries to warn him that their relationship will never be seen as the fairytale love story that Charles feels it is. But Charles’ difficult upbringing has caused him to grow up into an emotionally stunted man who can only ever see himself as a victim. Josh O’Connor caps off his excellent tenure on the series with an explosive scene in which Charles finally throws the tantrum that’s been a long time coming: He wants what he wants and what he wants is Camilla.
Charles’ heel turn reflects the fascinating line The Crown walks when it comes to how much sympathy it wants us to feel for its characters. On the one hand, Elizabeth is unforgivably cold in her interactions with both Charles and Diana in this episode. On the other hand, it’s also immensely satisfying to watch her finally give her whiny son a good verbal smackdown: “If one day you expect to be king, then might I suggest you start to behave like one.” The only thing that slightly hinders the scene is the fact that O’Connor’s youthful appearance makes it easy to forget that Charles is supposed to be a 42-year-old man when all this is happening, which only makes his behavior even more embarrassing.
The Elizabeth/Charles showdown is one of several fantastic showcases for Olivia Colman in this finale, the others of which mostly center around Elizabeth’s final meetings with Thatcher. Like Charles, Thatcher also struggles with issues of self-delusion. Elizabeth must forcefully suggest that her Prime Minister accept defeat rather than try to ignobly extend her time in office by dissolving Parliament. And even then, Thatcher can only accept the narrative that her position was cruelly “snatched away at the very last” just as she was finally about to “finish the job.” Elizabeth seems like she can barely contain another eye roll.
Yet after a season that’s been appreciably blunt in its critique of Thatcher, Peter Morgan takes a slightly softer approach for her exit. He settles on the idea that context can change how you view someone. When Thatcher was in office, Elizabeth could only see her as a political firebrand. Watching the PM tearfully leave Downing Street forces Elizabeth to reckon with the fact that Thatcher is a person too. She calls the former Prime Minister back for one final meeting where she highlights their commonalities and bestows her with the Order of Merit. As Elizabeth diplomatically puts it, “Nobody can deny that this is a very different country now to the one inherited by our first woman Prime Minister.” The final shot of Thatcher as a small, human woman shuffling down a hallway is an interesting way for the show to leave the Iron Lady—even if I’m pretty sure you aren’t supposed to turn your back on the Queen when you exit a room.
Elizabeth’s reflection on Thatcher’s time in office offers a parallel for the sort of reflection this show’s compressed timeline often inspires in its audience. It’s hard to believe that we’ve already reached the end of the road for this phenomenal group of actors. Much like the second season finale, this one also ends with a big group photo that celebrates the entire departing cast. But where that sequence centered on Elizabeth, this one devotes its final moments to Diana. In a callback to the stag metaphor from “The Balmoral Test,” the Princess of Wales is framed by antlers as she descends a staircase to join her icy in-laws for the Christmas photo-op. Yet if Diana is tragically trapped by the royals, they’ve laid a trap for themselves as well.
While the Windsors tend to blame everything on Edward VIII’s abdication, I think the bigger source of their problems is how unexpectedly King George VI died. That thrust Elizabeth onto the throne at a time when her age and gender were massive concerns. “I was just a girl,” Elizabeth tells Thatcher during their final meeting, and the tenuousness of her position caused the Windsors to close ranks around her even more strongly than they usually might for a new monarch. When Philip’s sweetly sympathetic conversation with Diana turns sour, he quotes the advice that an ailing King George gave him way back in the series premiere (which also featured a Christmas at Sandringham House!): Elizabeth is the essence of their duty.
Yet Philip and the rest of the Windsors missed the subtler lesson that King George was trying to pass on too. At some point in your reign, you need to start wrapping a lovingly protective cocoon around the next generation of monarchs-to-be. Elizabeth no longer needs the kind of shoring up that she once did, while Charles and Diana very much do. Yet the Windsor family’s general inertia has prevented them from seeing that they need to shift their priorities and sympathies. It’s a choice that will define the family for decades to come—and bring The Crown into some of its most explosive years yet.
- There was an egregious lack of Porchey this season. Truly unforgivable.
- Acknowledging that your great-great-grandparents were lovers is the most royal family form of flirting ever.
- There’s no doubt that Gillian Anderson gave an incredibly compelling and transformative performance this season, but I could never quite get over the fact that she sounds like Margaret Thatcher doing a Gandalf impression.
- I feel like Charles and Camilla’s real-life relationship has kind of split the difference between the two potential narratives they raise in this episode. She was certainly seen as a villain for a long time, but now that they’ve been married for so many years it feels like there’s much more public support for their partnership. I wonder if this season’s phenomenally nasty take on Charles will change that at all.
- It’s really hard to say which cast member I’m going to miss the most. Tobias Menzies gets major points for making me actually like Philip, but I think it’s gotta be Erin Doherty’s Anne.
- Thanks so much for following along with these reviews! We’ve got two final seasons of The Crown on the horizon, with a cast that includes Imelda Staunton as Elizabeth, Jonathan Pryce as Philip, Lesley Manville as Margaret, Elizabeth Debicki as Diana, and (probably) Dominic West as Charles. It’s looking like season five will likely hit Netflix in 2022. If you’d like to keep up with me in the interim, you can find me over on Twitter!