The first season of The Crown debuted with a clear sense of purpose: To introduce us to the world of the Windsors and to chart the rise of Queen Elizabeth and the decline of Winston Churchill. Since then, however, the show has struggled to recapture that same level of focus. Season two stumbled by centering on marriage. And while season three found greater success with the theme of “transitions,” it still felt a bit fractured and aimless. To some degree, The Crown is limited by how much interesting history happened to take place during the period it’s covering each season. And the 1960s and ’70s just didn’t provide the most intriguing fodder for the series to build from.
Thankfully, season four doesn’t need to worry about that problem. It’s bursting with historical events and—perhaps more importantly—famous historical faces. “Gold Stick” doesn’t waste any time introducing us to two of the most well-known women in modern British history: Diana Spencer (Emma Corrin) and Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson). The fact that they’re both prominently featured on the season four poster indicates The Crown knows we’re here to see them as much as we are to follow the ongoing saga of the Windsor family. And Maggie and Lady Di both get introductions that suggest The Crown might be aiming for a new level of camp this season—whether intentionally or not.
Teenage Diana makes a particularly surreal debut as she meets Charles while decked out as a “mad tree” for a school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She frames their meeting as an adorable accident, although her older sister suggests Diana was obsessed with meeting the Prince of Wales. That tentatively raises what I suspect will be a season-long exploration of who was at fault for Charles and Diana’s ultimately disastrous pairing. And it allows The Crown to emphasize just how young Diana was when she was sucked into the Windsor family’s orbit. Because despite Charles’ ongoing love for the now-married Camilla, he just can’t resist a quirky, Shakespeare-themed meet cute. He’s only human after all.
Margaret Thatcher, however, might not be. In both look and performance, there’s something almost drag-like about Anderson’s mannered, theatrical take on Britain’s first woman Prime Minister. I’m hoping it’s a performance she’ll settle into (or that I’ll get used to) as the season goes on, as it’s somewhat jarring in this episode. Still, Thatcher’s election provides plenty of meaty thematic ideas for The Crown to dig into, particularly in relation to gender and leadership. Elizabeth is buzzing at the thought of a woman leading the country, although Thatcher doesn’t exactly share that same sense of sisterhood. She’s a woman in high office who believes that women are too emotional to hold high office, which is a fascinating look at the hypocrisies of Conservative politicians.
Beyond Thatcher and Diana, “Gold Stick” jumps right back into the central Windsor family drama without much fuss. With a shorter break between seasons and the cast intact this time around, there’s less need for recapping or reintroduction. Other than poor Anne, who seems to have experienced an entire arc (and a marriage!) since we last saw her, everyone else is on familiar ground: Charles feels rudderless, Philip feels purposeless, and Elizabeth feels limited. And then a brutal assassination upends everything.
The sequence intercutting Uncle Dickie’s lobster boat excursion with Charles fishing and Philip shooting is excruciatingly tension; a family fond of hunting suddenly finds themselves being hunted. I’ll be curious to hear how the sequence plays for those who aren’t familiar with this particular event, however. As usual, The Crown has little interest in interrogating or even contextualizing Britain’s history as an imperial power. The show’s first introduction to “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland (or to anything involving Ireland at all, actually) comes via a quick opening montage and then voiceover of the IRA claiming responsibility for Lord Mountbatten’s death as retaliation for “Bloody Sunday”—the 1972 massacre in which British soldiers shot 26 unarmed civilians during a protest march (13 were killed). That we only see one of those events actually dramatized certainly speaks to where The Crown’s interest lies.
Future episodes could potentially play catch-up on the major Northern Ireland conflict that was ostensibly taking place just off-screen throughout season three. For now, however, The Crown uses Dickie’s death for more personal aims. The assassination inspires Thatcher to display the first glimpses of the bullish, merciless spirit that will come to define her 11-year tenure as Prime Minister. And while we don’t spend a ton of time with Elizabeth as she processes Dickie’s death, the steely way she takes in Thatcher’s words seems to reflect some of her own mindset too.
Meanwhile, the loss of a father figure is a major blow for both Philip and especially Charles. The grieving father and son share a tense conversation that serves as a follow-up to their heartbreaking dynamic in the second season episode “Paterfamilias.” Philip gets right to the brink of making a genuinely empathetic connection with his son. He can acknowledge and even kind of apologize for his resentment over the fact that Dickie transferred his fatherly affections to Charles. But he can’t acknowledge his own role in why Charles was so desperately in need of a supportive father figure in the first place. Once again, Philip’s ego is his tragic downfall.
That paternal impasse, coupled with the fact that Charles and Dickie were in a fight when he died, inspires Charles to take drastic action in his personal life. He sets out to fulfill Dickie’s suggestion that he marry a “sweet and innocent, well-tempered girl with no past, who knows the rules and will follow the rules.” With hindsight, we know that Charles and Diana’s match isn’t the fairy tale “fresh start” that Dickie is hoping for. But when it comes to finding a princess who will be loved by the people, you can’t say Charles didn’t meet the brief.
Between Diana’s youthful spirit and Thatcher’s belief that Britain must change from top to bottom, “Gold Stick” suggests that “change” will be a major theme of the season. And for a family that dislikes change as much as the Windsors, that promises a fascinating battle royale for our favorite royals.
- Welcome back to The A.V. Club’s coverage of The Crown! New reviews will drop every day at 9 a.m. EST.
- One of the most interesting meta qualities about this show is watching everyone (understandably) obsess about Charles’ future reign as king, when we know just how far away that “destiny” actually is.
- I love how Olivia Colman captures the Queen’s sillier side. Elizabeth’s excitement at guessing Thatcher’s cabinet members is absolutely adorable.
- The Crown may have denied us Anne’s royal wedding and her failed kidnapping, but at least we get some good show jumping action.
- The title of this premiere, “Gold Stick,” refers to the ceremonial position held by Lord Mountbatten. And the episode opens with an event called “Trooping the Colour,” which marks the Queen’s birthday each year. You can watch footage from the 1976 event here: