[Editor’s note: The A.V. Club will publish episode recaps of The Crown’s fifth season every weekday at 1 a.m. Eastern through November 22. The following details episode five.]
It’s all happening! The revenge dress! Tampongate! After setting up the dominoes of the War of the Waleses for almost half a season, The Crown has finally gotten to the good stuff. Let’s dig in.
“The Way Ahead” is Charles’ (Dominic West) episode from start to finish after he’s mostly been on the sidelines since the premiere. We open with him whining ad nauseam about his role as Prince of Wales, at first in voiceover—but then it’s revealed he’s speaking to a whole dinner party of friends. “What am I? I’m just a useless ornament. Stuck in a waiting room, gathering dust.” There’s an awkward silence as they all stare at him, and then someone says, “You’re a criminally wasted resource, sir.”
This man loves the sound of his own voice, and that is about to get him in trouble. The year is 1989, and he retreats to his room to call Camilla (Olivia Williams), who is in a totally different world: a cozy home, celebrating the holidays, and playing a rowdy card game with her family. Her husband answers Charles’ call, and they make awkward chit chat while Camilla abandons the card game to take the call.
He wants to run a speech that he’s giving at Oxford by her, and while she’s less than enthused (“Is it very long?”), she lets him do his thing. As he talks, we hear the crackle of radio chatter and the camera leaves Charles’ window to swoop across English landscapes, lingering on radio towers and telephone lines. A man in a van–an “amateur radio enthusiast,” we later learn–stumbles upon their conversation and hits record.
He takes the recordings to The Daily Mirror, and the tabloid doesn’t want to run the transcript and break up a royal marriage, so they pay the guy and decide to keep the tapes for another day.
Another day comes a few years later, once Charles and Diana announce their formal separation. The palace’s official statement says they have no plans to divorce and will continue their royal duties separately. Okay then.
Having finally gotten what he’s been asking for, Charles is looking forward. He’s part of a task force put together to “safeguard the monarchy’s survival in a rapidly changing world,” and he pushes the envelope. Rather than meaningless baby steps like letting the public into Albert Hall or making bowing optional for some members of the royal family, what if they considered taking action on education, the environment, or allowing the eldest daughter to ascend the throne? Charles argues the monarchy should be “less about mystery and magic and divine right and more about our practical role in today’s society.”
It’s a pretty good showing for the future king of England, and everyone, including Elizabeth (Imelda Staunton), notices. “Separation from Diana has liberated him. Energized him,” she says. “The solution we are looking for could be right under our noses.” It’s definitely the nicest thing she’s ever said about her son.
Unfortunately, it’s all about to come crashing down. Charles gets word that because of the formal separation, The Daily Mirror feels at liberty to publish his recorded phone call with Camilla. The aide informs him that the call is “intimate. Very intimate.”
Yikes. We flashback to get the tail end of that conversation, in which, while talking about how much they miss each other, Charles says he would like to live inside her trousers. Even as a tampon. It is horrifyingly embarrassing, and soon, the entire world knows about it. Reports say it has “raised doubts over whether the Prince of Wales can ever be king.”
Anne (Claudia Harrison) visits Charles, who is weathering a cold and the utter humiliation in bed. The Crown has done a great job establishing the sibling dynamic between these two, who give each other a hard time but seem to always have each other’s backs in a family where that’s rare. “In your life, you’ve brought a great many problems upon yourself. But no one deserves this,” Anne tells him.
Philip (Jonathan Pryce) feels differently. In front of their task force, he lays into Charles for essentially pressing the self-destruct button on the monarchy. He asks him to recite the motto of the Welsh Regiment (Charles begins in Welsh–a nice callback to his time learning the language in season 3–but Philip barks, “In English!”). “Better death than dishonor,” Charles mutters, and I have to point out that no matter how big of an asshole this guy is, he does not deserve his father essentially telling him to kill himself.
Especially not…for this? We have seen Charles demean and verbally abuse Diana, but people are not reacting to him having an affair with Camilla. They’re reacting to the cringe factor of saying you would like to be reincarnated as a tampon. As Charles and Anne protest, this was a private phone call. If transcripts of my most embarrassing phone call were published, I’m sure my parents would have some choice words for me, too, but it’s not a character flaw.
Following the beatdown from Philip, Charles tells Camilla he needs to protect himself. So he starts setting up his own court of advisors, and they connect him with journalist Jonathan Dimbleby to do a “hard-hitting” interview and documentary on his role as Prince of Wales so that people can get to know him and what he truly believes.
Does the public “want someone who errs, but learns from their mistakes? Who recognizes the need for change? Or someone who is content to keep making the same mistakes and to keep things as they are?” Charles asks in his interview.
The reaction to the special is mixed, but as the prime minister (Jonny Lee Miller) tells the queen, the public was particularly impressed with his response that rather than being the defender of the Church of England, he would see himself as the defender of all faiths, as he would also be king to Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, etc. Elizabeth sniffs at this. “The Crown is an inanimate object. Charles prefers to be animate.”
Diana (Elizabeth Debicki), for her part, responds to the interview by attending a summer party in her infamous “revenge dress,” kicking off “a more volatile phase” of their separation. And Anne comes to take Charles to task for criticizing Elizabeth in his interview, but he’s unfazed, confident in the reaction he’s getting and the direction he wants to go.
Anne reports back to the family: “For years, I doubted Charles, that he wasn’t tough enough, strong enough. Look what he’s just come through. He’s not as weak as everyone thinks. The Charles I saw today was strong.”
Did Charles write this episode? For all the handwringing about how upset Buckingham Palace was about the new season of The Crown, “The Way Ahead” is essentially one big puff piece in support of the new king. What an incredible edit he got. In the credit sequence, young people pull him into a circle and he breakdances (to be fair, this did actually happen). Dominic West turns in an authoritative, charismatic performance of a man I’ve never seen be authoritative or charismatic. But because this episode stayed squarely in the drama of the major players, it ended up being the most compelling of the season so far.
- If you’re wondering whether or not recording someone’s phone call is illegal, The Crown has an answer for you: It’s only illegal if you intend to do it, and the amateur radio enthusiast supposedly stumbled on Charles and Camilla by accident. Seems like...a bad law.
- A good bit of humor: When Anne visits Charles in bed, she brings him cold medicine “that actually works” instead of the elderberry and other herbs she knows he’s taking.
- In season four’s “War,” Camilla is shaken by Diana’s successful tour of America and how much the public loves her. She tells Charles if she’s pitted against Diana in the press, she’ll lose, and that comes to fruition here. In the wake of the tapes, reporters stand outside her house and ask for her opinion on people calling her “Plain Jane.”