[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 eight.]
Oh dear, we’ve started mixing metaphors.
“Gunpowder” is the first episode of the season that feels like a pure continuation of its predecessor, carrying forward the narrative of Diana’s BBC interview. It has momentum on its side and doesn’t suffer from the jerky stop-and-start pacing that often plagues The Crown. But executive producer and writer Peter Morgan couldn’t decide if the episode’s theme was going to be Guy Fawkes Day or the medium of television, so he chose both.
We open on a meeting of the BBC board of governors, where chairman Duke Hussey (Richard Cordery) is going toe to toe with director-general John Birt (Nicholas Gleaves). Duke sees the BBC, like the monarchy, as part of the British character, with a duty to educate and inform over entertain. Birt is more progressive and thinks modern Britain is calling out for change.
Of course, the BBC is a major player in the episode, as it airs Diana’s interview, but TV in general is a thread weaving through the narrative. New cable channels– ITV, Channel 4–are popping up with more money, threatening the BBC’s relevancy. Elizabeth (Imelda Staunton) is disheartened to hear that the Cheltenham Gold Cup horse race will not air on the BBC but on one of its competitors. She struggles with her ancient TV set during one of William’s (Senan West) visits for tea, and he asks why she doesn’t just upgrade to a satellite so she can get the horse racing channels. But she doesn’t want to be seen as abandoning the BBC, even as her TV is clearly in need of replacing.
“Even the televisions are metaphors in this place,” she sighs, and I applaud the show’s self-awareness.
The Queen Mother (Marcia Warren), eager to extend this metaphor, gives William (and us) a quick television history lesson, explaining that the medium and the queen are “inextricably linked.” Her coronation in 1953 was the first televised coronation of a monarch.
Duke Hussey happens to be married to one of the queen’s ladies in waiting, who notices Elizabeth is feeling a little down and petitions her husband to cheer her up with a BBC special. He says he’ll ask John Birt, who simultaneously is brought into the inner circle about Diana’s upcoming interview. Diana has given the BBC free rein on the questions and final cut, and Martin Bashir (Prasanna Puwanarajah) is positively frothing at the mouth at what this is going to mean for his career. Birt is uncomfortable with the “ethics of giving a national platform to someone with such a personal agenda” and says he needs to think about it.
But when Duke asks to meet him to discuss a tribute to the queen, asserting the BBC and the crown are both essential to British life, Birt bristles and pulls the trigger on the Diana special instead. It’s set to take place…on Guy Fawkes Night.
If you’re unfamiliar with Guy Fawkes Night, November 5, no worries, because William’s teacher at Eton kindly gives the class a refresher. Who was Guy Fawkes? One student suggests a rebel, another says a terrorist. “A traitor,” pipes up William. In the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, Fawkes’s job was to light the fuse in an attempt slaughter the entire Protestant establishment in one night, including the king, the queen, and the Prince of Wales.
Meanwhile, Charles Spencer (Philip Cumbus) is getting nervous about the upcoming interview, going over his notes from his meetings with Bashir and finding inconsistencies. He asks Diana to pull out, and when she brings the concerns to Bashir, he tells her last minute nerves are normal, and suggests that the spies might have gotten to her brother. Has this man no shame?! He will sabotage every relationship in her life to get his interview. Bashir says she chose Guy Fawkes Night for a reason, and she points out the members of the Gunpowder Plot were not only successful, but they were hung, drawn, and quartered. Bashir promise they will be successful–but successful at what? Blowing up the monarchy?
The interview goes forward as planned, with Bashir’s team bringing the filming equipment into Kensington Palace under the guise of delivering a new hi-fi audio system. Catching only snippets of the conversation, Diana’s answers are intercut with shots of the rest of the family enjoying the fireworks and watching the bonfire being lit as park of the Guy Fawkes celebrations. Charles (Dominic West) and Camilla (Olivia Williams) kiss happily, unaware that Diana, more isolated than ever, is lighting a fuse.
Under tight security, Bashir, Birt, and their small team cut the footage into an hourlong special. We really see Birt wrestle with the ethics of this, saying it could torch their careers and irreversibly damage Diana. They would be “giving a platform to a very hurt, very unstable woman who clearly wants to damage the monarchy.” Birt asks Bashir to promise him they won’t regret this, and Bashir doubles down harder than ever.
Birt informs Duke, and Diana informs the queen of the upcoming interview, and neither takes it well. Duke demands that the BBC kill it, and when Birt refuses, he shouts that they’ll be on the wrong side of history.
Elizabeth simply asks Diana why she would do it: “Haven’t we heard all this before, a thousand times?” Diana says she’s tried to discuss her struggle privately and has been refused and neglected. The queen really goes in, insisting that members of the family are busy, but when the subject of Diana comes up, Elizabeth defends her every time. “The hostility is a figment of your imagination.”
And then she twists the dagger: “Have you told William?” Diana says she hasn’t, but that William is stronger than she thinks. “I didn’t say he was weak; I said he’s a child, and he has enough to worry about.” Ouch. In the latter half of the conversation, Diana shrinks down, even though Debicki physically towers over Staunton. She doesn’t fight back, and she has the demeanor of a child being scolded. It’s worth remembering that when she married Charles, she was essentially a child herself.
As she dismisses Diana, Elizabeth tells her daughter-in-law she won’t watch the special, as it will air on her and Philip’s 48th wedding anniversary. “I’m happy for you,” says Diana. “It’s what I would have wished for myself.”
Finally, the interview airs, with The Crown cutting between Diana’s incendiary answers, the queen out for the night at the 67th Royal Variety Event, and others watching. “What the hell is she doing?!” Charles screams into his fist at his little watch party with Camilla after Diana says she thinks the job of king will be a challenge for him. Diana–in a moment that is now legendary–says she doesn’t anticipate she’ll ever be queen, though she hopes she’s queen of people’s hearts and can give them the love they need.
After the special ends, we see news anchor after news anchor from across the world commenting on it. The palace has been too stunned to issue a statement, but everyone agrees they’re going to have to say something.
The episode closes on Elizabeth, visibly shaken and once again struggling with her TV, which now has so many channels that she can’t find the BBC. “Let me,” William says as he takes the remote from her. Once he finds the channel, they sit together in silence, watching television. There is so much Elizabeth could say to comfort her grandson, who she knows is suffering, but she is ultimately guilty of what Diana accuses her of: being unable to reach out and connect emotionally.
- Dr. Khan (Humayun Saeed) gets a few seconds of screentime as Diana’s boyfriend, and she calls to tell William about him. Right now, he’s “just a friend-friend,” but she’s hoping maybe he’ll become a “special friend.” Ugh, Diana. William asks her to keep these things to herself, saying it’s embarrassing (although, bro, your dad once said he’d like to be his girlfriend’s tampon, so…). She looks wounded as he hangs up, but what 13-year-old wants to hear about his mom’s “special friend”?
- Birt says the monarchy is not architecture but furniture–you grew up with it, it’s always been there, but that’s not to say it can’t be moved around. This show really does love a metaphor.
- The inconsistency that Charles Spencer notices in Bashir’s pitch is that in one meeting, he claimed MI5 was spying on Diana, but in another, it was MI6. As an American, I had to google the difference: MI5 investigates matters of national security and MI6 is international intelligence.
- When she watched Charles’ interview with Dimbleby, Diana was still wearing her famous engagement ring. She takes it off for her own interview with Bashir.
- In her interview, Diana says, “If you’re the first person in the family to ever feel low, it’s hard to get the support you need.” As we’ve seen, she’s hardly the first person in the family to ever feel low (Margaret would like a word), but Diana, for all her good qualities, is self-focused.
- Though Bashir was cleared of all wrongdoing in the 1990s, an independent inquiry criticized the BBC for his deceit and ethical failure in…2021.