[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 nine.]
What I love about “Couple 31” is that it’s like a reverse When Harry Met Sally. Instead of watching two people fall in love with little interludes of devoted couples telling you how they got together, it’s a depressing tale of divorce with cutaways to devastated couples sharing how it all fell apart.
That’s how we begin, with two unnamed people sharing their experience ahead of divorce court. Is this how divorce works? Do you have to explain why you hate your marriage before they let you out of it? She wanted him to be more social; he was tired after a long day of work. “We’d become really different people.”
Cut to the queen (Imelda Staunton) writing two letters to dearest Charles (Dominic West) and dearest Diana (Elizabeth Debicki). This woman has fought against divorce all season, but now she’s practically begging them to get on with it. “The termination of your marriage is not only inevitable, but preferable,” she writes. Although divorce is against her principles in every way, she hopes that it will “restore a dignity that in recent years has so regrettably been lost.” This is a brutal letter, and though divorce is what they both want, Charles and Diana look appropriately ashamed and devastated when they receive it.
Of course, it’s Diana who is more heartbroken of the two. She tells her therapist that the letter made the whole thing feel real, which seems bizarre. Did the end not feel real when you were trashing the marriage on the BBC? But this episode reveals what we kind of already knew: Diana was never really fighting for divorce, but fighting for attention. In a twisted way, she hoped that if she bared her soul, eventually someone might comfort her pain instead of casting her out.
As she leaves the office, the press surrounds her rabidly. Given what we know, the whole thing is ominous. They’re camped out in Camilla’s driveway, too, desperate for the latest on the divorce proceedings. On the phone with Camilla (Olivia Williams), Charles rages that the opening demand from Diana’s lawyers is a £35-million settlement. One thing both sides agree on is that the Panorama interview seems to have blown up in Diana’s face, with the public slowly turning against her. Charles is eager to set Camilla up with a PR specialist to capitalize on this. “A spin doctor?” Camilla asks skeptically.
What happens next is perhaps the best evidence yet that The Crown is truly fiction: Aware of the deep animosity on both sides of the Wales divorce, Elizabeth remarks to Prime Minister John Major (Jonny Lee Miller) that they need some kind of impartial, trustworthy mediator. When he agrees, she asks him to mediate. The prime minister of the United Kingdom! Like he’s got nothing better to do!
But Major is tickled by the idea (though his wife is irritated he’s taking on more work in a scene that doesn’t add much beyond suggesting marriage is hard for everyone). He meets individually with both Diana and Charles, who insist the other is inflexible and out to get them. Miller gives Diana a nice speech about how every negotiation has two languages in play—what’s being said and what’s actually meant.
Camilla meets with the aforementioned spin doctor, Mark Bolland, to talk about her options. “People have not been kind,” she says. “Loving the Prince of Wales has cost me everything.” The way she sees it, she can either finally break things off with Charles and start over in anonymity or she can “go for it.” She dances around what this really means, but he pushes her to say it: legitimacy. A marriage to Charles. And some day, Queen Camilla.
She’s impressed by Bolland, and they meet again, this time bringing in Charles. Bolland suggests that Diana’s perceived disloyalty can help them, and they can position themselves as the stable, mature pairing. But first, Charles needs to wrap up his divorce ASAP. “Take the high ground, get it done, and then we can focus on the two of you.”
So it’s Charles who pushes to get the divorce across the finish line, and the lawyers finally agree to a settlement of £17 million with a £400,000 annual payment after that. Major informs Elizabeth that their lawyers will issue a joint statement, there will be another from Buckingham Palace, and then there will be a divorce proceeding in a normal court, just like any other divorced couple.
Elizabeth shudders. “How sad,” she says. “The biggest, most celebrated wedding in memory. Then this.” Divorce is so common, as we’ve seen from the other couples throughout the episode. She can’t fathom something so grand—almost mythical—ending in such a small, ordinary way.
The papers get signed, and the lawyers pop the champagne. But Diana and Charles don’t look like people in the mood to celebrate. Elizabeth calls up Charles for a mother-son chat: “So I gather it’s done,” she says in a callback to their phone conversation after Charles proposed to Diana all those years ago.
But the finality of the divorce leaves Charles feeling unsettled, so he gets in his car and drives to see Diana. She sees him coming through the window and fixes her hair and wipes makeup from under her eyes before answering the door.
What follows is a brutal rehash of their marriage—“an autopsy,” as Diana calls it. Some may say this scene is repetitive, just one more example of how ill-suited these two were, how they were never speaking the same language, how even when they were trying to be tender, their words were misunderstood. But Debicki and West both turn in powerhouse performances, prideful and devastated, and to see the Waleses try to end on a nice note only to crash and burn one last time feels fitting. They were doomed from the start.
Their big, ugly divorce happens in the same small, ordinary courtroom that has seen so many other divorces. But the episode closes with real footage of London on the day of their wedding, an unthinkable number of people in the streets to celebrate, and a commentator asking, “Who can doubt the love and happiness this couple obviously have and share?”
- Diana says the interview scared Dr. Khan (Humayun Saeed) away, although I think this is for narrative convenience. The divorce happened in 1996, but Diana and Khan were together until 1997.
- During their phone call, Elizabeth casually drops where she’s getting the money from to pay for Charles’ divorce. It’s hard to tell if she means to constantly infantilize and assert her power over him or if it just happens naturally.
- Charles and Diana’s fight could get its own mini recap. There were so many lines that made me chuckle or gasp, and the speed at which they could go from warm to vicious is stunning:
Diana: “Had I known I would have put on a revenge dress.”
Charles: “Haven’t you been wearing one of those every day since our separation?”
Oh these two read their press, that’s for sure.
- I genuinely love that he forgot where the kitchen was in the apartment they shared together for five years. The scene where the omelet becomes scrambled eggs is straight out of a romantic comedy and full of irony.
- When they’re admitting their faults, he apologizes for not showing her enough love and affection. She owns up to being difficult, but says she just wanted attention. In the end, she got it, just never from the man she wanted it from.
- Charles asks for a favor: that they actually use Camilla’s name today. The camera lingers on Diana’s face for a long time, and you can see it kills her to get the word out. I thought this was where it was going to go sideways, but then....
- It’s the monarchy, because isn’t it always? He can’t help but bring up her Panorama interview and how she said he wasn’t suited to be king. She insists she meant that it would keep him from doing other things. He is committed to the system, and she sees it as an obstacle to happiness.
- She got in a savage dig when she said her popularity had transferred to William, who everyone prefers to see as king over Charles. But he got his own in when she asks why he married her, and he says, “Because I didn’t have a choice.”