Heavy Hangs the Head: The Crown Season 5 Review
Written by Julia Brukx
December 6, 2022
Early in episode eight of the newest season of the Crown, Netflix's glitzy, expensive show that has followed the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, the BBC board of directors gather around a table. The chairman yells at the director for having the audacity to propose modernity, changes to keep up with the new, splashier channels from America. The scene cuts to Queen Elizabeth poking at her TV. She steps aside to let young Prince William try to fix it. She mutters something about how she figured he'd be more knowledgeable about it because he's younger. He tries, messing with a few settings, asking why she doesn't just buy a big, new TV with satellite, letting her watch hundreds of channels from all over the world. The Queen scoffs at the idea, saying it would be treason against the BBC, and that people would go crazy if they saw satellite dishes being installed on the roof of the palace. She cedes, however, that the TV set is getting old, and won't be of any real use for much longer. She sighs, "even the televisions are metaphors in this place."
Truer words are not spoken throughout the entire season, which constantly compares history, media, and culture to The Institution of The Crown. Later in the same episode, audio describing a 1602 assassination attempt on the king is overlaid with Diana preparing to give an interview that will likely blow the entire monarchy open.
Season 5 is the first with its new, fully aged cast. The show, since the beginning, has planned for six seasons, with a new cast every two seasons to play the characters at different ages. Picking up the role of Queen Elizabeth is Imelda Staunton, following Claire Foy and Olivia Coleman. Prince Philip is now played by Jonathan Pryce, following Matt Smith and Tobias Menzies. Josh O'Connor's young and stupid Prince Charles ages into Dominic's West long-suffering one, and Emma Corrin's naive and rebellious Diana Spencer becomes Elizabeth Debicki's emotionally unstable Lady Di. The season takes the final turn the show has been teetering on for years: it finally turns attention away from the queen. Rather than another season of Elizabeth staunchly and dutifully dealing with the responsibilities of being the ruling monarch, attention turns to the Junior Royals, the nickname given to Elizabeth's children and their many (mostly marital) woes. Contrast to Elizabeth's stiff upper lip, they are whiny and entitled, constantly asking why such a dated institution still exists, and preventing them from doing what they want. The public is asking this as well, a constant background noise of the show being conversations about the relevancy of the monarchy and whether the Queen should abdicate, the only caveat being then they'd have to deal with a King Charles.
The season steps almost entirely away from politics to deal with the drama of the long-awaited Charles-Diana divorce. In a conversation that seems humorous to look upon now, that demonstrates the extent to which politics is brushed aside for personal drama, the Queen asks Prime Minister John Major to facilitate the divorce, citing his success in Northern Ireland as reason for his capability.
The show, understandably, turns most of its attention to Princess Diana, who is causing all sorts of issues for the monarchy by her willingness to speak candidly to reporters, or frankly anyone who asks. She knows the power of her words, too, saying exactly what she must to tear down Charles and Elizabeth while not appearing the slightest in the wrong. There's a kind of tension when we're watching her explore this freedom, however. To what extent are we seeing a woman dealing with the consequences of decades of gaslighting from everyone around her, and to what extent is she exercising her freedom, completely in charge of the narrative, for the first time in her life? A simple answer does not exist, and will not be fully answered until the next, and final, season of the show.
The Crown, due to its challenge of incorporating decades of history into single themes, has always been very committed to episodic structure, centering each episode around a central theme, which can take the viewer through years or only days. Thus, each episode is profoundly different, and there's always one episode per season that really hits the nail on the head, and starts apart from the rest. For this season, it's episode 6, "Ipatiev House," directed by Christian Shwochow. The episode opens by taking us back, away from the drama of the mid-90s, to 1918, Russia. Any moderately aware history buff will quickly glean what is going to come next, but the scene plays out in excruciating dread. The Romanovs are peacefully asleep. Cut to Britain, where King George sits at a breakfast table with his wife. A letter makes its way through the palace. It is delivered to the king, and its contents are explained aloud. Parliament has allowed for the rescue of the Russian royal family, and is just waiting on the king's approval. The scene cuts back to Russia, where the Romanovs are being woken up. "Cousin George has sent a ship to rescue us," they whisper excitedly, following the men leading them through the house. In case it needed any explaining, Cousin George did not rescue them.
The episode then cuts back to the present day, when Queen Elizabeth is meeting Boris Yeltsin, first elected president of Russia. The episode continues as a study in historicism, as the Queen criticizes Yeltsin for the lack of a proper burial for the Romanov family, while a contemporaneous research project shows that their deaths may be on British hands. The question lies at the center of the importance of the stories that we tell ourselves, or specifically that the royal family tells themselves, about why they are still needed and if, far from providing a public service, they are directly causing harm.
In my opinion, the best seasons of the show have been the second and fourth seasons, so, while the new season is entertaining, I have hope for better things to come - in approximately two years.