‘The Crown’ Season 5 Fails to Find the Balance Between Classy and Trashy

The Crown Season 5 is bad news for both the royal family and Netflix. It’s an uneven, uninspiring season of television that fails to live up to the high standard of past seasons, while also tearing into royals’ worst public and private moments. If The Crown‘s early seasons were a sophisticated soap opera that invited empathy for Elizabeth II and her brood, The Crown Season 5 depicts the same characters as petty, selfish, and stupid relics of a bygone era. Even in the season’s more triumphant moments, creator Peter Morgan can’t help but to push the question: Are the royals obsolete? And the answer The Crown Season 5 repeatedly hammers home is yes.

The Crown Season 5 begins with a cold open featuring our original Elizabeth II, Claire Foy, in all her youthful glamorous glory and then cuts to Imelda Staunton‘s 1990s version of the Queen. We meet Elizabeth II mid-physical, where she’s first told to say, “Ahhh,” and then informed that she’s gained weight. The rest of the episode — and indeed the season — is obsessed with the idea that the once vigorous Lilibet is old and stale now. As is the monarchy.

The monarchy’s expiration date is something of an obsession for Elizabeth’s eldest son and heir, Prince Charles (Dominic West, who replaces Josh O’Connor). While tensions remain frosty between Charles and wife Diana (Elizabeth Debicki, who replaces Emma Corrin), the two seem to have settled into a temporary ceasefire that is doomed to erupt into total warfare. In the season opener, the new Conservative Prime Minister John Major (Johnny Lee Miller) vents to his wife that the U.K.’s greatest crisis might not be war or recession, but the oncoming implosion of the royals.

Charles and Diana on vacation with William and Harry in 'The Crown' season 5
Photo: Netflix

From there, we get a season that largely fails in its attempt to showcase the most lurid tales of this era with some semblance of compassion. We get such “hits” of the era as Charles’s Tampongate, Fergie’s toes getting sucked on a beach, an aging Prince Philip’s (Jonathan Pryce) “friendship” with Penelope Knatchbull (Natascha McElhone), and the scandalous way Martin Bashir (Prasanna Puwanarajah) cornered Di into her explosive Panorama interview. Unfortunately, writer and creator Peter Morgan struggles to find the balance between classy and trashy that defined earlier seasons.

At times, The Crown Season 5 even veers into Lifetime movie territory. We get a glimpse of Diana’s secret romance with heart surgeon Dr. Hasnat Khan (Humayun Saeed), but their courtship lacks chemistry. In other areas, the storyline is downright cringeworthy. While I know Egyptian businessman Mohamed Al-Fayed (Salim Daw) did employ the deceased Duke of Windsor’s Black equerry Sydney Johnson (Jude Akuwudike) to teach him British etiquette, there’s something queasy about The Crown centering an entire episode on BIPOC characters slavishly stuck in the royals’ thrall.

It’s not all disastrous, though; there are some excellent things about this season, too. Namely, Lesley Manville’s Princess Margaret is an extremely worthy successor to Vanessa Kirby and Helena Bonham Carter’s versions of Elizabeth’s glittering younger sister. Jonny Lee Miller will have you rooting for John Major regardless of your place on the political spectrum. And watching young Prince William (Senan West) wrestle with his disappointment in his mother Diana was devastating to behold. As always, the set design, costumes, direction, score, and other technical elements are sublime. The Crown Season 5 is watchable, for sure. But it wobbles where past seasons dazzled.

Princess Margaret (Leslie Manville) dancing with Peter Townsend (Timothy Dalton) in 'The Crown' Season 5
Photo: Netflix

Key members of the new ensemble cast feel like downgrades from the Emmy-winning stars of seasons past. Imelda Staunton is fine as Queen Elizabeth II, but not as steely as Foy or layered as Olivia Colman. In fact, her Lilibet kind of comes across as a dud. But the bigger casting blunders in The Crown Season 5 are Charles and Diana. Dominic West tries hard, but he’s woefully miscast as the aging aristocrat. He doesn’t even attempt to embrace Charles’s historically balding hairstyle. (Charles has never had that thick head of hair, Netflix!) Elizabeth Debicki, on the other hand, sure looks and sounds the part, but her excavation of Diana barely scratches the surface. At best, you could say that Debicki’s Diana haunts the show like a living ghost. Her doom is perpetually foreshadowed, while her whole self never fully materializes.

Josh O’Connor and Emma Corrin were able to channel the Charles and Di the public loved while also introducing us to the tormented people behind the headlines. O’Connor deftly embraced Charles’s dork factor and used it to humanize the Prince of Wales. Corrin’s Diana always maintained a halo of innocence, even when the show delighted in illustrating her Machiavellian seduction of first the royals and then the public. West’s refusal to shed his own hunk status robs Charles of the sympathy O’Connor rallied for the character and Debicki struggles to contain the contradictions of Princess Di like Corrin did.

The Crown has always loved a metaphor, but Season 5 takes each and every nod towards symbolism way too far. If characters aren’t explicitly explaining the metaphor out loud, then a scholar at Eton is underlining the whole theme of an episode on a chalkboard for us to read. Which is ironic, though, because the most interesting thing about The Crown Season 5 is how it feels like the perfect parallel to King Charles III’s already dramatic reign. While Elizabeth II was still alive, Netflix’s flagship show — just like Merry Old England itself — felt consistently steady. However, now that the real QEII is gone, The Crown Season 5 feels just as adrift as Dear Old Blighty is IRL.

Do we still need a British royal family? Are the current senior royals worthy of the task? And, if not, is the tawdry soap opera of their lives enough to keep us entertained and them on their gilded thrones? The Crown is still figuring that out.

The Crown Season 5 premieres on Netflix on Wednesday, November 9.

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