The Crown series creator Peter Morgan has always been clear that the Netflix series is intended to humanize Britain’s royals. “Let’s just stop thinking about them as a royal family for just a second,” he said in 2018, “And think about them as just a regular family.”
This approach served Morgan well for four seasons as The Crown mined the lesser-known aspects of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign — including her refusal to allow her sister, Princess Margaret, to marry a divorced man, and her frosty relationship with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher — to offer a window into the private world of its characters. But as The Crown reaches the media frenzy surrounding Prince Charles (Dominic West) and Princess Diana’s (Elizabeth Debicki) divorce in its fifth season, the limitations of Morgan’s “Royals, They’re Just Like Us!” outlook become apparent.
In Season 5, The Crown wants to have its cake and eat it, too: Morgan is determined to remind viewers that Charles and Diana are regular people with regular problems, yet he remains captivated by their extraordinary circumstances. Trapped between empathy and exceptionalism, Season 5 does neither well, and for the first time, the drama feels disappointingly hollow.
Nowhere is The Crown’s attempt to humanize its characters more explicit than in Episode 9, “Couple 31.” The episode title is a reference to Charles and Diana’s position on the docket of a London divorce court — as Prime Minister John Major (Jonny Lee Miller) explains, they will follow “the same procedure as thousands of divorces before it... and after it.” But because Season 5 is about as subtle as a sledgehammer, the episode shifts focus away from the royals to include three vignettes of couples, all commoners, detailing what went wrong in their marriages (think When Harry Met Sally meets Couples Therapy). Their stories are unremarkable, yet achingly familiar: They explain how they grew apart and became “different people,” their differing opinions about having children, the strain work has put on their marriages and family life, and their failed efforts to resolve these problems.
These moments are meant to reinforce the ordinariness of Charles and Diana’s situation — to show that their experience is reflective of modern British life — but while the underlying feelings may be similar, the material conditions of these conflicts are entirely different. The second vignette, in particular, highlights the discordance of Morgan’s attempt at equating Charles and Diana’s situation with those of their subjects. As a wife tells the unseen mediator that her husband is always working and never makes time for the children, he explains this is the only way to provide for their family. “In my family, sometimes we had to choose between putting money in the gas meter and buying food,” he says. “You have no idea what it feels like to have nothing.”
Charles and Diana certainly have their share of problems, but they will never understand what it’s like to labor under the pressures of capitalism. Much of Season 5 takes place in a recession, but the royal family is entirely insulated from it — and in the rare event public concerns penetrate their bubble, as when the Queen (Imelda Staunton) is denied government funds to repair the royal yacht amid the economic downturn, it’s seen as a nuisance, rather than a real problem deserving of their attention.
Even Charles and Diana’s conflict in “Couple 31” differentiates them from their peers in divorce court: The two spend the episode haggling over her proposed 35 million-pound settlement payment and other monetary demands. “If he’s going to stuff my mouth with gold and hope I gag, that sum had better have eight figures and start with a three,” says Diana. She may be the People’s Princess, but has there ever been a statement more out of touch with the concerns of everyday Brits — six of whom we’re being asked to empathize with in this very episode?
It’s telling that despite his effort to make Charles and Diana #relatable, Morgan can’t quite see it through. The episode ends with a judge granting the royals a divorce — in a courtroom packed with reporters, it should be noted — followed by a newsreel of thousands of people celebrating Charles and Diana’s 1981 wedding. “Who can doubt the love and happiness that this couple so obviously feel and share?” asks a newscaster. “So strong that for one inspiring day, a whole nation can forget its troubles to unite in wishing them well.”
The moment aims to put a cap on Charles and Diana’s marriage, as if to remind viewers that their future once looked so bright, but including this footage only reinforces the exceptional nature of their romance. Charles and Diana cannot and never will be “normal,” and the throngs of people gathered outside St. Paul’s Cathedral that day would never want them to be. Morgan seems to implicitly understand this — The Crown exists because the royal family is so extraordinary — which is why his continued attempts to bring them back down to Earth are starting to grate. There’s only one season left, but as The Crown enters an era of widespread dissatisfaction with the monarchy (both in the world of the show, and in real life), Morgan would be wise to check his impulse to humanize the royal family and instead allow them to be as shallow and problematic as they really are.
The Crown Season 5 is now streaming on Netflix.
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Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.