Gillian Anderson's performance as the late Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is "remarkable and alarming," says Kathryn VanArendonk. "The Crown’s hair and makeup team swears that Anderson didn’t use any prosthetics, and although I fully believe Anderson is capable of it, knowing that she held Thatcher’s strained grimace without the aid of a mouthpiece adds an undercurrent of pain to the performance that makes a lot of sense. Anderson’s Thatcher captures an anxiety in the woman, the self-recriminating fervor of the zealot who believes in her cause absolutely but whose belief relies on the sense that goodness comes out of pain, out of restriction, austerity, and grim self-control. The way Anderson holds her mouth, you get the impression that especially as the decade goes on, Thatcher’s trying to tamp down on the country’s excesses through the force of her cheek muscles alone. It’s ghoulish, but also it hurts." Emma Corrin's Princess Diana, meanwhile, "has to take on a nearly impossible task," says VanArendonk. "Thatcher is a familiar face, a well-known specter of an era who looms large in the press and in living memory. But Diana? Diana is a global superstar, and attempting to take on not just the famous fashion but the famously unusual charisma of someone so thoroughly stamped on the cultural imagination — it’s a tall order. What Corrin accomplishes is pretty miraculous. She is young, and the dominant impression of Diana’s incredible tenderness makes the character into a wobbling pool of vulnerability inside a transparent self-protective shell. She grows into her power, but Corrin’s able to keep that core of tenderness even as Diana gets more comfortable with being in public and more confident in her press persona. It’s not a condescending portrayal, and it doesn’t turn Diana into a victim or a perpetrator. She’s just a mess, and she has joined a mess of a family, and The Crown has utmost sympathy while also, unerringly, zooming in on the messiest, most painful parts. Together, Thatcher and Diana give The Crown an energy and a sense of direction it lacked in the third season, and a feeling of verve the show has arguably never approached before. In the writing and in the performances, there is this sense that everyone involved has finally gotten to the good stuff, and they’re all pleased as punch about it."
Season 4 is sharper than ever as The Crown takes the shine off of Queen Elizabeth II's reign: "When it comes to the Queen, The Crown tends to forgive easily," says Shirley Li. "Across the Netflix drama’s first three seasons—blanketed in a warm nostalgia and postwar idyll—The Crown argued that her flaws made her only more sympathetic, that she faced unknowable pressure as a monarch and the head of an esteemed institution. The writer and executive producer Peter Morgan treated the drama’s first two seasons as a character study of a young woman struggling with immense, but fragile, power. Its third installment held her at arm’s length, turning her into a supporting character to Philip and Charles, while still emphasizing the burden of her role. But in its sharp and splashy fourth season, the show finally criticizes Elizabeth for her ignorance, characterizing her as a ruler whose stubborn devotion to tradition makes her and her family out-of-touch fools caught off guard by change. Yes, fools: Throughout Season 4, The Crown ridicules the royals, mocking their entitlement. During her first audience with Britain’s new prime minister, Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson), Elizabeth skips past policy updates and instead reads Thatcher her list of guesses for the cabinet, delighting in the exercise as if governing were a game. Before a public engagement at Buckingham Palace, Princess Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter) demands that the royals have “no actual conversations” with their subjects. The entire family invites Thatcher on a trip to the countryside to play drinking games and hunt bucks while the country suffers through a recession. Perhaps, four seasons in, (creator Peter) Morgan realized that the last thing anyone wanted to watch going into the more tabloid-gossip-laden eras of the royals’ history was a recap of them reveling in their wealth. Or perhaps with its story headed toward scandal and tragedy, The Crown needed to stop treating the Queen as a faultless heroine. Whatever the case may be, the show suggests that by the ’80s, the royals, as led by Elizabeth, had become caught in an existential crisis: They believed that their duty meant staying visible, not accessible."
This is The Crown season you’ve always wanted, with Gillian Anderson's Margaret Thatcher the biggest revelation: "If all of this excites you terribly, then this is The Crown season you’ve always wanted — the fights, the maneuverings, the disparities between public image and private anguish," says Hank Stuever. "These Charles/Di go-rounds may indeed butter The Crown’s bread, but the real news this time is Gillian Anderson’s devastatingly precise portrayal of Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative Party leader who became Britain’s first female prime minister from 1979 to 1990, roughly the same period covered in this season. Anderson’s Thatcher may seem a tad too trying at first, but the effort quickly becomes a fitting demonstration of how an actress and the material can meld into a fascinating force — better, I’d aver, than Meryl Streep’s Oscar-winning take on Thatcher in 2011’s The Iron Lady, and the show’s most memorable PM since John Lithgow’s run as Winston Churchill. Anderson is mesmerizing in every scene she’s in, from Thatcher’s stunted interactions with the queen (including an amusingly awkward invite to spend a weekend with the royal family at Balmoral Castle) to the way she habitually whips up dinner for her family in 10 Downing Street after a long day receiving the full ire of her political enemies and a demoralized public."
Gillian Anderson vs. Olivia Colman is like a Wimbledon match of acting: "It’s a season of next-level performances, really," says Kristen Baldwin. "Anderson’s turn as Thatcher is so viscerally physical — her head held high under an armored bouffant, her replication of Thatcher’s raspy, received pronunciation simply impeccable — that it’s impossible to avoid the critical cliché: She is transformed. Late in the season, Elizabeth and Thatcher clash over South Africa’s apartheid government — the queen supports sanctions, the prime minister does not — and it results in a tensely repressed showdown so riveting, it’s like watching the Wimbledon finals of acting."
At first, you might think Anderson is leaning in a bit too much into a caricature of Thatcher’s steely resolve: "Still, the more she pops into the narrative, the more obvious she’s crafted this role into the finest of an already lauded career," says Gregory Ellwood. "One reason why is that performance doesn’t include the trademark bug-eyed reactions and funny quips that peppered Meryl Streep’s award-winning turn in 2011’s The Iron Lady. Many who knew Thatcher would say that she played up the caricature of herself when it was advantageous, but she was not as emotional or over-the-top as Streep played her. On the flip side, Anderson uses that iron lady mystique as Thatcher’s wall against, in her eyes, disloyal cabinet ministers and a continual public criticism over a laundry list of issues. But as the season unfolds, Anderson’s creative choices depict a much more grounded Thatcher than you thought you initially thought you were watching. Yes, Morgan has peppered the sit-downs between Anderson’s Thatcher and Colman’s Queen with more condescension and sly digs than any of Elizabeth’s previous elected cohorts (and it’s absolutely glorious to watch), but it's a creative liberty that works in the context of their unique places in history."
With wholesale cast changes every two years and a heavy reliance on episodic storytelling, The Crown is built to defy calcification: "But the new season feels even fresher than the previous one, when Olivia Colman and Tobias Menzies took over as Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, Prince Philip, from Claire Foy and Matt Smith," says Inkoo Kang. "That’s in large part due to the addition of two new major characters, through whose eyes we see the British royal family anew: Diana, who desperately wants to join the Windsors despite some inkling that her marriage to a man in love with someone else will be a disaster, and Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson), whose (ironically) populist contempt for the residents of Buckingham Palace only grows with each encounter. With former major players like Prince Philip and Elizabeth’s sister Princess Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter) in reduced roles, the fourth season is the first in which the domestic tensions among the royals is anywhere near as interesting as the British history that unfolds outside the palace gates. Creator Peter Morgan and his writers remain impressive in their ability to condense national events into dramatically compelling crises-of-the-week and flesh out real-life personages through just a few scenes (though, deliciously, the show doesn’t bother to do so for sniveling princelings Andrew and Edward). Spanning the 11 years of Thatcher’s prime ministership (1979-1990), the season finds Elizabeth caught between two competing visions of the future by two very different, very headstrong women."
After a subpar Season 3, it turns out that what this ongoing narrative of Queen Elizabeth really needed was an enemy — or two: "In a season with the most pop culture audience pressure riding on it — because of the Princess Diana factor, there is no doubt that people who have never watched a single second of The Crown before now will tune in — Peter Morgan’s show delivers its best yet," says Ann Donahue. "With the addition of Thatcher, played to gritty, galling Iron Lady perfection by Gillian Anderson, and Diana, a near-impossible role that Emma Corrin makes look effortless without descending into hagiography, The Crown gives a riveting look at a decade that codified callous excess in the characters’ public and private lives. Instead of the world being seen through others’ eyes and leaving Olivia Colman on the margins to react — as she was left to do in Season 3 — Colman is now allowed to own the monarch’s authority in her performance. And with foils like Anderson and Corrin, all three turn in very brittle and beautiful performances."
The Crown is now good after three annoying seasons: "The Crown is good this year. I’m a little surprised to be able to say this," says Brian Phillips. "Over the past three seasons, the show’s middlebrow-Wiki-soap-opera approach to storytelling—lavish production values, punishingly straightforward symbolism, fine actors feeling for the humanity in dialogue stuffed with exposition—had started to drive me toward positively anti-monarchical sentiments. I’ve always been excessively and irrationally interested in the British royal family, but too often watching The Crown was like watching a version of Downton Abbey where every third scene was a lecture about the economic forces driving up the price of domestic labor, or like watching a version of Star Wars where someone kept saying, 'It seems war has finally come to our home in the stars.' Episodes strained to impose crisp three-act plot structures on complex historical events, then clobbered you with those structures’ portentousness. At its worst, The Crown’s commitment to conflating the private lives of the royals with the state of British society could have made them seem accidentally godlike, as though, say, the queen’s anxiety about motherhood had caused a nationwide mining strike to break out." Season 4 is good, he says, partly as "a matter of timing. The last season of The Crown had the burden of leading us through some relatively unsplashy middle years in the reign and life of Queen Elizabeth, played here by Olivia Colman, who took over from Claire Foy after Season 2."
Season 4 is so good that a great scene between Tobias Menzies' Prince Philip and Josh O’Connor's Prince Charles gets overshadowed: "For four seasons now, Morgan has written a remarkably addictive, stealthily silly royal soap opera that only occasionally understands just how obvious it can be," says Caroline Framke. "And yet, complemented with razor-sharp performances and furnished with the most luxurious set design that Netflix money can buy, The Crown has successfully sold itself as one of TV’s most serious dramas. The fourth season, in all its shameless glory, may be its most successful yet even as it puts that prestigious perception to bed. After all, as The Crown reminds us with every dizzying turn of Diana’s misfortunes, the royal family’s rabid audience will always take high drama over a more human reality."
Emma Corrin wanted to highlight Princess Diana's bulimia battle: "I felt that if we were trying to depict bulimia in an honest way, we had to actually show it—otherwise it's a disservice to anyone who has been through that," Corrin explains. "I don't think we should shy away from those conversations; Diana was very candid about her experience with bulimia, and I so admire that."
Gillian Anderson acknowledges she may have over-prepared to play Margaret Thatcher: "I researched as if I were doing the Margaret Thatcher biopic,” she tells the Los Angeles Times. “And then, from getting the script, I found myself going: ‘Oh, right, I am in six (episodes), not 10. This isn’t about me.’ Obviously, I’m being silly. But the nature of The Crown — it’s through the lens of the crown.” Anderson, who is in a relationship with The Crown creator Peter Morgan, initially didn't find appearing on the show appealing. "Not that long after was when Peter and I got together, so I was exposed to it on a very intimate level and watching how it was produced and going to visit set and seeing how the feel of the set was very different than I had experienced on the majority of things that I’ve ever worked on — it really felt very adult, very well run," she says. "Not that other things I’ve done haven’t been, but it just felt there were a lot of grown-up people in charge and it had a really loving feel to it. But I never investigated, I never searched out ... and so when it came up as an idea, and Pete asked if I thought that I could potentially do Thatcher, and I thought about it seriously, there were two sides for that. One was, would I want to work on The Crown, period? By that point, it was a no-brainer, having seen how beautifully the series was shot and written. And then the other was, did I think she could live somewhere inside me; did I get how to interpret her? Both of those were resounding yeses."
Anderson said the best way to play a polarizing figure like Thatcher was to leave her opinions at the door: "I came to it with a lot of assumptions based on other people’s opinions," says Anderson. "I’ve found, particularly in regards to someone as divisive as Thatcher, that it’s really important to leave one’s own opinions at the door. It’s not about my beliefs, it’s about interpreting the character, inclusive of her beliefs and her motivations, as convincingly as one can. There’s a lot of fittings for something like this. I wanted to have the opportunity of walking around, not only in the types of shoes that she would wear, but also in the padded suit that I wore to get a bit closer to her size, and the stockings that she would wear, and a dress. When I was able to walk around in my own time, in those things, even pre-wig, it did help. Fortunately, nobody walked through the door at any given time. I always feel that to the best of one’s ability you’re trying not to mimic, because mimicking can sometimes feel shallow. I was trying to find a place where the voice sat within my voice, so that it didn’t feel like it was too stretched or over the top, or like it was an impression or a parody. You can only do as much as you can do, and then you just kind of have to let go."