A triumphant portrait from the 1980s with a wide-eyed Diana

Peter Morgan’s fourth series of The Crown is facing its biggest challenge yet. The 1980s were one of the most scrutinised, documented, catalogued and debated decades of the House of Windsor. Morgan will be aware that viewers are using telephotos to check if program makers “get it right” once more.

The fourth season is a triumph in accuracy and inventiveness that continues to recenter the Queen (Olivia Colman) through the process of the show.

Emma Corrin, a newcomer to the film industry, plays Lady Diana Spencer with wide-eyed intensity.

The costumes and the hairstyle of Diana are perfect. I would never have thought to type those words.

Royal Rituals

The second episode, The Balmoral Test, is the pivotal point of the series. Diana and Thatcher must learn to adapt to the royal way of life during the annual Windsor decampment to Balmoral, Scotland. The joking initiation ceremonies are a way to hide a serious process for vetting suitability.

Will they bring the correct footwear and clothing for country life? (Diana, yes, Thatcher, no). They know dinner is 8pm and not 6pm. No one is allowed to sit on Queen Victoria’s seat? (Thatcher, no).

They love bloodsports such as grouse-hunting, fly-fishing and – perhaps the bloodiest among them all – after-dinner parlour games. (A big “no” for Maggie; Diana proves better at faking it).

The royal life is full of rituals and rules. Liam Daniel/Netflix

The royals are unaware of the social revolution taking place in Britain. Thatcher’s ascension to Downing Street marked the emergence of a new system which emphasized meritocracy above aristocracy and monarchy.

Colman’s Queen enjoys pulling Thatcher down and removing the rug from beneath her muddy feet, but becomes increasingly frustrated by a Prime Minister who believes she is more regal than their sovereign during their balmoral summer.

Margaret Thatcher’s victory in the UK election was a sign of seismic changes. Des Willie/Netflix

The Queen overstepped her constitutional role at the 1985 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting and demanded political action. The PM stripped her off and put her in her proper place, with an imperious level that would have made Queen Victoria blush.

These scenes between Anderson and Colman have a magical quality.

The hunter, as well as the hunted

The season traces the civil unrest in the UK at a time when unemployment was high and clashes erupted over nationalist expenditures for endeavors like the Falklands War.

This narrative thread is brought together in episode five with the breaking-in of Buckingham Palace, by Michael Fagan(Tom Brooke), a Londoner who’s unemployed and has been socially dispossessed. After scaling the palace walls, Fagan sits on Queen Elizabeth’s bed as a symbol of a Britain that is broken and bleeding under Thatcherite rule.

The other major storyline is the courtship and marriage of Charles (Josh O’Connor) and Diana. During her first visit to Balmoral, Diana is subjected to one of her first tests. She and Philip (Tobias Menzies) go deer stalking together with the aim of finishing off a 14-pointer Imperial stag that has been badly injured by an “overseas” hunter (echoes of the paparazzi?).

Diana’s relationship to Charles is a series of tests. Des Willie/Netflix

Philip dispatches a stag with Diana’s help. The royal couple return to Balmoral before a procession that includes the dead animal, now on the back of a horse. This is a disturbing premonition to what Diana’s funeral procession will look like 17 years from now.

Philip, who was an early ally of Diana’s, reads her the rules when she threatens to put on a royal show. Philip tells Diana:

The only person who matters is the only one. Everyone else in the system is lost, alone, irrelevant, and [an] outcast, except for the person. She is our oxygen, the essence, and the source of all we do. You are confused as to who this person is.

In the final scene, Diana is framed by a wall-mounted stag whose horns appear to be Diana’s. The message is clear – assassins may be lurking within the palace walls.

The bride was stripped bare.

It’s clever and poignant that we don’t get to see the full-blown “fairytale marriage of the century.” Charles and Diana are only there for their rehearsal. Diana is in plain clothes with a fake veil and train. The rehearsal vows were interrupted.

The marriage is over before it has even begun.

The rest of the royals drift through, exhibiting degrees of pain and loneliness, all craving affection, recognition, and meaning.

Princess Margaret continues to suffer and party. The marriage of Princess Anne (which was barely seen in all four series) is completely forgotten. Prince Andrew is revealed to be a self-righteous and smug buffoon. (Bring on season 7!). Camilla, for her part, is ambivalent about the future of Charles.

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