Early in its fourth season, The Crown finds Britain at a low. It’s 1982, and the so-called Winter of Discontent still lingers over the country as unemployment numbers soar and a war brews in the Falklands. But inside Buckingham Palace, Queen Elizabeth II (played by Olivia Colman) has a more personal catastrophe on her mind: She’s not sure which of her four children is her favorite.
And so Her Majesty invites each of them to lunch, hoping one will impress her more than the others. It’s a frivolous but revealing endeavor—the four meetings show the gaping emotional distance between Elizabeth and her royal progeny, who all look stunned to be spending time alone with “mummy.” Edward (Angus Imrie) immediately inquires after his Civil List money, as if she were a bank teller. Andrew (Tom Byrne) boasts of a young “actress” he met, a tawdry subject that shocks the sovereign. Charles (Josh O’Connor) and Anne (Erin Doherty) rue their marriages, talking over her advice. Colman plays Elizabeth with a dignified embarrassment, forcing smiles through her obvious disappointment. Later, she vents her frustrations to Philip (Tobias Menzies), who tells her not to fret—their children are all adults, and she needs to concentrate on being a mother to a nation. Still, the damage has been done. Philip reveals that all of their children had been “perplexed” by their lunches, and Elizabeth is convinced they’re lost. In the meantime, the country remains in decline.
When it comes to the Queen, The Crown tends to forgive easily. 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, 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. They took their subjects for granted, and assumed that the family’s relevance was a given. Yet their lifestyle couldn’t be further from that of their people: In one episode, for example, Elizabeth learns of the human cost and psychological damage of the country’s economic challenges only after a disgruntled, unemployed man infiltrates Buckingham Palace to speak directly with her in her bedroom. The Crown observes that the royals’ failures can more often than not be self-inflicted—and in doing so, the show produces its most thrilling and biting season yet.
The drama is, of course, only getting started. Season 4 introduces Diana (Emma Corrin)—arguably the series’s most anticipated figure—whose depiction helps the show not only uncover new insights into Elizabeth’s character, but also lay the groundwork for an even more cutting Season 5. Morgan had tackled the subject of the Queen and the “people’s princess” before, with the film The Queen, but the 2006 drama covers the aftermath of Diana’s death, sympathizing with Elizabeth as she learns to change her perspective on public opinion. In this season, he’s less generous with the Queen, showing how her rigid adherence to duty contributed as much to Charles and Diana’s crumbling marriage as the young couple’s affairs and incompatibility did. Elizabeth’s determination and perseverance helped her marriage with Philip thrive; those same traits pushed Charles too far, forcing him to move too quickly with a woman he barely knew. While Elizabeth’s stoicism and stiff upper lip helped her develop a rapport with world leaders, those same qualities translated into coldness toward Diana, who was only 19 when she became engaged to Charles, struggling with her place in the pecking order, battling her eating disorder, and yearning for the Windsors’ approval.
The Crown isn’t so critical that it diminishes the Queen; rather, it shows how the same forces that can help a figure like her succeed professionally can produce blind spots personally. Instead of seeing Diana as a luminous young woman who is changing the British people’s (and the world’s) impression of the royal family, Elizabeth sees her as an outsider who must either bend or break to the family’s will. The Queen can advise and even chastise Thatcher during their weekly meetings, but does everything she can to avoid talking to her daughter-in-law. She can charm the leaders of the Commonwealth at a global summit, but cannot take her children to lunch without scaring them. She can “meet normal people all the time,” as she puts it to the intruder who makes it into her bedroom, yet she has no idea what he means when he tells her of his poverty. The Crown spent years unraveling the story of the human underneath the regalia. This year, it finally interrogates the effect of the formidable power and influence Elizabeth has amassed, foreshadowing the royals’ difficult journey into modernity.
Toward the end of the season, Philip—one of Diana’s few allies in the family—tries to comfort the princess after her latest failed attempt to speak to the Queen. Like Diana, he’d entered the family reluctant to assimilate. And also like Diana, he’d been intimidated by their customs. He advises her to think of Elizabeth as the fuel of the family, a force that everyone must not only accept but help maintain and serve by setting their personal woes aside. He compares her to, of all things, oxygen. But maybe that oxygen, The Crown argues, suffocates more than it sustains.