For many people, no matter how great the first three seasons of Netflix’s The Crown might have been—and honestly, they were pretty darn good—they were all just passing time until the real story started. Meaning: The arrival of Lady Diana Spencer. After all, the most casual of viewers may not know much about the history of the British monarchy in general or the House of Windsor family tree, but they definitely know who Princess Diana is, and likely remember her story in the sort of detail that’s generally reserved for beloved folklore and family tragedies.
Unlike many of the other real figures who are depicted in The Crown, Diana Spencer is someone who still feels larger than life, even all these years after her death. Beloved by the public, harassed by the media, misunderstood and often seemingly hated by her own family, she is both a fairytale princess and a tragic martyr, an aspirational ideal and a cautionary tale, someone we both wanted to be and were often grateful that we weren’t.
The reason that Season 4 of The Crown is the series’ best outing to date is because it manages to make all those contradictions sit in harmony with one another, harnessing the power of Diana’s charm and humanity even as it acknowledges her flaws, and giving her what feels like a voice in her own life story at long last.
It’s not just that the show acknowledges her decades-long struggle with bulimia, though that is a significant part of it. For all its high drama, The Crown is often loathe to allow its royal subjects to also be real people. (There’s a subplot in Season 3 where Elizabeth questions whether she can still feel emotion appropriately, and that’s not a joke.) But Diana’s fame was always due in large part to just how exceptionally human she was, and how much of herself she was willing to allow others to see, particularly in spaces and roles where that didn’t traditionally happen.
As a result, her character exists in a strange duality that encompasses both the remote and the immediate: royal and strangely just like the rest of us; a girl living a fairytale existence who is so unhappy she binge eats puddings straight from the fridge; a princess with everything she could ever ask for who is so desperate for affection that she literally throws her heart out at the entire world.
Part of this Diana’s appeal is also actress Emma Corrin, whose performance is incredible not just for its ability to recreate the princess we once knew, but to convey entirely new and hidden layers at the same time: the carefully covered despair; the wanderings through palatial estates in which her body seems to fold in on itself; the way she wistfully looks out windows as though seeing another, different life in the distance. These are all remarkably done moments, yet painful in the way that watching a sad story you already know the conclusion of always is.
In the end, The Crown’s Diana feels so exactly right because she is all of these things and more, all at once, and the show doesn’t judge her for any of it. And even though it essentially makes her character a secondary heroine, it doesn’t sugarcoat her shortcomings. She is often petty and childish, spoiled and shallow. Her voracious need to be loved is obvious, and when she realizes she can’t get the adoration she requires from her husband, she decides to find it elsewhere, be it in the arms of a lover or in the approving gaze of the general public.
However, despite its generally even-handed presentation of Diana herself, The Crown can’t help but tip its hand a bit in terms of how it views what happened to her within its larger story. The show is unflinchingly honest in its portrayal of how truly unequipped the Windsors were to deal with Diana’s problems—the scene in which Elizabeth, years later, still cannot even correctly identify the mental disorder with which her daughter-in-law struggles is particularly damning—and how unwilling they are to embrace someone of her singular spirit.
Though the show works overtime in Season 3 to cast Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor) as a sympathetic character, illuminating his position as an outsider within his own family and allowing him the space to imagine a different kind of life for himself, it brings the proverbial hammer down in this new slate of episodes. Season 4 frames him like an axe murderer in virtually every scene, while constantly highlighting his hypocrisy and emotional weakness. The question isn’t whether viewers want to slap Charles in any given scene, but how many times they do so.
The camera often lingers on Diana as though she’s the potential victim in a horror film, showing her alone and surrounded by a sea of faceless admirers as though they were a zombie horde. There at least a half dozen foreboding shots of her getting into various dark cars on rainy nights, foreshadowing the method of her tragic death a decade later. Charles glowers and threatens, frequently looking monstrous and misshapen next to the wife he’s constantly haranguing.
True, The Crown may not overtly claim Diana’s side in its narrative, but it certainly emphasizes the heartbreak of her story, underlining that in the world of the British royals, she’s pretty much damned no matter what she does; none of the choices available to her are good ones. But it also reminds us that, in the end, she was also right.
At the close of the season, Philip attempts to comfort and then confront Diana with the idea that being part of the royal family means that there’s no escape from Elizabeth’s orbit, and that inevitably her spirit will be ground to dust beneath the wheel that is the Windsor juggernaut. The finale concludes with Diana alone in a sea of broken people, who have all run their lives aground on the institution that is the monarchy, a Final Girl who has decided to take a shot at freedom and assume control of her own narrative. And even the foreknowledge of her tragic end can’t quite take the shine off that.
The Crown Season 4 is currently streaming on Netflix.
Lacy Baugher is a digital producer by day, but a television enthusiast pretty much all the time. Her writing has been featured in Collider, IGN, Screenrant, The Baltimore Sun and others. Literally always looking for someone to yell about Doctor Who and/or CW superhero properties with, you can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
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