The end is in sight for “The Crown”, the impeccably classy drama that pushed Netflix into the upper echelons of prestige TV and launched a thousand royal think pieces. Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent to turn the enigma of the Windsor clan into the fanciest soap opera of the 2010s and ‘20s.
It certainly paid off for the streaming giant, proving they could compete with traditional TV and then some, but it was always a concept set on a timer. Eventually, they were going to catch up to the current era of the British royals. Now that King Charles is on the throne and Prince Harry’s in Montecito, showrunner Peter Morgan is pulling the plug before the turn of the new millennium. Even if basic chronology hadn’t gotten in the way, it’s for the best that things end before the growing sameness engulfs the entire narrative.
Season 6, the first half of which premieres Thursday (with the last six episodes expected to drop on Dec. 14), opens with the crash that killed Princess Diana, filmed from a distance as tastefully as possible. Things then flashback to eight weeks earlier, leaving the dark cloud of Sept. 1997 hanging overhead for the rest of this arc. Diana (Elizabeth Debicki) is single and technically a private citizen, but still endlessly barraged by photographers and struggling to find an official role outside of the palace. Charles (Dominic West) is working to ensure that Camilla, now officially his girlfriend, is welcomed by the palace and his mother into his life, paving the way for her to eventually become Queen.
Queen Elizabeth (Imelda Staunton) is still playing by the rules of the old days, but one can only maintain their cool for so long in the swinging ‘90s.
The closer “The Crown” gets to our current era, the harder it gets to avoid making comparisons to events that still feel so recent to many people. The series’ coverage of the Diana years has inspired much discourse, as well as constant concern (possibly bad faith) that the entire production is some sort of ginned-up hit-job on the Windsors. Nevermind that Morgan has always been extremely sympathetic to the family, often when one could argue that it wasn’t necessarily justified. The objective has always been to humanize an institution that has survived by making itself unknowable to the masses it needs to stay relevant. When given the choice between a spicy embellishment and the respectability of possible truth, Morgan has always picked the latter and gotten away with it.
In this final stretch, however, the repetitiveness of these character arcs is more evident than ever.
The Queen is barely a presence in most of this first part, while Prince Phillip is such a non-entity that one wonders if Jonathan Pryce had the easiest job in TV by simply turning up and occasionally looking irritated (the same fate befalls the sinfully underused Lesley Manville as Princess Margaret, who doesn’t even get any good one-liners this time around.) The most intriguing character ends up being Mohamed Al-Fayed (Salim Daw), the Egyptian businessman and social-climbing Anglophile who is shown setting up his son Dodi (Khalid Abdalla) with Diana, then making sure the world saw the romance via surreptitious paparazzi photos. Daw gets to do his fair amount of gilded scenery chewing as Al-Fayed, who has no qualms about asking his staff to confirm whether or not his son is having sex with a princess. The contrast between this shamelessness and the stoicism of the royals provides some welcome friction, although it does seem curious that his meddling with the press is shot with a far more sinister edge than that of Charles and his team.
Perhaps inevitably, these episodes are most concerned with Diana and Charles, who seek to find common ground as co-parents while navigating their own paths as figures of press intrigue. Debicki does a good job conveying the barely concealed frustration of a woman who must negotiate with the boorish photographers who follow her every move. She offers a few sultry poses in exchange for a peaceful holiday with her sons, but these men are the first to onslaught her with deeply invasive questions about her love life. The “party princess” press narrative of this time, the oft-overlooked negative spin of the papers in the weeks preceding her death, is contrasted with Charles’ harried attempts to get the tabloids on board with Team Camilla. Olivia Williams and her sturdy wig play Camila with tempered ambitions, happy to let her partner do all the work while she waits for the winds of opinion to change.
The series has always been at its most interesting when it unveils the cold, hard labor of being royal, especially in its intersections with celebrity. Charles whines about Diana’s good headlines overshadowing Camilla’s, while dragging his feet over involving his reluctant sons in the battle for media supremacy. Those who sit it out, such as the staunchly traditional Queen, risk falling behind. This is the most well-established theme in the entire series, aside from the pressures of duty crashing into basic human empathy, and by Season 6, Morgan has little new to add to this. The Queen is still dutiful but chilly, Charles is still driven by vaulting ambition and mummy issues, Margaret is still drinking and Diana is a martyr-in-waiting.
It’s no surprise that Morgan has treaded lightly over the course of “The Crown”, letting well-known history do the heavy lifting as he fills in the gaps with respectable speculation (there’s a reason that Prince Andrew is such a non-entity in this version of Windsor life.) Yet what once felt like a rare insight into the regal unknown is now spinning the wheels, waiting out the inevitable. Die-hard viewers will still tune in, and change is on the horizon as the second half of the arc promises to dive into Prince William’s young adult years and time at St. Andrews with Kate Middleton. Will that revive Morgan’s creative juices? Right now, the tarnish on the jewels has never been clearer.
“The Crown” Season 6 Part 1 premieres Thursday, Nov. 16, on Netflix.