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As ‘The Crown’ tackles recent history with Princess Diana, the show hits a nerve

From left, Josh O'Connor and Emma Corrin play Prince Charles and Princess Diana. (Des Willie/Netflix)
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Prince Charles and soon-to-be Princess Diana took questions from press immediately after their engagement in 1981. Someone asked whether they were in love, to which Diana bashfully responded, “Of course.” Shifting his gaze from Diana to the journalist, Charles replied, “Whatever ‘in love’ means.” Diana laughed it off.

“The Crown” seized the opportunity to depict this foretelling moment in its latest season, tweaking Diana’s response to, “Oh, yes, absolutely” but keeping Charles’s perceived detachment intact. In the Netflix series, which follows the Windsor family throughout the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, Diana’s friends assure her after the interview that Charles’s strange response was probably the result of nerves. As the real Diana revealed in a private video recording later made public in a 2017 documentary, his words “traumatized” her.

Moments like this arguably make the fourth season of “The Crown” its most engaging and, at times, grueling. The show increasingly strays from the stubborn woman upon whose head the crown rests to spend time with those in turmoil as a result of its distributed weight. As Meghan Markle’s recent experiences recalled, no addition to the Windsor family in modern memory had been so visibly impacted by the royals’ restrictions and inherited hubris as Diana, seemingly trapped in a doomed marriage from the start. (Accompanying the Diana story line this season is that of Gillian Anderson’s Margaret Thatcher, depicted as a prime minister whose rigid politics exacerbate class struggles that, too, are readily accessible memories.)

Season 4 of "The Crown" draws on events such as Princess Diana's marriage to Prince Charles and Queen Elizabeth II's relationship with Margaret Thatcher. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

This is the narrative we’ve come to know from years of magazine articles, books and documentaries, and that “The Crown” does little to dispel (perhaps to the royal family’s chagrin, though we’ll never really know). That viewers so keenly remember Diana’s struggles poses an obstacle to anyone tackling an on-screen portrayal. The story has to feel authentic and resonate, without giving in to the inherent melodrama.

Bolstered by thoughtful, nuanced performances from its Charles (Josh O’Connor) and Diana (newcomer Emma Corrin), “The Crown” succeeds. While Claire Foy captivated in her two seasons as a young queen adjusting to her duties to the English empire, many viewers concluded earlier installments in anticipation of what was to come. Upon encountering Camilla Parker Bowles (Emerald Fennell) in Season 3, they wondered how the show would go on to portray the power struggle between Camilla and Diana in the fight for Charles’s devotion.

Opposite O’Connor, who adeptly plays Charles’s transformation from a downtrodden prince into a remorseless husband, Corrin has no trouble winning over viewers as a sympathetic figure with little idea of what she is signing up for — and who never really stood a chance with Camilla still around. One of the season’s most effective scenes takes place between the two women, who meet for lunch before the wedding at a restaurant aptly named Ménage à Trois. Camilla constantly one-ups Diana with her intimate knowledge of Charles and his family, eventually remarking to Diana, “Darling, you really know nothing, do you?"

This meeting really happened, yet another “Crown” event that practically begs to be Googled and thoroughly researched. The series has done its fair share of Wikipedia educating, even when the on-screen tellings aren’t 100 percent faithful to reality. Setting aside the specifics of what was actually said between Camilla and Diana, Charles’s affair with his eventual second wife was an open secret, as were Diana’s flings later on.

The relative recency of this marital trouble — and the adverse effects it had on Diana, whose bulimia figures prominently into “The Crown” — seems to make the season land with more force. The misfortunes of her life are still fresh in our collective memory, publicly recalled just last year by her younger son, Prince Harry, who issued a statement defending Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, against British tabloid media: “I lost my mother,” he wrote, “and now I watch my wife falling victim to those same powerful forces.”

It can be unsettling to watch “The Crown” and remember that, aside from Diana and a couple of others, these people are still living and breathing. There’s a humorous element to seeing fans angrily tweet at royal family accounts, incensed by what they have just witnessed O’Connor or Olivia Colman’s Elizabeth enact on-screen. Creator Peter Morgan has said the show won’t reach the Harry and Meghan era, but there’s still plenty to be mined from Diana’s life post-separation (when she will be played by Elizabeth Debicki).

Finally in familiar territory, “The Crown” has touched a nerve.

Read more:

The Charles and Diana saga weighs heavy on ‘The Crown,’ but Gillian Anderson’s Thatcher is a triumph

Princess Diana and Margaret Thatcher are central to ‘The Crown’ — and so are their roles as mothers

Fact-checking ‘The Crown’: How icy were Queen Elizabeth and Margaret Thatcher with each other?