Bless her heart, but Princess Diana really was and still is the ultimate distraction — naturally gifted at drawing attention, derailing dreams and dismantling the institutional narratives that surrounded her. If she hadn’t existed, a good storyteller would have had to invent her as the one character whose very presence disrupts the lives of all others. In life and in her eternally tragic death, all eyes are on her, and that can be a somewhat vexing challenge for the makers of Netflix’s superb and sprawling royal-family drama “The Crown,” the fourth season of which streams Sunday.
The story of Diana’s 1981 engagement to Prince Charles — followed by the couple’s rapturously hyped wedding, followed almost immediately by endless marital misery — is the runaway freight train that was always due to collide with “The Crown’s” irresistibly compelling attempt to lend largely fictional but deeply empathetic shading to the otherwise chilly biography of Queen Elizabeth II, Britain’s longest-reigning monarch.
It’s her show, after all, but the arrival of “shy Di” (Emma Corrin) makes it next to impossible for Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) to remain at the center of the impressive structure that creator Peter Morgan has built over the first three seasons.
Perhaps destruction was always the thematic intent; that’s certainly how the actual tabloid saga of Charles and Diana played out for those of us old enough to remember it — as a slow-motion wreck. Maybe the point all along was to link up to “The Queen,” the 2006 film (written by Morgan) which starred Helen Mirren as the aging Elizabeth who struggled to find the right way (or any way) to join her people in grieving Diana’s death in a 1997 car crash in Paris.
“The Crown” and “The Queen” are different in both scope and tone, but nevertheless a singularity is now quite near, which means that something about “The Crown” has fundamentally changed. Its resemblance to a soap opera is more pronounced, but there's no denying that viewers could never find a soap opera that is better made, better acted or more richly envisioned. What Morgan and his colleagues excel at, still, is the artful winnowing of a sweeping story. Where most shows would try to cram everything in, “The Crown” is all about smart choices.
We don’t get the full blow-by-blow of Diana’s strange engagement to a difficult and even cruelly neglectful Charles, played terrifically by Josh O’Connor, who is all doleful slumps and unseemly bouts of self-pity. Instead of a complete reenactment of the big wedding, we see just enough to understand that what the world saw on live TV was an elaborate mockery of the fairy tale it pretended to be. Charles and Diana hardly spent any time getting to know one another before getting to the altar, and he, of course, never stopped loving Camilla Parker Bowles (Emerald Fennell).
If all of this excites you terribly, then this is “The Crown” season you’ve always wanted — the fights, the maneuverings, the disparities between public image and private anguish.
These Charles/Di go-rounds may indeed butter “The Crown’s” bread, but the real news this time is Gillian Anderson’s devastatingly precise portrayal of Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative Party leader who became Britan’s first female prime minister from 1979 to 1990, roughly the same period covered in this season.
Anderson’s Thatcher may seem a tad too trying at first, but the effort quickly becomes a fitting demonstration of how an actress and the material can meld into a fascinating force — better, I’d aver, than Meryl Streep’s Oscar-winning take on Thatcher in 2011’s “The Iron Lady,” and the show’s most memorable PM since John Lithgow’s run as Winston Churchill. Anderson is mesmerizing in every scene she’s in, from Thatcher’s stunted interactions with the queen (including an amusingly awkward invite to spend a weekend with the royal family at Balmoral Castle) to the way she habitually whips up dinner for her family in 10 Downing Street after a long day receiving the full ire of her political enemies and a demoralized public.
As for the queen herself, “The Crown” has turned on Elizabeth somewhat, extending less sympathy to her unique struggle to balance her duty with her desires. Colman keeps a stiff upper lip, even as the role begins to shift out from under her. There’s a particularly good episode that recounts the bizarre 1982 night when an intruder named Michael Fagan (Tom Brooke) managed to break into Buckingham Palace, get to the queen’s bedroom and wake her up for a chat. The metaphor still serves: Is Elizabeth so out of touch with the economic plight of her people and the stagnant British economy that the only way they can reach her is to sneak into her bedroom?
“The Crown” fixates this time on the royal family’s increasing entrenchment and alienation from the lives of everyday Britons. Helena Bonham Carter gets one last, yummy shot at playing the queen’s sister, Margaret (Lesley Manville takes over the role next season), as she realizes her stature is fading, along with her health, amid all the mania for Di.
In addition to Thatcher’s troubled term, “The Crown” makes stops at other key events: the Irish Republican Army bomb that kills Lord Mountbatten (Charles Dance); the war over the Falkland Islands; and, glancingly, the births of William and Harry. By now, “Crown” viewers have made a sport out of guessing which notable events will and won’t make the cut. I had already started mentally stunt-casting Charles and Di’s 1985 visit to the Reagan White House, where she so famously danced with John Travolta. (Zac Efron, maybe? Adrian Grenier?)
Alas, such a scene was not meant to be, as the show blows toward the big divorce and gears up for Seasons 5 and 6, in which Imelda Staunton has been cast as an older Elizabeth and Elizabeth Debicki will play the more glam yet doomed Diana.
Too soon, one might say, but this is where we’re at now with “The Crown”: Rather than just savor its high quality, we spend more time anticipating what it will do, watching as it catches up to a depressing present at the expense of a redolent past.
Correction: An earlier version of this review misreported the year Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer were engaged. It was 1981. This file has been updated.
The Crown (10 episodes) returns Sunday on Netflix.