Now comes the cringing and the wincing as The Crown goes hard on its most anticipated storyline and the show takes a sudden brutal turn in the depictions of its characters.
Our fear going into this season was that the show’s executive producer and writer Peter Morgan would not be able to tell a nuanced version of the events surrounding the disastrous Wales marriage. To do so would be to bring every person involved in for a good deal of criticism and to have the nerve to depict some of the series’ most examined characters in a really bad light. Given how sympathetic the portrayal of Prince Charles had been prior to this season, along with the show’s tendency in prior seasons to spotlight Prince Philip’s inner life more than that of The Queen’s, as well as the tendency to “gild the Lilibet,” by ensuring that Elizabeth is never portrayed in too damning a light, we feared another version of “An outsider has threatened the institution because they don’t understand its importance” story in which everyone would come off like mere victims of circumstance or at the whim of forces larger than themselves, which is how Morgan likes to portray the lives of the royal family.
Additionally, the marriage of Charles and Diana really can’t be depicted honestly unless you’re willing to embrace the melodrama of it all. Morgan spent an entire season dancing around the idea of Philip stepping out on Elizabeth without ever actually showing him doing so, and their final marital confrontation on the topic was nothing but low-voiced restraint and subtext, as befits the personalities of the two people involved. It’s true that he didn’t have a problem getting into the nitty and gritty of Princess Margaret’s marriage, but theirs was a marriage of big personalities clashing loudly and cinematically, with deliciously scandalous affairs and drunken brawls galore. Sure it got ugly, but in an entertaining, sort of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? way. The Wales marriage, despite the high glamour of it, was particularly ugly on the inside. Whatever other things you can say about it, the Snowdon marriage wasn’t exploitive and didn’t involve serious mental health issues.
But as we’ve noted through most of the season, Morgan’s done a very good job of threading the needle on this messy marriage, never letting his foot off Charles’ neck, but constantly demonstrating that even if he’d been a perfectly attentive and faithful husband, this union would’ve been an unhappy one. Which isn’t to say that Diana is being credited with the failure of the marriage, but she’s very clearly being shown as the worst possible partner for someone like Charles. Which brings us to our first of two utterly cringe-worthy moments: Diana’s birthday present, which consisted of an excruciatingly (from the Prince’s perspective) public dance in front of an audience to “Uptown Girl,” a thing that, amazingly enough, actually happened. The script doesn’t necessarily indict Diana for this action, but we don’t think it has to. No matter how well-intentioned it may have been, Charles was by no means an unknowable quantity to Diana at this time, after several years of marriage. You have to wonder how she ever could have decided that this was something that would make the infamously stuffy, private, and emotionally removed Prince happy. Especially since she already knew he had a hard time with her taking the spotlight off him. While Emma Corrin tends to play her as desperately trying to make Charles happy, there’s a sense that Diana’s not being entirely truthful with herself about her motives for performing.
Still, Charles’ reaction to it was completely over the top. Josh O’Connor’s done an amazing job of reminding us that he’s the same petulant, awkward, desperate-to-be-wanted prince of last season while also showing how all of those qualities can turn darkly abusive as he gets older. Still, there are moments – not many, to be fair – when it feels like Morgan wants us to feel a bit more sorry for him than perhaps he deserves. When Diana shouts “I’m starting to properly loathe you!” he shoots back bitterly, “What’s taken you so long? The rest of us have been there for some time!” Meh. It’s a great line, but there really isn’t much cause to think of Charles as someone suffering from self-loathing and it felt like an attempt to cast him in a more sympathetic light at the exact moment he was being his ugliest.
After the avalanche incident that frames the episode (and serves as a sort of metaphor for the out-of-control state of the Wales marriage) Elizabeth visits Anne to get the complete story. What follows is a pretty good rundown of all the issues at the heart of the marriage, not least of which is that their age difference is an “age chasm” because he’s far older than his years and she’s immature. “There comes a point in any failing marriage, and here I speak with some experience, when you realize there’s no point in trying anymore and it’s easier to just let the current take you away,” she tells her mother. At this point, Erin Doherty and Josh O’Connor are starting to come off too young – not just for accuracy’s sake, but for the fact that their characters talk and act like people much older than they clearly are. Having said that, we were glad to see Doherty given two really strong scenes that get to the heart of Anne’s character, even if the second one, in which she berates him to suck it up and stay married, was terribly misguided in retrospect. If Charles is afforded any sympathy by the script, it comes from these scenes of his family, quite mistakenly insisting that he stay in a toxic situation that no one is benefitting from. “Something as important as the marriage of the future monarch simply cannot be allowed to fail,” is how the Queen attempts to advise them. Elizabeth, like Charles, has come in for some appropriately character-based criticism this season. Again and again; with Anne, with Michael Fagan, and now with Charles and Diana, she demonstrates that the only advice she knows to give is “do nothing and get on with it,” and each time, she is shown to be incredibly, almost fatally limited in her point of view.
Diana’s various affairs are finally referenced, but it’s interesting how much Morgan seems reluctant to get into them. James Hewitt is mentioned frequently and shown once or twice, but the show appears to consider him not particularly relevant, which we think is probably fair. There’s just enough of Diana’s infidelities in the story to acknowledge them, but in terms of adultery, the focus is squarely on Charles and Camilla. After more or less being forced by the Queen to work on a reconciliation, Diana informs her staff to never let Hewitt near her again while Charles tells his protection officers to spy on her. You’re not going to get a clearer indictment of Charles than that and he comes off particularly loathsome for it.
Diana gives the marriage one more mighty try by taking the boys to Highgrove for a family weekend and wedding anniversary celebration. Once again we’re shown that, even with the best of intentions and hopes, there’s no way this couple should be together. While the Billy Joel dance number may have been a moment of pure cringe, that “All I Ask of You” video made us want to sink into the floor. Diana, we’re on your side, girl, but WHAT ON EARTH were you THINKING? Charles, for his part, gifts her with a first edition history of her family’s estate, which is almost as awful a gift for her as her gift was for him. There’s certainly no defense for Charles’ ignoring of her many phone calls and attempts to contact him after that (which we are told more or less drove her back to James Hewitt), but by the time we got to the end of this brutal hour of television, we were ready to see these two wretchedly unhappy people go their separate ways. Mission accomplished, Peter Morgan. We want a divorce.
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