The Crown binge recap: Welcome to the Diana Years!
EW breaks down season 4 of The Crown, during which the show introduces two women who will come to define the next decade of Queen Elizabeth II's reign, the soon to be Princess of Wales, Diana Spencer, and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
As we enter season 4 of The Crown, Queen Elizabeth II (Olivia Colman) takes a bit of a backseat as the show introduces the two women who will come to define the next decade of her reign, the soon to be Princess of Wales, Diana Spencer (Emma Corrin) and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson).
Episode 1: "Gold Stick"
The season opens in 1979 and while we see the queen in all of her regal pomp and circumstance during the Trooping the Colour, England itself is in turmoil. The economy is in shambles and the Troubles which have been roiling Northern Ireland for years are about to exact a very bloody price on the royal family. But currently, the family's more quotidian concern is Prince Charles's troubled romantic life. After they helped dash his romance with Camilla last season by engineering her marriage, the Prince of Wales can't seem to find the right woman to be his princess.
As Lord Mountbatten (Charles Dance) runs through all of Charles's recent ill-fated romances for the family, we see Charles (Josh O'Connor, bringing a wonderful sympathy to a not so sympathetic man) stumble upon the younger sister of his current paramour, Sarah Spencer. Dressed in a leafy costume from A Midsummer's Night Dream, the shy young girl seems charmingly innocent compared to her sophisticated sister. Charles finds her intriguing but Sarah seems rather put out that her Charles-obsessed sister has engineered the meeting. And as the teen girl watches Charles and her sister ride off, viewers know we've finally hit the juiciest part of recent royal history — the Diana Years!
While Diana Spencer (the superb Corrin) will soon come to be a very beautiful thorn in the royal family's side, Queen Elizabeth has to contend with another new woman of great consequence, England's first woman prime minister, the uncompromising and controversial Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson, using her cool elegance to great effect). As Philip (Tobias Menzies) sourly notes that two women at the helm are the last thing the ailing country needs, Elizabeth takes great offense, noting that the newly-elected Thatcher is more like Philip than he'd like to admit. Having dealt with nothing but men in the role since the start of her reign, Elizabeth seems to welcome having a woman in the position for once.
But as the two women talk about Thatcher's incoming cabinet during their first meeting at Buckingham Palace, it's obvious that this won't be a great meeting of feminist minds. The ruthless Thatcher, despite her own achievements, thinks women are too emotional for leadership, and Elizabeth, who has been on the throne for decades at this point, takes slight umbrage and points out that Thatcher won't have that trouble with her. Thatcher thinks that they might work well together but it's going to be a bumpier path than either realizes at this point.
As the family arrives at Balmoral Castle for the summer holiday, they're distracted by the trials of the various royal children and don't realize that they will soon be engulfed in a great national tragedy. Prince Philip tries to help his favorite child, Anne (Erin Doherty, delightfully dagger-sharp), through both her problems as an Olympic-level equestrian and her troubled marriage. Menzies and Doherty remain delightful to watch together as they peel back the layers on the cuttingly sarcastic Philip and Anne to reveal the caring father-daughter relationship beneath.
Charles, meanwhile, is off salmon fishing in Iceland where Lord Mountbatten finally reaches him after many attempts. After finding out that Charles is planning a rendezvous with the very much married Camilla, Dickie reminds the young man how much his family disapproves. Charles basically explodes at the man who has been a surrogate father to him, accusing him of being a traitor who cares more about the desires of the family than of Charles's own heart. Charles hangs up in a huff but will soon learn to regret it once Lord Mountbatten is assassinated by an IRA explosion shortly after their call.
Lord Mountbatten's death and the death of 18 British soldiers on the same day led Margaret Thatcher to declare war on the IRA but for Charles, the result is more personal. Just as his great-grandmother once wrote to his mother about her duty when she ascended the throne, Charles receives a letter that Mountbatten wrote him shortly before his death, reminding Charles that he's on the same treacherous path as the last Prince of Wales, who wound up abdicating the throne for a woman. In the letter, he reminds Charles how much he cares for him while urging him that it is his duty now to find the woman who will be the future princess of the country and its eventual queen.
As Charles takes those words to heart, he gets no real comfort from his family members. His grief-stricken father Philip is jealous that Charles replaced him in Dickie's heart and offers no solace. Charles seems cast adrift, so when he runs into the fair Diana again after his sister competes at Badminton Horse Trials and she sweetly consoles him for his loss, he realizes she just might be the kind of girl Dickie was urging him to find. He rings up the now engaged Sarah who tells him a little about her younger sister and how she always behaved as she was destined for greater things. And as Charles comes out to visit her at her family's home of Althorp, it's quite clear that she is.
Episode 2: “The Balmoral Test”
After a grand stag has been injured on a nearby estate and crossed over into the lands surrounding Balmoral, Anne and Philip are positively giddy at the idea of mounting such a trophy on their walls. But as the injured stag struggles around the royal grounds, it lends an ominous air to key events of the episode.
While the family chases the stag and awaits the prime minister's first visit to Balmoral, Prince Charles has begun to court Diana by taking her to a Verdi opera in London. Showing the first inklings of how badly matched they truly are, Diana is swept away by the romance of the piece while Charles is focused on Verdi's political influence. As Diana's grandmother, Lady Fermoy (Georgie Glen), keeps an eagle eye on the two of them as her chaperone, it's obvious that Charles's heart doesn't seem to be in it. Though Diana is innocent in some ways, it's also obvious that she knows the consequences of the game she's playing and she's playing to win.
Also playing hardball is Margaret Thatcher, who proposes four billion in spending cuts to impose fiscal discipline on the faltering economy. Despite being members of the Conservative Party, her cabinet balks at such a drastic plan, accusing her of not knowing what she is doing. The opposition amongst the stodgy old men is fierce, but they don't call her the Iron Lady for nothing.
She fumes about how the men patronized her on her way to Balmoral, while her husband Denis Thatcher (Stephen Boxer) tries to warn her that this isn't just a relaxing respite in Scotland and that the royal family is notorious for subjecting their guests to secret tests. While it's hard to imagine someone as notoriously well prepared as Thatcher would have had such a hard time with royal protocol, the bigger point of the episode is to show how Queen Elizabeth and middle-class Thatcher, despite being similar in so many ways, remain distinctly different women.
The resulting visit is a comedy of errors as Thatcher and her husband make one mistake after another, from disrupting the royal teatime to being utterly unprepared to go stalking around the muddy grounds in search of the stag to accidentally sitting in Queen Victoria's sacred chair. As she's being forced to play parlor games instead of being allowed to work as she would like and attend Scottish sporting competitions, the prime minister seems to be at the end of her rope and the royal family is more than glad to be rid of her when she leaves early to deal with the ongoing sabotage from her cabinet.
Though the real-life Thatcher did really hate visiting Balmoral, her unsuccessful visit contrasts with Diana's first visit, which literally starts right as the prime minister's ends. Having been rebuffed by Camilla Parker-Bowles (Emerald Fennell) for a visit, Charles invites Diana as a consolation prize. Diana isn't aware of that yet and as her grandmother, Lady Fermoy, who is also the Queen Mother's lady-in-waiting, greets her, she gets a stern warning that this is the most important weekend of her life. Though she's glib at first, Diana takes the challenge seriously. Everything that Thatcher did wrong, Diana does right, acing the Balmoral test in ways big and small.
The most successful of these tests comes when Philip wakes her up at the crack of dawn to go on a stalking trip to catch the injured stag. Diana recognizes that pleasing Charles's prickly father is more than half the battle and as they trudge out into the muddy fields, she charms him by behaving like a good, honest country girl. And once she helps him bag the grand stag, it's hard not to hear the wedding bells starting to chime.
While Charles seems pleased at Diana's triumph at first, his mood sours when he calls Camilla to report on the visit. The fact that his whole family approves of her only seems to grate on him and he feels much like the slaughtered stag when his father makes the family's position on the matter clear. Realizing that his family wants him to marry Diana, Charles frets that she's a child and even his mother seems to notice he doesn't behave like a man in love, but one heading to his doom.
But the real slaughter happens back in London when the prime minister sacks three of her cabinet ministers and installs younger, fresher blood throughout her government. When the queen inquires about the change in their weekly meetings, she takes umbrage when Thatcher blames the men's privilege for their lack of grit. As Elizabeth warns the prime minister about making enemies, the unflinching Thatcher admits she's quite comfortable having enemies because it means she hasn't been a coward in achieving what needs to be done. But the expression on Elizabeth's face shows she's about to make an enemy of the queen as well.
The discussion about cowardice highlights that the real coward of the episode remains Prince Charles, who seems to know in his heart that the match with Diana isn't right but can't seem to stop its inevitable march to the altar. Anne tries to convince him that he needs to put the whole Parker-Bowles saga behind him and focus on the future and he half-heartedly agrees. No matter what Charles truly wants, as Diana gets swarmed by paparazzi and smirks knowingly at the cameras, it's obvious that a royal star is being born.
Episode 3: “Fairytale”
Diana's fairytale ends even before it begins as she realizes her prince's heart belongs to another.
Reluctant as he's been, Prince Charles finally pops the question much to Diana's glee. As the rest of the family is informed in a gigantic game of whisper down the royal phone lines, they cluck over Charles's lack of romance but their relief is palpable.
As soon as Diana returns home to London, she's swarmed by paparazzi who want to know if the prince popped the question. During a celebratory night on the town with her friends, Diana wistfully gazes at Buckingham Palace and dreams of her future life. But it's one of the last moments of unrestrained happiness before reality sets in.
As Diana chooses the royal engagement ring (eventually picking the famous sapphire ring that Prince William later gave Kate Middleton), Queen Elizabeth seems initially charmed by her until she realizes just how immature the girl is. When her courtier, Martin Charteris (Charles Edwards), suggests that she herself might tutor Diana in royal protocol as a nice gesture from one queen to the next, Elizabeth demures, saying she's too much of a softie (ha!) to teach Diana properly. She suggests Diana's strict grandmother, Lady Fermoy do it in her stead. As Diana makes a mess of royal protocol when she dines with the royal family for the first time at Clarence House, it's both obvious how much guidance she needs and a rude awakening about the pitfalls of the family she's joining.
Nothing alarms her more than when she starts to suspect that her dear prince isn't quite so head over heels for her as she is for him. During their official debut as an engaged couple, Charles scoffs when a reporter says they look very much in love and takes off to Highgrove to prepare for his upcoming foreign trip, leaving her all on her own in Buckingham Palace. Once Charles suggests she should meet up with his ex, Camilla while he's gone, she finally realizes just the kind of man she is marrying.
The enormity of her new role starts to weigh on her and she's often left on her own in the enormous palace. It's during these lonely moments that we see how the rest of the royal family really fails her, leaving the sensitive and overwhelmed young woman to flounder. The one bright spot in her loneliness is reading how much she already means to the British public, who send her so much mail it has to be wheeled in on carts. She takes solace in these missives and we see the beginning of her role as the People's Princess.
But public admiration is nothing without private consideration and she positively fumes that Charles hasn't bothered to call her at all in the three weeks he's been away. At night, she sneaks into the royal kitchens to gorge herself on desserts and then purges it all back up, an unflinching depiction of the bulimia the real Diana suffered for almost a decade. In desperation, she reaches out to Camilla and they have a very tense meal together as it becomes obvious to both Diana and Camilla who knows Charles best. She purges the entire meal and then storms into the office of the prince's private secretary demanding to speak to Charles and discovers he's having a bracelet custom-made for Camilla; it's the last straw. She leaves a message for the queen that the wedding can't go ahead.
Returning home a day early, Charles goes to see Camilla first at Highgrove before turning up to the wedding rehearsal at St. Paul's Cathedral where an enormous crowd has gathered. Showing just how selfish he is, he's honestly surprised to find his formerly sweet bride-to-be in high dudgeon over Camilla's place in his life. Not escaping Princess Margaret's eagle eyes (Helena Bonham Carter, divine as the increasingly pickled princess), Charles takes Diana aside and tries to smooth things over, saying he gave Camilla the bracelet as a farewell gift. He gives Diana the signet ring of the Prince of Wales and takes her hand, telling her it's "for the Princess of Wales." Diana looks unconvinced and stalks off.
Margaret, who has been through a bad marriage of her own, notices the two remain stone-faced during the rehearsal and brings up her concerns that Charles loves someone else later that night when Philip inquires how the rehearsal went. Thinking of her own dashed romance decades earlier, she wonders how they can keep making the same mistake. Philip, speaking as a man, believes it's only a matter of time before Charles falls in love with Diana's ever-increasing confidence and beauty. Margaret urges them again to stop this before it's too late, not just for the monarchy but for the sake of Charles and Diana.
As fireworks explode outside of the palace's walls in celebration of the impending nuptials, Elizabeth goes to speak with her son. She reminds him that his great-grandmother Queen Mary didn't get to marry her Prince Charming but his charmless brother. But by both doing their duty, their 42-year marriage stabilized the country and left the monarchy stronger. She knows he's unhappy but pleads with him to follow his relative's example and that love and happiness will surely follow.
Charles looks unconvinced but the wedding day arrives and the country is jubilant. Diana herself looks tentative as she fingers the prince's signet ring and dons her soon-to-be-famous wedding gown. As the other members of the royal family dress for the wedding, the mood is somber as they all sense that this fairytale will not have a happy ending. And in the end, they're right.
Episode 4: “Favourites”
Through the first three episodes of the season, Olivia Colman took a backseat to Emma Corrin and Gillian Anderson but in the fourth episode, she takes center stage again as Margaret Thatcher's parental crisis forces Queen Elizabeth to take stock of her relationship with her children.
During their weekly meeting, Elizabeth takes her prime minister to task for the abysmal state of the country. The usually steely woman falters in front of her, breaking down in tears and confessing the real reason she's upset is that her favorite child, Mark (Freddie Fox), has gone missing while competing in the Paris-Dakar car rally. He has not been seen for days in the Algerian desert. While the queen is of course concerned for the young man, she finds it curious that the prime minister would so boldly admit he's her favorite child and mentions it later to her husband. Philip says that any honest parent would and admits quite quickly that Anne is his (no duh). He knows who the queen's favorite is and says everyone does but finds it hilarious that it remains a real mystery to her. Much to her consternation, he leaves before telling her who it is.
After asking her staff to arrange a meeting with each of her four children and provide her with a briefing document on each one, she meets with her youngest, Prince Edward (Angus Imrie), first. Elizabeth is rather alarmed by how entitled and vengeful the young man seems, but when she inquires after his life at Gordonstoun boarding school (the same brutal place Philip and Charles attended), she discovers he's being bullied in some horrifying ways because he's a prince. She worries over his poor grades but the young prince knows he'll be wanted wherever he goes just because of who he is. Elizabeth doesn't think this is a particularly attractive quality but the boy grouses that there has to be some benefit in it for them for what they do for the country.
Though Anne is much older and already married with children, she doesn't seem much happier than her younger brother when the queen visits next. After riding horses together, Anne complains to her mother about being compared unfavorably to the luminous Diana by the press and how the constant questions about the state of her marriage wear on her. Elizabeth is shocked when Anne admits that the rumors about an affair with her protection officer are true. Seeing her normally self-possessed daughter confess to feeling reckless unnerves the queen but she can't offer Anne much advice except to persevere. Anne bitterly asks if doing nothing is her solution to everything and stalks off in tears, leaving the queen feeling helpless once again.
Just who the queen's favorite is isn't much of a mystery when Prince Andrew (Tom Byrne) arrives after buzzing Windsor Palace with a Royal Navy helicopter. The queen visibly brightens in his presence in a way she doesn't with her other children, but Andrew's brash arrogance turns troubling when he tells her about the plot of his current girlfriend's racy film, which sounds like a precursor to the accusations Andrew would later face as the friend of pedophile Jeffrey Epstein. Elizabeth chides him much too gently for being amoral and then basically rewards him by telling him that when he gets married, he will become the Duke of York, the same title her beloved father held before he ascended the throne.
Andrew also mentions that he would like to fight on the frontline of the brewing conflict in the Falkland Islands, which brings us back to Margaret Thatcher. While in real life, Thatcher's son disappeared in January of 1982 and the Falkland crisis began in April of that year, the show conflates the timing of the two, suggesting rather annoyingly that Thatcher's concern over Mark clouded her judgment about the conflict. But even after Mark returns home safely to much coddling by his mother and much annoyance from his overlooked sister, Thatcher only wants to escalate the conflict. After she finds out that Argentina refuses to step back from their occupation of the British-controlled Falkland Islands, she shrugs off diplomacy and suggests it's time for military action to take back the islands. Warned by her cabinet ministers that a needless war won't help the popularity of her reviled administration, she still charges ahead and by the episode's end, the British Navy takes to the seas.
As Thatcher is confronted by her daughter over the obvious favoritism she shows her son, the queen has one last child to visit and she finds things aren't much happier with the heir to her throne. Traveling out to Prince Charles's estate of Highgrove, she finds her eldest is more concerned about making his gardens a testimony to his own exacting tastes rather than caring for his heavily pregnant and depressed wife, who refuses to even leave her room for the queen's visit. Over lunch, the queen takes him to task for the neglect of his wife, noting that Highgrove is only a 15-minute drive away from Camilla. Charles says he only talks to Camilla when he needs cheering up and the queen, who has had quite enough of his endless navel-gazing, reads him the riot act and tells him he needs to stop worrying about his own happiness and focus on Diana's for once. Though he's been thoroughly chastened, he still avoids Diana once the queen leaves.
Back home, the queen looks over photos of her children and wonders where she went wrong over drinks with her mother and Margaret. Philip finds her later and she confesses that it's their children that are lost, not the prime minister's. He defends his favorite child first and insists that the only child that is truly lost is Charles, but he always has been. Noting that Andrew is her favorite, she finally agrees but admits she was shocked by Andrew's behavior and notes that if he doesn't change (newsflash: he doesn't), what would that say about them as parents? She confesses that although she had Andrew and Edward to make up for the mistakes she made with Charles, she failed to mother them the way she wanted because she didn't know how. Philip kindly consoles her, saying both that she's the mother of the nation and that the children will sort themselves out now that they are adults. As Elizabeth prepares for bed, she seems to know deep down that isn't quite true.
Episode 5: “Fagan”
Breaking news: A royal ruckus has taken place at Buckingham Palace! Okay, fine, let's backtrack a tad, shall we?
We kick off episode 5 with a news report telling us a man has had an audience with Queen Elizabeth, uninvited and unannounced. Yes, this installment is centered around the true tale of Michael Fagan, an unemployed painter and decorator who managed to gain access to the palace not once, but twice, undetected. On the second attempt, he even scored an impromptu sit down with Her Majesty.
The majority of the episode is dedicated to telling us who this Michael Fagan is. Three months prior to the break-in, we see Fagan wake up in his dilapidated flat. On hearing Margaret Thatcher drone on about how hard work is all it takes to get ahead (while the country hits record high numbers of unemployment), Fagan — quite correctly — tells the Prime Minister on his TV set to f— off. The man is living in squalor, picking up his weekly unemployment allowance, and estranged from his wife and kids. Unable to get help from the council for home improvement and refusing to accept there's no one else he can turn to, Fagan takes his grievances to his local member of parliament. The M.P. makes little effort to take Fagan's woes seriously and facetiously tells him to drop in on the queen at Buckingham Palace with any further questions he might have. So Fagan does just that.
But before we get to the good stuff, here's what's been happening with HRH herself. During one of Thatcher's weekly audiences with the queen, the P.M. reports that the "tide has turned" on the Falkland Islands recapture and that she believes the war there has been a resounding success. She also brings up matters of security, believing it should be enhanced around the palace. Later, when the queen is meeting with the public at a gloves-on-no-actual-conversation kind of event, she relays her conversation with Thatcher to Prince Philip and tells him she enjoys meeting with her people and doesn't want added security to put more of a distance between them. Careful what you wish for, queeny!
Okay, let's get back to it. One night while traveling home on the bus, Fagan — presumably remembering what the snooty M.P. told him about taking his grievances to the head of state — disembarks, easily scales the fence of Buckingham Palace, slinks past the guards, shimmies up a drainpipe, and lets himself in an unlocked window into the master of the household's quarters. After taking a leisurely wander around the great halls, he pauses to take a quick seat in the throne room. Then finds a bottle of wine, cracks it open, and knocks it back, accidentally shattering a vase along the way. Don't worry about it, according to Philip it was just a "ghastly little pink thing." Finally, Fagan is spotted by a maid near the queen's bedroom and runs off and takes the bus home. Easy.
Next day, the palace is in a fuss over the home invasion. Luckily, the queen was at Windsor Castle at the time so wasn't in any danger. When she's informed of the incident, the queen asks if they might keep the news from Westminster as she knows they'll only increase security.
Having come so close the first time — and after a nasty fight with his ex-wife's new beau — Fagan gears up for take two. Again, he scales the fence and gets inside, unseen by guards — though he does need to break the window this time. See! The guards do have some use; they remembered to lock the window this time. Fagan rather nonchalantly makes his (by now) familiar way to the queen's bedroom and wakens her by opening the curtains. The queen's response? "Morning, Bobo." To be fair she assumed it was her maid, but once she sees a man standing there, drenched in the early morning sunlight, she sits up, more than a little startled. Fagan, taking a rather irreverent, chummy approach, sits down on the queen's bed and tells her she has nothing to fear, he just wants to talk. He explains that she needs to hear what's going on in her country, that he'll say what he has to say and then he'll go. Then he asks her if she has a cigarette. To which the queen responds, "No, filthy habit." (Got to give it to Lizzie, even in the midst of a potentially life-threatening encounter, she stands by her convictions!)
When the queen points out to Fagan that he's bleeding, he heads off to her en-suite to wash up and she picks up the phone to call for help. The trill of the phone ringing, however, is drowned out by a vacuuming maid. So when Fagan returns, informing the queen that the palace décor could use some updating and scoffing at her lack of electric toothbrush, she is still alone. With nothing else for it, HRH sits down in a chair opposite Fagan and the latter fills in her majesty on the mirage of democracy that he believes exists in her country. He tells the queen he has come to her, the head of state, to ask her to save them all from Thatcher and her callous disregard for the country's three million unemployed. He also shares his opinion that the prime minister has a presidential appetite for power and that she is quietly trying to put the queen out of work too. Just then a maid enters, bringing the queen her morning cup of tea, and HRH calmly tells the girl to fetch the policemen. Before he is forcibly removed, the queen tells Fagan she will bear in mind everything he has told her.
Some days later, Thatcher comes to see the queen. When Queen Elizabeth makes the point that Fagan is not entirely to blame for his actions, the prime minister is far from sympathetic towards the troubled man. The queen tries to make the point that his desperation was caused by his unemployment and that in turn motivated his reckless behavior, but Thatcher keeps on her schtick about unemployment only being temporary and the need to turn the country around by abandoning outdated notions of collective duty. Really big sigh. The PM goes on to dismiss Fagan as mentally unwell and excuses herself to attend a victory parade for the success in the Falkland Islands. Maybe Fagan wasn't so far off when he suggested Thatcher was after the queen's job after all.
Episode 6: “Terra Nullius”
It's episode 6 and the Prince and Princess of Wales are headed down under! Yes, that's right, it's time for a royal tour to the sovereign country of Australia, and despite an unwelcoming new prime minister down there and abundant rumors of marital problems, Charles and Diana have been chosen to conduct this royal duty. Before they head off, the queen invites them to come and see her so she can remind them of the importance of this tour and warn against any slipups.
So off they jet with a baby Prince William in tow, much to the not-so-motherly queen's confusion. On the flight over, Diana is dismayed to discover that the tour planners mean her to travel without her child for weeks at a time, leaving him in another part of the country as she and Charles bop around the main spots. When they land, Diana is forced to hand over her baby to nannies who jet William off to Woomargama, while she and Prince Charles carry out their duties in Alice Springs, Ayres Rock, and beyond. The tour gets off to a rocky start with Diana showing little interest in the trip and during a press conference calling Ayres Rock, Ayres Dock and generally seeming petulant and bored by the whole thing. Things go from bad to worse when Diana refuses to climb to the top of Ayres Rock, claiming the heat is too much for her. Ever the loyal husband, Charles hops on his daily call with Camilla to complain about his "pathetic" wife. Ugh.
To her credit, Diana insists on seeing her son before she continues any further with her royal duties. So, the couple is flown to Woomargama to reconvene. Wildly enough, the desert air seems to be just what the desperately unhappy duo needed. They finally open up to one another and, guys, guess what it all comes down to? Encouragement. Yup. Di tells Charles she feels overlooked and unheard, he can't believe his oversized ears. This is exactly how he feels too! He needs his wife to compliment and encourage him on a regular basis. They resolve to give one another more support going forward. She tells him he's gorgeous. He returns the compliment. Look at that! They've nailed it already.
On with the tour! The royal couple heads to Sydney where the crowds go bananas for them. Apparently, even more people are turning out to see them than for the queen herself back in 1954. Charles is cringingly gleeful about beating mummy's numbers. All is well for a stop or two — the Prince and Princess of Wales dance to "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You," share a bedroom at one point, and Charles even turns down a phone call from his beloved Camilla — until Charles slowly realizes the crowds are far more thrilled by his wife than by him, the future king, dammit! While Di wows the crowds and jokes with the press, the public laugh at Charles as he falls off a horse during a game of polo. The prince stews until all that simmering resentment comes to a head after dinner in Tasmania, where he believes his wife was making faces behind his back while he made a speech. They get into a yelling match and yup, we're pretty much back to the miserable couple we know and tolerate. At least Prince Charles and the Aussie P.M. can commiserate together over Diana outshining them both. The P.M. tells Charles that Diana's popularity has set back the cause of republicanism in Australia for the foreseeable future. As the prince and princess arrive in New Zealand, they're barely speaking, and Diana resumes her bulimic ways.
Nothing has improved as they arrive back in England and head to their separate residences. Some days later, Diana goes to see the queen, calling her "mama" on arrival, much to the queen's distaste. The princess tells her mother-in-law that she's struggling. The queen can't understand the cause of her woe, after all the tour was a roaring success, though she does admit she finds her son hard to understand at times too. She also thinks Diana plays too much to the gallery. Diana tells HRH that she takes some comfort in the cheers, comfort she needs because she gets no support from the family. She wants to play for the team and asks the queen to show her love and approval and everyone else will follow. At that, the queen rings her bell to dismiss her daughter-in-law. In one last desperate ditch effort to be heard, Diana launches herself at the queen and hugs her, begging Her Royal Highness not to push her away. It's super awkward and oh, God, does it seem to last an eternity. Finally, the queen saves us all by extracting herself and walking out without a word. Later, she tells Anne, her mother, and Margaret about the hug and asks them if it's possible Diana has a point about the family's coldness. Maybe they should be changing with the times? The queen mum shoots this notion down, saying Diana is just immature and that in time, she'll bend and fit to the needs of the crown. To which Margaret adds that if she doesn't bend, she will break. Even if history hadn't already told us which outcome comes to pass, it's pretty obvious there's irreparable breakage ahead.
Episode 7: “The Hereditary Principle”
As episode 7 starts, scenes of Margaret getting ready for a night in with her buddie Derek "Dazzle" Jones are juxtaposed with footage of two women named Katherine and Nerissa at Royal Earlswood Asylum for Mental Defectives, as they take their pills and settle in for an evening of watching the Royal Variety Show on television. After a dance party with Dazzle, Margaret propositions him romantically, but he tells her he's joining the priesthood. Talk about a c— block.
The next day, Margaret tells her story of rejection to the queen, who points out to her sister that of course Dazzle turned her down, he's — and I quote — "a friend of Dorothy." More disturbing than Margaret's lack of perception when it comes to the men in her life, is the fact that she's just coughed up some blood. When a television report shares the news that the princess is undergoing explorative surgery, Katherine and Nerissa are inconsolable, watching from the hospital.
Back at the palace, it's Prince Edward's 21st birthday and Prince Philip is making a lovely speech in which he calls his youngest son, "the runt of the litter." Once again, the show contrasts this lavish celebration with a far humbler birthday party taking place at the Royal Earlswood Asylum. Post birthday dinner, Margaret tells her sister she is ready for a new chapter. She wants to focus on the crown, her position, and her duty as a royal. She asks the queen for as much responsibility as she can give her and tells her that she needs the sense of meaning to stay afloat. Because she always does, the queen has some bad news for her sister. Since Edward has just turned 21, Margaret's been demoted. You see, the list of senior royals the monarch can deputize is capped at six and since Edward now outranks his aunt in the line of succession, she must relinquish her role as Counsellor of State. Margaret is devastated. She needs something to fill her tim, she's desperate for it. The queen says if it was up to her, she would've given it all to her sister from day one, but it's not so they just have to live with it.
Margaret cannot accept yet another hard blow from the crown and jets off to her private island, Mustique, to drown her despair in sunshine and booze. Before long, Prince Charles is dispatched to talk her down. He shares with his aunt that he too is in a deep gloom, in part because Diana is pregnant again. Insert eye roll. He tells the princess that he has started seeing a therapist and urges her to try it too. Back in London, Margaret heeds his advice. In therapy, she admits she's been feeling low for a while now and the current slump has resisted every attempt she's made to muscle through. The doctor asks if anyone else has mental health issues in the family. Margaret names Charles and an uncle, but the doctor says she asks because she's aware of "the sisters." Margaret has no knowledge of whom she speaks. Later, she goes to see the queen to fill her in on what she's discovered about their first cousins, Nerissa and Katherine Bowes-Lyon, the third and fifth daughters of the queen mother's brother who have been locked up in Earlswood Institution of Mental Defectives. The queen thinks her sister is mistaken, believing the sisters to be long dead, so the queen and Princess Margaret consult the 200-year-old royal reference book, Burke's Peerage, where the girls have indeed been recorded as having passed away.
Not believing the book to be true, Margaret enlists Dazzle to go with her to the institution where she sends him in to see if her cousins really do reside there. He confirms that they do live there along with more cousins of hers who are similarly afflicted. There are five of them in total. Appalled to realize that the family were so ashamed of the sisters they pretended they were dead, Margaret goes to her mother to confront her over it. On a beach in Scotland, the queen mother tries to blame the abdication. Margert scoffs as this excuse, telling her mother this kind of treatment is in keeping with the ruthlessness she herself has experienced in this family. The queen mother explains that because of the abdication, the Bowes-Lyons went from being minor aristocrats to a direct bloodline to the crown and since their illness would make people question the integrity of the bloodline, the children had to be hidden away. The queen mother is worried about the headlines if it were to get out now, telling her daughter that the hereditary principal already hangs by such a precarious thread — throw in mental illness, and it's over. So, the gene pool of the one family entitled to the throne had better have one hundred percent purity.
Flabbergasted and disappointed by the whole situation, Margaret goes back to therapy. There she asks her doctor if she's destined to be mad too. The therapist has done some research into the genetic fault responsible for her cousins' condition and has discovered that it is descended from their common maternal grandfather, suggesting that the recessive gene responsible lies with the other side of the family. They have a severe developmental disorder, which is not the same thing as the depression Margaret has been suffering. With all this new information, the princess realizes that the sisters never threatened the integrity of the royal family, so they need never have been hidden away. What her family did was unforgivable.
Back at home, Margaret tells Dazzle she's been given a prescription and told to see a psychotherapist and increase her exercise. Dazzle, who has found ecstasy and an escape from the gloom and emptiness by joining the church, urges her to come back to Rome with him instead. She tells him she can't come become Catholic. It would cause a national scandal and fear of a second Reformation. They'd make her give up her title and kick her out and her title, her seniority, is her happiness. It's who she is. Dazzle doesn't understand. He warns her that the family doesn't protect anything but the center, but Margaret believes she is in the center and always will be and sends him on his way after asking him to pray for her. And with that, Margaret returns to her private island and her drinking.
Episode 8: "48:1"
It's a bird! It's a plane! It's Claire Foy once again playing the Queen! This time she's appearing on the dawn of her 21st birthday, giving a speech promising to always be there for the British Commonwealth. Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, a young Margaret Thatcher is listening on the radio. All of this sets the tone for later events in the episode.
Back in 1985, Buckingham Press Secretary Michael Shea (Nicholas Farrell) is busy writing a novel and pitching it to his agent. In his day job, he's confronted by an assistant who seeks comment about the Queen's feelings on her prime minister refusing to back economic sanctions to encourage the end of Apartheid in South Africa. He forebodingly tells her that she should know better, as the Queen has faithfully never said one word — negative or positive — about her prime ministers. Back at the palace, it becomes abundantly clear that the Queen disagrees with Thatcher's position on the sanctions, and vows to speak to her about it.
We'll get back to all that in a bit, but in more royal wedding news, Prince Andrew is entering a soon-to-be-scandalous marriage of his own to Sarah Ferguson, and he informs his mother that he intends to ask his brother Edward to be his best man, as opposed to Charles. Get out your tiny violins, because it seems no one likes Charles these days.
Later on, true to her word, the Queen meets with Thatcher to attempt to change her mind about the sanctions, and it sets up the season's biggest showdown between the two women. Thatcher's issues with the sanctions lie in her worries for Britain's economy, but the Queen wants her to sign an agreement among the Commonwealth Heads condemning the South African government. Thatcher refuses to sign any statement that includes the terms "sanctions" or "proposals," which sets off a pretty amusing sequence where she's repeatedly brought the statement and she continues to decline their choice of synonyms for "sanctions." The winning term comes from the press secretary, who suggests they use the word "signals." The victory for the Queen is short-lived, however, when Thatcher makes a speech making it abundantly clear she hasn't yielded on her original position.
The tension between the two leaders comes to a head when Shea suggests the Queen put out a statement supporting Thatcher to quell rumors of a feud, and the Queen does the opposite: She wants news of the rift to leak to the press. After the stories come out, Thatcher confronts the Queen, leading to an icy battle of words in which the prime minister suggests that she worked hard for everything she has, but the sovereign did not, and she deigns to interrupt the Queen numerous times — gasp!
On Andrew's wedding day, the story of the feud is still top news, which Charles — in a move that his siblings call "impressively c---y" — suggests is because Andrew is a "fringe" member of the royal family. It's becoming increasingly clear as the story about the feud continues to spiral that the palace needs a fall guy, and despite his years of loyalty, poor ole Michael Shea is chosen as the patsy. At least now he's free to write those books, including perhaps a memoir of his time working for the palace. The credits reveal that the palace continues to insist that the Queen has never passed judgment on any of her prime ministers, that Shea did indeed go on to be a bestselling author of political thrillers, and in 1994 Apartheid ended (in part thanks to sanctions) and Nelson Mandela became the first Black president of South Africa.
Episode 9: "Avalanche"
We begin the latest segment in the Charles and Diana soap opera at an opera of a different kind — the Royal Opera House. It's Charles' 37th birthday, and a radio announcer dubs it "his night." Midway through the performance, Diana gets up to supposedly powder her nose, but little does Charles know she has a surprise in store. A few moments later, she appears on stage and dances with one of the performers to Billy Joel's "Uptown Girl," much to Charles' abject horror. It seems poor Diana can never do right by Charles, who declares it a "grotesque, mortifying display" and throws a characteristic temper tantrum about her receiving more attention than he does. Cry us a river, Charles. The next morning at the palace, Queen Elizabeth provides one of the show's most comical bits to date when she reads about the news and sees it as a sign that Diana and Charles' relationship is on the mend. When Philip asks her why she never danced for him, Her Majesty retorts that Philip had his "own ballerinas for that." She then asks him who "Billy Jo-el" is, and Philip is all of us when he corrects her with a smirk that says, "Lady, what is wrong with you?!"
We're then told it's March 10, 1988, and there's been an avalanche in Switzerland that swept up Prince Charles and his friends. Two bodies have been found and one is apparently male, but the prince's condition so far is unknown. It's revealed that contingency plans are in place in the instance of the death of any royal family member, and the plan for Prince Charles is dubbed "Menai Bridge." Voicing what we're all thinking, Philip asks why the plan is named for a bridge, and the Queen informs him that they're all bridges — she's London Bridge, he's Forth Bridge, Queen Mother is Tay Bridge, and so on, which gives a whole new meaning to the ditty "London Bridge Is Falling Down," if you ask me.
Later, Martin informs the Queen that, surprise, Charles made it, but unfortunately one of his close friends did not, and another is still in intensive care. He also tells her to expect more stories about the status of Charles and Diana's increasingly hostile marriage. This leads the Queen to seek out Princess Anne, who informs her mother that the marriage is failing and that both Charles and Diana are involved in extramarital affairs, several different ones in the case of Diana.
Later, he and Diana are forced into a heart-to-heart with the Queen and Philip. In a speech that has been done ad nauseum on this show, the Queen tells them that their marriage cannot fail for the sake of the stability of the monarchy. Before Charles is allowed to whine some more, Diana interjects and says she still wants the marriage to work. The Queen confronts her about her affairs, and Diana explains that when she thought Charles might be dead she had an epiphany that she'd been childish. She apologizes and vows to "do anything" to make the marriage work, much to the Queen's approval and Charles' disdain. The latter later tells Camilla that Diana ambushed him, but he vows to have his men watch her every move, and if she cheats again, he will know about it (and presumably use it against her). True to her word so far, Diana has her team kick all her boy toys to the curb, and she plans a surprise for her and Charles' anniversary, which sounds like a horror show waiting to happen.
Sure enough, Diana drives to meet Charles, where his staff is busily clearing all evidence of Camilla out of the way. He presents her with the oh-so-romantic gift of a book on the ancestral beginnings of her home, and she presents him with a tape of her performing Phantom of the Opera's "All I Ask of You" for him, not having learned her lesson from earlier in the episode. He hated it, as he later tells Anne, but his sister is not totally sympathetic. She tells him no one wants the marriage to end, and that Camilla and her husband are happier than he thinks, and more or less that he needs to get a grip, for everyone's sake. Charles skulks off and asks Camilla if he were somehow able to leave his marriage, if she would promise to do the same and leave her husband. Camilla doesn't go quite that far — she tells him that they need to be realistic, but that her love for him is absolutely real.
As the episode draws to a close, Charles rejects Diana's repeated calls and she takes solace in her love of dance and the people's love for her, and eventually, back in the arms of one of her love interests, Major Hewitt. The latest chapter in this impending tragedy closes with Charles ominously being informed of the affair.
Episode 10: "War"
All good things must come to an end, or so the saying goes, and here we are. Season 4 is coming to a close, and with it comes the end of Margaret Thatcher's reign as Prime Minister and what effectively amounts to the end of Diana's relationship with the royal family and the beginning of her setting off on her own. But we'll get there soon enough.
First up, Sir Geoffrey Howe resigns in the House of Commons and in no uncertain terms suggests that other members of Parliament may do the same, effectively amounting to a giant metaphorical slap in the face for Thatcher and her leadership. At the palace, Charles tattles on Diana's affair from the last episode in an attempt to start a formal separation from his wife, and Philip interrupts to tell the news of what happened in Parliament. At Downing Street, Thatcher is shown crying over what happened.
Later, at the palace, Thatcher is in denial about the revolt and brushes it all off when the Queen asks if she expects a leadership challenge. At Downing Street, Thatcher and her team receive news that things are turning against her in Parliament and she rages about those "little men."
Meanwhile, in a battle of her own, Diana and her team meet with Charles and his team to discuss her solo trip to New York. His team strongly suggests that Diana is not fit mentally for the trip and won't be able to handle it.
After marching in those "little men" one by one to seek their support and not receiving it, Thatcher comes to the conclusion that she needs to appeal to the Queen to dissolve Parliament, which the Queen does not advise. Instead, the Queen, who points out that the country is against her, suggests she do nothing "for once."
Back with Diana, it appears that the royal family ultimately agreed to let her go to the Big Apple, and Americans apparently love her as much as the British do. After multiple events and a touching trip to a pediatric AIDS unit at a Harlem hospital, it's clear that Diana's trip is a wild success. Across the pond, Camilla is seen watching all of the effusive praise from the press covering Diana's trip. She later pleads with Charles to drop any notions of breaking it off with the princess, because as she puts it, she'd always lose in a popularity contest with Diana (and she's not wrong). Charles naively suggests that if the people knew of the love between them, they'd have the fairytale they want, and Camilla, once again the voice of reason, suggests that "to be the protagonist of a fairytale, you must first be wronged," and they'd always lose that battle if they went public with their relationship. Charles tells her to "leave it with him," whatever that means.
After Thatcher officially steps down as prime minister, her and the Queen meet one last time. Unlike past meetings, however, this one is surprisingly emotional and touching for the two heads of state. The Queen, apparently taking pity on Thatcher, consoles her by praising the way she "dealt with her stuffy, patronizing, gray-haired men" and offers her sympathy "woman to woman." The sovereign grants her the Order of Merit, an award that can only come from the royal and recognizes "exceptionally meritorious service."
With another prime minister having bit the dust, the episode returns its focus to the Diana and Charles saga. Meeting for the first time after her trip, Diana goads Charles a bit, saying she hopes that he's come by to apologize and congratulate her on the success. Shockingly, Charles does no such thing and proceeds to carry on with his common complaints of her selfishness and calculated antics. Making good on his promise to Camilla, he for some reason shouts at Diana for not caring more about his mistress, and makes it clear that his loyalties lie with Camilla and Camilla alone. He's "washed his hands" of his "gross misalliance" to Diana, which he refuses to take any credit for. In fact, he suggests that if Diana has an issue, she take it up with the people who arranged their marriage in the first place. Yikes.
And because what this relationship really needs is some holiday cheer, the episode (and season) concludes at the world's most uncomfortable Christmas party. There, Diana attempts to talk with the Queen, who pretty much tells her that won't happen because she needs to feed the dogs. How nice of her. Charles has a bit more success later on when he tries to talk with her, though she still suggests they keep it brief. Once again, Charles claims he's done his best to make the marriage work, but he's suffering, and the Queen hilariously says that in actuality, everyone else is suffering having to put up with this. She once again denies that he can separate from Diana and forcefully tells him that if he wants to be king, he needs to start acting like one. As he scampers out with his tail between his legs, Philip checks in on Diana, who is holed up in one of the bedrooms while the party rages on downstairs. Their conversation is a bit more cordial, as Philip tries to make light of how cold the family can be and suggests that Charles will come around and the family more or less supports her. For everyone who knows how Diana's story ultimately plays out, the most haunting and damning moment of the season comes when she suggests it might be time for her to seek out the love she craves on her own. Philip's response? "I wouldn't do that if I were you. Let's just say I can't see it ending well for you." Oh, how right he unfortunately is, and we'll presumably see the ramifications of that in season 5. 'Til next time!