The sad and maddening saga of Charles and Diana — and, of course, Olivia Colman's Queen Elizabeth II — hangs heavy over The Crown’s gripping and bittersweet fourth season.

The sad and maddening saga of Charles (Josh O'Connor) and Diana hangs heavy over The Crown's gripping and bittersweet fourth season (Sunday on Netflix), which spans the late '70s through 1990. It was a particularly plot-heavy period for the House of Windsor — an assassination, an avalanche, war, two(!) palace break-ins — which brings a welcome propulsion to this latest batch of episodes, following a somewhat sleepy start.

The Crown Season 4
Credit: Des Willie/Netflix

After a short prologue in 1977, the action leaps forward to 1979 and the initial meeting between Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) and Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson), the U.K.'s first female prime minister. Though they're just six months apart in age and both hardworking leaders, Elizabeth and "The Iron Lady" — as Thatcher came to be known for her hardline approach to all things governance — soon discover they are far from like-minded peers. A few months later, Lord Mountbatten (Charles Dance) is killed by an IRA bomb, but not before sending his surrogate son Charles a scolding letter advising him to stop moping about Camilla (Emerald Fennell) and find a "sweet and innocent" girl to marry. Enter Diana Spencer. A brief courtship and one successful weekend with the royals at Balmoral later, Diana is declared a perfect match for the heir to throne… by everyone except the man who matters.

Thus begins Diana's "very drastic transition from teenager to royal princess," as the Queen Mother (Marion Bailey) puts it. Charles leaves for a six-week tour just after the engagement, and Diana finds herself spending long, isolating days at Buckingham Palace studying the intricacies of royal protocols. Battling loneliness and chilly disdain from her soon-to-be in-laws, Diana struggles with bulimia and consoles herself with the cartloads of letters and gifts from her adoring public. Corrin handles the burden of portraying Diana — one of the most beloved public figures of the 20th century — admirably, and she mirrors the late princess' shy head tilt and pleading upward gaze perfectly. As Diana's star rises, Charles feels increasingly overshadowed and undervalued, and he lashes out cruelly at his young wife. O'Connor is uncannily skilled at portraying the prince's chimeric moods — the arrogance and entitlement, the hangdog malaise, the insecurity and yearning. Charles is a wretched beast, but your heart still breaks for him.

The Crown Season 4
Credit: Ollie Upton/Netflix

It's a season of next-level performances, really. Anderson's turn as Thatcher is so viscerally physical — her head held high under an armored bouffant, her replication of Thatcher's raspy, received pronunciation simply impeccable — that it's impossible to avoid the critical cliché: She is transformed. Late in the season, Elizabeth and Thatcher clash over South Africa's apartheid government — the queen supports sanctions, the prime minister does not — and it results in a tensely repressed showdown so riveting, it's like watching the Wimbledon finals of acting.

For all of her concerns about Thatcher's "uncaring" nature, Elizabeth remains unable to offer any measurable form of compassion to her own family. When Thatcher's son, Mark (Freddie Fox), goes missing in Algeria during the Paris-Dakar rally, the queen is spurred to reconnect with her own adult children. She finds them largely unhappy, and Colman renders Elizabeth's dismay — present, but never fully felt — beautifully. Alas, this is Colman and company's final season (Imelda Staunton takes over as Her Majesty in season 5), but at least their sendoff is a sovereign success. Grade: A-

The Crown season 4 premieres Sunday on Netflix.

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