How much do you care about a yacht? That’s a big question to bear in mind as you watch the fifth season of Netflix’s The Crown (premiering November 9), which makes heavy thematic use of the SS Britannia, the former cruising vessel of the British royal family. In the show’s heavy-handed metaphor, Britannia represents the monarchy itself: a grand old thing, beloved by a few and seen as an unnecessary, and even appalling, indulgence by many more.
Just as this stately ship is showing its age, so too is Queen Elizabeth II, now played with perk and pepper by Imelda Staunton. The season traverses the early- and mid-1990s (roughly), when the queen was in her 60s and having trouble keeping up with the times. Most of the nation’s attention wasn’t on her: The tabloids and the gossip-hungry public were fixated on the trials and tribulations of Princess Diana, unhappy in her marriage with Charles (then Prince of Wales), and badly chafing against the restraints of her lonely, scrutinized life. But Queen Elizabeth was, well, still steering the ship, which she does with increasing shortsightedness as the season wears on.
It’s long been the game of watching The Crown to figure out just what creator Peter Morgan and his writers think of these utterly ridiculous people. Is the show slavish royalism, maudlin and embarrassing in its misty-eyed devotion to hoary tradition? Sometimes. Is it a condemnatory, sensationalist look at blinkered dinosaurs and the poor sophisticates they trample underfoot? On occasion, also yes. The fifth season really zings when the show turns a hard gaze toward the maddening ways that Elizabeth and her cohort refuse compassion and adaptation. But just as often, if not more often, The Crown cozies up to its subjects, bathes them in a reverent and affectionate glow.
The season is especially fond of Charles. How could it not be, when the dashing rake Dominic West is in the role? What a silly bit of casting that is, one that robs the show of one of the foundational dichotomies of Charles and Diana’s marriage. Where is the real Charles’s gawky stiffness—so countered by Diana’s casual appeal—when he’s embodied by West? I suppose it’s a bit mean to focus on looks, but it’s strange to watch a whole season of The Crown in which Charles is something of a stud.
No matter how true the depiction is to real life, though, the Charles of this season is a sympathetic figure. He desperately wants to drag the monarchy into something like modernity, arguing with his mother about the family’s antiquated public image. In the tight vacuum of the show, it’s hard not to see Charles as something of the hero of the story, one of the few people involved in this ludicrous institution who understands that it needs to change—whether or not those changes are more cosmetic than truly structural. One episode even ends with Charles break dancing with some youths while title cards explain his civic accomplishments.
Charles is deeply devoted to Camilla (Olivia Williams), especially through the mortifying media storm of the whole tampon affair. (Look it up, if you’re not familiar.) Which nearly makes Diana seem like a part of the villainy that is keeping these two soulmates apart. That doesn’t ring as fair, though the season is certainly sympathetic to Diana in its own way. She, of course, is the essential raison d’être of the whole series at this point, which makes the role a formidable responsibility for any actor who dares to play her.
Quite handily, the great Elizabeth Debicki nails it. She precisely calibrates the sort of bored charm of the public Diana, her familiar crooked-neck pose, her downward gaze so knowing and haunted while she talks in that mournful dove’s coo. It’s a just ever-so-slightly soapy pleasure watching Debicki navigate the pitiful lows and fleeting highs of Diana’s last years, from her doomed relationship with Hasnat Khan (Humayun Saeed) to her budding friendship with billionaire Mohamed Al Fayed (the masterful Salim Daw), father of her eventual lover, Dodi Fayed (Khalid Abdalla).
That said, there is a curious italicism to the way the show considers Diana’s affairs with brown men (one occurring within the season, the other foreshadowed): an ever-so-slight indication of its difference. The show then almost perverts that attraction into a weakness, when Diana naively trusts a conniving Martin Bashir (Prasaana Puwanarajah), whose landmark television interview with the princess has long been shrouded in a conspiracy theory that is plainly stated as fact on The Crown.