For three seasons, “The Crown” has been an exercise in chromaticism. The cautious semitones of its modulating theme music have been a roadmap for the members of the House of Windsor navigating a modern monarchy and for the showrunners showing it in all its careful nuance alike. The series was always more meaningful glances than screaming matches, more quiet tension than outright calamity. But in season four, which is available on Netflix beginning Nov. 15, that chromaticism is kaput. As the royal family forges forward in history, the show has swapped its half-steps for much more sweeping strides.
The antler-locking antagonism between a queen and her prime minister, the disintegrating relationship of a king-to-be and his wouldn’t-be queen – it all exceeds the previously set stiff-upper-lip-ness threshold. But for a historical drama pressing into territory much more familiar to its viewers than the decades seen in the previous seasons, going big is exactly what it needs.
The embodiment of this broadening are the season’s two most notable additions: Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson) and Princess Diana (Emma Corrin). The two women still loom in the cultural consciousness, and here, they’re played as the larger-than-life figures they are. The domineering Iron Lady and simpering People’s Princess are diametrically opposed in appearance and temperament, but Anderson and Corrin bring a certain broadness to each. Thatcher’s head is perhaps a bit too permanently cocked to the side, Diana’s coyness at times a bit of a caricature; some bash-you-over-the-head symbolism at the end of Diana’s debut with the royals over a weekend at their Balmoral estate – a stag beheaded and mounted just as she joins the family – demonstrates the worst of the excesses that accompany the two newcomers.
Nevertheless, each manages to be captivating – and consistently fresh. A neat trick of plotting has the two largely trade off episodes such that just as one is beginning to overstay her welcome, her polar opposite sidles in. Hopefully, Anderson and her iciness will be back to visit next season. And it’s a shame that Corrin has only this one in Diana’s shoes (though Elizabeth Debicki, who will step into the role for the final two seasons, promises excellence); her charm as the princess, from her very first entrance costumed as a “Midsummer Night’s Dream” fairy, compensates for any deficit of the nuance that defined the show’s earlier seasons.
Alas, just as viewers say hello to two new actors, they bid farewell to them along with all the rest. “The Crown’s” casting scheme – every two seasons, a changing of the guard befitting Buckingham Palace – is a unique phenomenon in TV, and in this season on the cusp of a swap, there is a lot to commend in the outgoing cast. Helena Bonham Carter’s Princess Margaret in particular, while sidelined compared with last season’s spotlight, still shines in a dedicated episode. Her chafing against the strictures of the monarchy, which plays out in much greater restraint than Diana’s, is as much of a winner as it was last season. And Princess Anne, portrayed by Erin Doherty, remains puckeringly delightful, if peripheral. Her much more quietly (but no less devastatingly) failing marriage again throws into contrast the Princess of Wales’ travails. Less missed will be the lesser princes, Andrew (Tom Byrne) and Edward (Angus Imrie), whose mercifully brief incursions feel more a historical necessity than a joy; the audience encounters them as the Queen works her way down a laundry list of visits with her children, giving the sense she might feel the same way.
That queen, or, rather, Olivia Colman as Elizabeth, will doubtless be the greatest loss. Colman’s performance in Season 3, her first, felt effortless, and in this season – what is less effort than effortless? She settles even more comfortably into the role just to be booted out of it by next season. But it’s this sense of settledness that allows her to stay rooted in the chromaticism that the world (and show) around her is forsaking. Colman, just like the regent she portrays, keeps things as grounded as they can be in a fracturing family and country. Even when a malcontent and potentially dangerous subject of the Commonwealth breaks into the Queen’s bedchambers (a stellar sequence that has the feel of its own bottle episode within the episode), nothing about Colman’s measured choices feels out of place. But as the history that Queen Elizabeth stands astride spins more and more out of control, and yet another remaking of the cast ratchets up the change besieging “The Crown,” how long can any remnant of the old ways last?