It has been almost a decade since Netflix announced Peter Morgan’s incredibly ambitious opus “The Crown.” The plan was to cover the life of then-living Queen Elizabeth II from her marriage in 1947 to her Diamond Jubilee in 2012, with three full casts.
Season six, part one, which is out out Thursday, may make King Charles (or at least his allies) happy. But it also proves time has not been kind to Morgan’s goal of being the official chronicler of the Second Elizabethan Age.
Time has not been kind to Peter Morgan’s goal of being the official chronicler of the Second Elizabethan Age.
Season six picks up in the spring of 1997. Tony Blair (Bertie Carvel) has just swept into power with the new Labour movement, and Princess Diana (Elizabeth Debicki) is about to meet Dodi Fayed (Khalid Abdalla) for an ill-fated summer romance that will end in Paris. Back home in the U.K., Elizabeth (Imelda Staunton) and Philip (Jonathan Pryce) are once again utterly out of step with the political times, irritated that their eldest son, Charles (Dominic West), is practically measuring the palace windows for curtains and trying to come to grips with the depressing reality that divorce did not solve their Diana problem. In fact, arguably this royal debacle is only getting worse, as the crown can no longer control her. It also has no way of keeping her safe from her poor choices.
Those poor choices include getting into a car in Paris without putting on her seat belt with a drunken chauffeur at the wheel. And thus, dramatically, ends part one. Part two will be out next month. But ending the series with Diana’s passing feels like an odd choice — for many reasons.
From the outset, it was obvious that Morgan’s series was pro-royalist propaganda. Like Shakespeare before him, Morgan angled his history play to flatter the current monarch. However, Shakespeare at least waited a few hundred years before spinning his tales. Sometimes, the present day has worked in Morgan’s favor, such as Harry and Meghan’s romance and wedding, which wonderfully coincided with seasons two and three of “The Crown.” However, “The Crown’s” blockbuster Diana season arrived only weeks ahead of Harry’s removing his wife from the royal orbit, a choice he now says was born out of fear of history repeating itself. Not exactly the positive message of a family that has learned from its mistakes.
Even before current events began undermining his royalist messaging, Morgan seemed to be having second thoughts about the scope of the project. For whatever reason, he changed his mind. But after watching part one, I fear that may have been a mistake.
For Netflix to divide up this season is already a strange choice. But to divide it up this way is even more peculiar. Morgan already told this story, and in far better fashion, in 2006’s Oscar-winning film “The Queen,” in which Diana's character does not even appear. The film is wholly Elizabeth-centered propaganda, and deeply effective propaganda at that.
But the queen is dead; long live the king. This is now clearly Charles’ time to shine. And a more flattering spin on the former prince’s handling of his ex-wife’s death could not have been conceived by his own marketing team. College courses on political agitprop should show “The Queen” and then “The Crown” season six, episode four back to back; both are master classes in creating utterly riveting drama that doubles as royal propaganda.
Less successful is Morgan’s historical chronicle, which now seems confused and contradictory. For five seasons, he wrote a show designed to honor, flatter and elevate the monarch on the throne, Queen Elizabeth II. Elizabeth was the central heroine, and though Morgan was always careful not to make Charles an outright villain, he was not against portraying the man's faults. The season's sudden transformation of Charles into a hero is deeply jarring. So is the accompanying de-emphasis of Elizabeth.
Had Morgan been a little luckier, the royal family behaved a little better or Elizabeth lived a little longer, perhaps he could have at least maintained a consistent angle throughout the series, focusing on Elizabeth as a tragic heroine holding her monarchy together. On the other hand, the royal family’s inability to behave themselves is why it will always be one of the most fascinating dramas for writers to tackle.
Long live the king, “The Queen” and “The Crown” — at least until the next scribe comes along.