When I opened Netflix in late October to the trailer for Season 4 of The Crown already playing, I was full of anticipation. Along with millions of fans across the world, I knew what this season was about long before the release of the first episode — Princess Diana, played by Emma Corrin.

Since the Nov. 15 release of its newest installment, The Crown has climbed to the top spot of Netflix’s trending shows. The dramatization of the lives of the British royal family has earned critical acclaim, with its cinematic style and complicated characters enchanting audiences. The first three seasons received a total 39 Emmy nominations and 10 wins.

The Crown follows the many of the same characters across multiple decades, so actors are recast every two seasons as characters age. Most of the third season’s cast, including Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth II, Tobias Menzies as Prince Phillip, and Helena Bonham Carter as Princess Margeret, returned for season four. But this time around, the focus wasn’t on them.

Previously, the show centered each episode on a different event or character, but this season saw a slight departure from that structure. At least five of the 10 episodes focused on Charles and Diana, the Prince and Princess of Wales. Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson), the United Kingdom’s first female prime minister, also played a prominent role, and while the character was not a likable one, Anderson’s acting did not disappoint.

“The Balmoral Test,” the second episode of the season, interweaves their two storylines and sets up the rest of the season in terms of plot and theme. It sows the seeds of disagreement between the Queen and prime minister while highlighting how controlling the royal family can be.

Corrin’s performance as Princess Diana is the heart of the show’s success. In her first major role, the 24-year-old actress does an impeccable job embodying the mannerisms and speech patterns of the well-known and well-loved icon. Corrin captured not only Diana’s youth and warmth, but also her deep pain and profound frustration with the state of her marriage and the way she was treated by her husband and his family.

In “Fairytale,” the season’s third episode, a young and vibrant Diana, who is originally delighted by Prince Charles’s proposal, finds herself alone and abandoned in an empty Buckingham Palace in the weeks before her wedding. In this part of the show, the direct harm caused by the monarchy are more obvious than ever before, and viewers are forced to confront the fact that their beloved characters are part of a system with a dark side.

Though Diana was the season’s highlight, she was also its downfall. Her storyline sped up the pace of the show, which eliminated the episodes’ ability to stand alone. Part of what made the first three seasons of The Crown so remarkable was the fact that rather than a television show, the show felt like a series of movies, with each episode offering something individually astonishing. The best episodes of The Crown do this the most, with season three’s “Aberfan” exemplifying best how a single episode of television can do everything the very best films do in less than an hour.

Season four’s episodes had the same level of production, but they lacked the clarity and completion that seasons two and three offered. Episode five, “Fagan,” was most similar to episodes from previous seasons in terms of structure, and for that reason, it was one of the most compelling of the season.

Another downfall of the season was more inevitable— The Crown is becoming less of a period piece. Season one began in the late forties, a time completely unfamiliar to the vast majority of those watching. The styling and the traditions in the first seasons reflect a lost era, one viewers find fascinating. Season four, for the most part, covers the 1980s, which is a more familiar and, for many, memorable period.

Still, there were moments of season four that were compelling in ways few TV shows achieve. The sixth episode, “Terra Nullius,” was beautifully shot, styled and acted. It gave the audience hope for a doomed relationship, then it took that away. It was gorgeous yet heartbreaking, opulent yet utterly familiar.  

The characters feel so real and human that it is easy to forget that they are actors portraying public figures based on a little bit of fact but mostly a lot of fiction. Viewers have a responsibility to remember that The Crown is not a documentary. I, for one, am glad it’s not. It’s larger than life, giving audiences the ability to imagine the lives of royalty as more dramatic and interesting than they probably are. Though season four was not without faults, it, along with the rest of the show, is an extremely successful production and showcases brilliant work by all those involved.

Article Thumbnail: Des Willie via Netflix