As soon as the rain hit the pavement last weekend, my heart lit up. I was born and raised in Southern California, but nothing makes me happier than a day when my native land looks totally unlike its usual sunny self.
For me, rain means it’s time for hot tea and a warm(ish) sweater. It means Mother Nature is washing my car and the heat-seeking cat is coming back to my lap. Most importantly, rain means winter and winter means it’s time for “The Crown.”
Since the show’s debut in November 2016, the change in seasons has meant the arrival of “The Crown,” the Netflix series about the life and turbulent times of Queen Elizabeth II and the most delicious wintry dish in the cable TV kitchen.
Now in its fourth season, “The Crown” returns Sunday with 10 new episodes. As always, the show serves up rich, meaty helpings of history and palace drama laced with plenty of spicy gossip. The acting has the popcorn panache of a Sunday afternoon Turner Classic Movies binge, and the plots have the guilty-pleasure addictiveness we know and love from decades of Sunday nights parked in front of “Masterpiece Theatre.”
In its first three seasons, “The Crown” was the ultimate in high-end comfort-TV food, and the new installment is no exception. With the appearance of Margaret Thatcher as the latest in a line of problematic prime ministers and the introduction of the beloved and tragic Princess Diana, season four accomplishes the impossible by the second episode. In these shut-in times, “The Crown” makes hunkering down on the couch seem like fun again.
The new season opens with a series of bangs, some literal, some not. It is the late 1970s, and Queen Elizabeth (the slyly brisk Olivia Colman) is once again being celebrated with cheering and fireworks while opposing forces are assembling against her. In this case, the rumblings are coming from Ireland, as her parade is intercut with street protests and a voice-over speech promising to “spill more blood so the Crown retreats and leaves Ireland forever.”
As the first episode begins, however, the royal family has other concerns. Chiefly, when will Prince Charles stop chasing after the married Camilla Parker Bowles, find a suitable young lady and settle down? In a beautifully directed and acted little bit of foreshadowing, we then see the perpetually gloomy prince (Josh O’Connor) having a surprisingly warm chat about Shakespeare with the younger sister of Lady Sarah Spencer, one of the many women he is seeing at the time.
The nervous girl in the “Midsummer Night’s Dream” costume will grow up to be Princess Diana, who is played with Diana-esque vulnerability by Emma Corrin. Sadly for her and for Prince Charles, the sweet spark of their first meeting does not translate into a passionate love affair. In subsequent episodes, Charles gives in to pressure from the family, from Parker-Bowles and — most crucially — from Lord Mountbatten (Charles Dance), Charles’ beloved great uncle and the father figure the judgmental Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies) can’t manage to be. Charles is in love with Parker-Bowles, but he will marry Diana.
The drama of Diana, the princess whose fairy-tale life turns out to be a heartbreaking work of cruel fiction, is one of the main plot engines driving the new season, but it is not the only source of firepower. The first episode also marks the introduction of Margaret Thatcher, the new prime minister who will soon have England in her iron grip while cementing a spot on the queen’s Most Not Wanted list.
As played by the formidable Gillian Anderson, Thatcher is a dour workaholic with no patience for the royal family and their frivolous traditions. She becomes even less enamored in the second episode, when she is invited to Balmoral Castle in Scotland for a round of serious patronizing at the hands of Princess Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter, having her usual high old time) and the whole insular, inbred family.
Thatcher is not amused by any of this. In fact, creator Peter Morgan’s script credits Thatcher’s nightmare weekend with the queen and her snobby relations for inspiring her to bring her Iron Lady hammer down on her all-male, all-patronizing cabinet. Thatcher becomes the first prime minister to leave Balmoral early, but watching Anderson clench her jaw while England’s royal family ropes her into tracking a stag and playing weird parlor games is some of the most TV fun you’ll have all year.
You won’t get quite the same joy out of Diana’s visit to Balmoral. On the one hand, she manages to charm everyone, even the crabby Prince Philip. On the other hand, watching as this trusting and besotted girl becomes a pawn in a game of Let’s Produce an Heir! is a sad prelude to the tragedy we all know is brewing.
The season’s third episode focuses on Diana in the weeks before the big royal wedding, when the princess-to-be is left alone in Buckingham Palace with nothing but the phone and a refrigerator full of desserts to comfort her. Princess Diana struggled with bulimia in real life, and “The Crown” does not shy away from showing viewers the toxic toll of life inside the fairy-tale bubble.
Whether she is roller skating through the halls while listening to Duran Duran or crying in the bathroom, Corrin captures Diana’s sweet exuberance and her appetite for self-destruction. Her sympathetic performance will make you love this most public princess all over again.
As always, Colman is an understated joy, bringing crack timing and wit to a character capable of great perception and disastrous myopia. Prince Philip is often insufferable, but Menzies plays him with a fearless self-absorption that is fascinating to watch. When Philip and Charles are forced to deal with their shared, crippling grief after an episode one tragedy, Menzies and O’Connor do some of their best acting of the series.
Everyone brings their A game to “The Crown,” which means all you have to do is sit back and let the gorgeous scenery, sumptuous costumes and virtuoso performances carry you off to wherever you need to go. Passport not required.
Season four of “The Crown” debuts Sunday on Netflix.
NOW, WHERE WERE WE?
In the eventful third season of “The Crown,” Queen Elizabeth had to deal with a new prime minister (Labour candidate Harold Wilson), the death of Winston Churchill, an economic meltdown, and the tragic deaths of 144 people during a coal-mining disaster in Welsh village of Aberfan. Princess Margaret made a splash in America and created a scandal at home with her extramarital affair with a landscaper. Prince Philip attempted to improve the family’s image with an ill-advised BBC documentary, reunited with his eccentric mother, and got very excited about America’s landing on the moon. Princess Anne blasted David Bowie in her car and was smart and snarky on multiple occasions. Prince Charles learned to speak Welsh, fell in love with Camilla Shand, and watched as his family engineered her marriage to Andrew Parker Bowles. The troublemaking Duke of Windsor died, and the queen and Prince Philip celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary.
(Karla Peterson is a columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune.)
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