Lesley Manville is show-stealing in the final part that is tiringly over-consumed by the William-Kate romance
Story: Circling the late 1990s and the early 2000s, the second part of the final season focuses on the young Prince William, deaths within the Royal Family, planning for the Queen's Golden Jubilee, Charles and Camilla's marriage, and Tony Blair's run as prime minister. The season also cycles through the wars in Kosovo and Iraq, the September 11 attacks, mostly signalled and steered through Blair’s presence, and the investigation into Diana's death.
Review: As I watched the final batch of episodes, several questions arose. I was increasingly bewildered by the show’s continued, determined pivot away from the Queen herself to focus on those in her orbit. This has of course been a recurring tendency of the show: to examine the colossal cost of sacrifices individual members of the royal family are expected to make for the greater good of the monarchy, in service of its longer lease despite the churn of change. Being in a perennial “prison of public opinion” only tightens the leash even further. Thanks to the scintillating performances of Emma Corrin and Elizabeth Debicki, Princess Diana emerged as a veritable, compelling parallel lead, hijacking the show. Both actresses infused sadness, vulnerability and a bruised human edge to the narrative of the monarchy that prided itself on its firm unemotional tone, regarding it as essential for dispensing duty.
This clutch of concluding episodes visibly fumbles in the shadow of the now-absent princess. A few years have passed since Diana’s death; Prince William (Ed McVey) is nearing the end of his schooling at Eton. The sorrow over his mother’s death is still afresh, incurring a frosty relationship with Charles (Dominic West), who tries his best to comfort him but is repeatedly rejected. The aggrieved father admits to Camilla (Olivia Williams), “We don’t do fathers and sons too well in the family”. Camilla, however, nudges him to be patient with his sons. Unlike his own father, Prince Philip, Charles favours emotional openness but is only met with nothing but hostility from William. The young prince simmers in resentment directed at his father and the intense public glare, the frenzy that he seems to generate. He echoes his mother in the tide of adulation she sparked; however, whereas Diana revelled in the attention, he is shy, resistant and deeply uncomfortable. The massive public favour he has mirrored that of PM Tony Blair, whose upsurging popularity triggers angst in the Queen (Imelda Staunton) and makes her mull larger, existential questions about the nature of monarchy and its public reception. This is the central anxiety that conspicuously frames most of these last few episodes. Concerns develop over how much the monarchy can afford to remain in antiquity, beholden to tradition, while it battles growing public disaffection. By adamantly sticking to its grand ways that are increasingly viewed as an unnecessary strain on public money, how long can the monarchy expect to stay its course?
The suggestions Blair shares with the Queen, on her request that he help offer her advice regarding improving the monarchy’s reputation, compel her to reconsider all the royal paraphernalia, introducing her to some honorific title-bearers she didn’t know herself. An amused, condescending Blair pokes her if there's really any need for such a thing as the warden of swans. He gets promptly schooled. It isn't that doesn’t completely shut herself off from the idea of reform, although Charles is the one who's more passionate an advocate in this regard. But the process of appraisal only reinstates her belief in the necessity of these appendages that seem disposable and outright ludicrous to an outsider but for her remain strong symbols of permanence and tradition, vital to creating the aura of transcendence and mystery around the monarchy. “Tradition is our strength”, she declares to a rather disappointed, defeated Blair.
As much as the episodes wrestle with change, progress and legacy, the show also devotes significant attention to the William-Kate romance during their years at St. Andrews. While Ed McVey makes for an excellent William, these sections of his courtship of Kate Middleton (Meg Bellamy) are sincere but uninspired, extravagantly detailing how he falls head over heels for her, makes stupid advances in the hope of attracting her notice, gets deflected and finally become lovers. Poor Kate is written in the most paper-thin, bizarre manner, painted as someone acting entirely on the desire of her mother who desperately wanted Kate to get hitched to the prince for years, even engineering circumstances in the past that’d make the two cross paths. At one point, Kate tells her mother she’s even worse than Mrs Bennet in her match-making ambitions.
Thankfully, the dullness of these stretches is momentarily lifted by the Princess Margaret episode, where the ever-great Lesley Manville summons extraordinary, crushing heartbreak as her character suffers a series of debilitating strokes in her final years. While anyone remotely familiar with Manville’s career-defining work in Mike Leigh’s films wouldn’t be surprised by the sheer poignance and searching character-building she can evoke, the actress renders a devastating performance rich in physical specificities, alert to the crippling, slurring effects of each stroke. The tender scenes Manville shares with Staunton, reflecting on the utter trust and support between the sisters, are among the best of the season. In this episode titled “Ritz”, we get a glimpse of what Margaret calls the ‘other Elizabeth’, the one Queen Elizabeth had to quell on acceding to the throne. Margaret remained a Number Two, as Elizabeth puts it, yet stood by her sister throughout. When the Queen publicly acknowledges this, the show attempts some course correction for certain sacrifices that mustn’t have been foisted on her. It’s hard not to choke up when Margaret tells the Queen she knows and can sense her death is near. Staunton is magnificent as someone who is almost abandoned by all her most loved ones while they pass on. Almost immediately after Manville exits, I began missing Margaret’s exultant life-force of being that never failed to spike up the show.
Verdict: The Crown’s finale swirls heavy and long around questions relating to the Queen’s apprehensions over her reign’s longevity and its possible implications. Our knowledge of the present moment is interestingly cast into the episode that grimly ponders the weight of long-standing duty. The show hints she might have come close to passing the baton much earlier but unfortunately, the season doesn’t properly plunge into that, reserving most of its interest for the William-Kate romance. The season has ample edges of darker considerations the family has to make, but pulls up short, making the farewell of such a beloved show strangely anaemic.