Netflix’s royal saga The Crown has been one of its biggest hits of the past few years. Sacrificing subtlety for big, dramatic arcs, with award-winning performances by a cast that has, in a stroke of genius on the part of its creator Peter Morgan, changed every two seasons, it’s been the most gripping and rich account of the post-war British royal family ever put on screen. It has been helped both by an enormous budget and the useful way in which the present-day battles between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle and the rest of the Firm have come to mirror The Crown’s increasingly eventful power struggles among the various branches of the family. As it prepares to enter the final half-dozen episodes that will wrap up the sixth season, we should be regarding them as little less than a victory lap.
Viewers are not — and unfortunately there is every chance that, unless something changes dramatically, we will be looking at the worst-received finale to a major television show of this kind since Game of Thrones. (The dismal conclusion of Dexter at least merited one more series to right those particular wrongs.) The first four episodes of this season currently have a miserable 53 percent rating on the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, with critics sighing that The Crown has simply gone on too long and that what once seemed fresh and even subversive has now become rote. Elizabeth Debicki’s uncanny performance as Diana aside, there was general weariness at much of the casting, as there had been since the fifth season. Imelda Staunton’s Elizabeth II lacks regality; Dominic West’s Prince Charles is far too macho and energetic (imagine bullying him in the dormitories of Gordonstoun); and most of the other characters barely get a look in. I may be mistaken, but I don’t believe Marcia Warren’s Queen Mother has had a single line of dialogue so far in this season.
So, based on the recently released trailer, can Morgan et al turn this particular ship around and deliver a memorable finale? A vast amount is going to depend on the hitherto little-known actor Ed McVey, who is taking on the role of Prince William and, if the preview is correct, will be taking center stage as the show delves into the beginnings of his romance with Kate Middleton at the University of St Andrews and the fallout from his mother’s death in 1997. McVey certainly seems to be doing a reasonable job at channeling the misery and frustration that the real-life William has never been very good at concealing, but otherwise it’s business as usual. The Queen looks tight-lipped and angry as she is told that the vast majority of the public consider the royal family an anachronism; the popular prime minister of the day, Tony Blair, is referred to as “King Tony,” and the dialogue, as ever with Morgan, remains on-the-nose: when the Queen’s private secretary observes, “The Crown doesn’t ask existential questions of itself,” HRH responds, “Perhaps it should.”
The most poignant aspect of the final episodes — which will end, slightly oddly, with the big set-piece wedding of Charles and Camilla, presumably to introduce some pageantry and a happy ending — looks as if it will revolve around the Queen’s wondering what might have been. Staunton says, with a very un-regal catch in her voice, “But what about the life I put aside? What about the woman I put aside when I became Queen?” as we see flashbacks to the more carefree days when she was played by Claire Foy and when Prince Philip was incarnated by Matt Smith, rather than the gruffer Jonathan Pryce. We will see the deaths of Lesley Manville’s Princess Margaret and the Queen Mother. But what the show desperately needs if it is to redeem itself in its final hours is something unexpected, poetic and stirring, rather than just a business-as-usual conclusion that will disappoint rather than inspire.
The Crown was a truly great show when it began, and one that inspired affection and inspired millions. I doubt I’d ever have a career as a royal historian if it hadn’t existed; it’s not for nothing that my first book about the royal family was called The Crown in Crisis. So it is with personal as well as professional interest that I hope that the concluding episodes will come good, as otherwise, just as we faced with Game of Thrones, the disappointed cries of anti-climax will be immense. Can the Queen be sent home victorious? Watch this space.