Season 5 of The Crown, the Netflix drama that follows the trials and tribulations (so many tribulations!) of the House of Windsor and those in their orbit throughout Queen Elizabeth II's reign, kicks off back in 1953 with our young queen (here played again by Claire Foy), just a little over a year into the job, launching the HMY Britannia. The dock is flooded with people cheering on their new sovereign and marveling at the new Royal Yacht, which would be officially commissioned in 1954 to take members of the royal family around the world for decades. At the time, Queen Elizabeth steps up to the mic with hopes that this "brand new vessel, like [their] brand new queen, will prove to be dependable, constant, and capable of weathering any storm." Cut to 1991, where our story starts in earnest, and we find Queen Elizabeth (Imelda Staunton, taking the reins from Olivia Colman) talking about aging with her doctor and, soon after, learning that her beloved Britannia is showing signs of aging, too. The ship's breaking down, perhaps too old and expensive to fix. "She's a creature from another age," Prince Philip (Jonathan Pryce) tells his wife. It might be best for everyone to simply replace her.
Listen, the metaphor here is not subtle by any means, but it is effective. Season 5 covers roughly 1991 into 1997, a rather personally tumultuous set of years for the royal family, with three divorces (including The Big One) and a devastating fire at Windsor Castle, among other things, if you can believe it. With the queen's every reaction to the messes her family brings to her doorstep, there are people asking if she's too old to properly perform her job. Is she too out of touch with the times to be effective? What are we even doing here? And when I say "people," sure, I mean political commentators and anti-monarchists, but mostly I mean her son, Charles (Dominic West). That's right: The call is coming from inside the palace.
While the focus of Season 5 is undoubtedly the "War of the Waleses" — the dismantling of Charles and Diana (Elizabeth Debicki) — the most interesting character dynamic is that of mother and son. Over the course of the season, Charles grows more brazen with his talk of finding allies to get his mother to abdicate and allow him, the more energetic, forward-thinking Windsor, take his place on the throne (the series does a nice job of balancing how selfish and conniving this attitude can be while also showing that Charles is right about a lot of things regarding the monarchy being out of touch). At first, Elizabeth ignores it or brushes it off — she follows the party line of dependability, level-headedness, and stuffing down any and all emotions as much as possible — but eventually she hits her limit. A person can only be called irrelevant to her face so many times. Oh reader, there is a "thank you" she tosses to her eldest son that is so loaded, Staunton could base her entire Emmys campaign around it.
Staunton's Elizabeth feels somewhat softer and more wistful at times than her predecessors' versions of the queen, but perhaps that is simply what comes with age — and with four decades on the throne. She certainly tries to remain stoic amidst the drama, but is less successful now than she's ever been. Staunton does wonders in those moments when we see Elizabeth fighting to hold her true feelings in — there's one in particular, after a complicated conflict with her husband, that will break your heart. But let's not get it twisted: Elizabeth hasn't gone completely soft. She's unafraid to remind people who the boss is around here. Perhaps a cutting sense of confidence comes with age, too. Staunton balances those two sides to Elizabeth effortlessly. Although each portrayal of the queen has felt markedly different, I don't know if I'll ever be able to decide which of our three queens reigns supreme, and you know what? I don't think I want to. What an embarrassment of riches we have with these three actors!
The same can be said for our Dianas. In Season 4, Emma Corrin's performance as the young Princess of Wales was captivating — they stole the show. But while Corrin's Diana felt overwhelmingly like a victim, Elizabeth's Debicki's version of the people's princess, especially as the years tick on, is much more complicated than that. Debicki is ridiculously compelling as she swings from Diana's most vibrant highs to her desperate lows. The series does not hold back from showcasing some of the darkest and most infamous moments of the Waleses' marriage and divorce: Camillagate, the Revenge Dress, the Panorama interview, the acrimonious divorce negotiations. Those are all there. But the more interesting parts of this story, per usual, are the more intimate ones. At one point post- divorce, Debicki and West basically perform a one-act play over scrambled eggs, and it's their best work of the season.
And believe me, there's a lot of work to choose from, because for better or worse, Charles and Diana are at the center of Season 5. Yes, it's dramatic and juicy, and I get it, but their story also takes up so much space that there's little left for many of the other characters, and that's a shame. Take, for instance, one of the standout episodes of the season, "Annus Horribilis," which chronicles 1992, a real low for the royals — so low, in fact, that Elizabeth does something very out-of-character and gets personal and emotional in a public speech. Overall, though, this episode has very little to do with the Prince and Princess of Wales and so much to do with Princess Margaret (Lesley Manville). Manville gets much less screen time than the other actors in this role and yet does so much with it. As Margaret meets up with lost love Peter Townsend (played by an extremely swoony Timothy Dalton!), we see every shade of her: wistful, romantic, fun-loving, bitter, angry. And to top it all off, we get a powerful scene between the two sisters that only fortifies how foundational that relationship is to this entire series. I haven't stopped thinking about how moving it is or the rich character development it provides — give Manville all the awards you've got.
There's so much there to mine with characters like Princess Margaret and Prince Philip, but it's clear where the focus of the season is. And part of that is because we're obviously being prepped for what's next. Season 5 leaves off just a few months away from Diana's death, and many elements of this season feel like they're solely in service of Season 6. We even get a full episode devoted to Mohamed Al-Fayed's (Salim Daw) story and his relationship with his son, Dodi (Khalid Abdalla), which is interesting on its own, but also, The Crown knows what it's doing. Still, while some of this season can feel more like setup for something bigger rather than standing on its own, The Crown remains as engrossing as ever. Again — it knows what it's doing.
Premieres: Wednesday, Nov. 9 on Netflix
Who's in it: Imelda Staunton, Jonathan Pryce, Elizabeth Debicki, Dominic West, Lesley Manville, Timothy Dalton, Jonny Lee Miller, Olivia Williams
Who's behind it: Peter Morgan
For fans of: Royal drama, divorce, letting Elizabeth Debicki be tall
How many episodes we watched: 10 of 10