For Gillian Anderson obsessives such as myself — Fan-dersons? — season four of “The Crown” is Venmo from heaven. She plays British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher with rough-voiced and steely hauteur, a bouffy wig whose low-key comedy requires no exaggeration, and the kind of mesmerizing stare that Anderson excels at throwing. In the many scenes that put her bristly relationship with Olivia Colman’s Queen Elizabeth on display, she is just right as the unknowing victim of the queen’s oh-so-silky malice. Queen Elizabeth would like to find a connection with this other female leader, but Thatcher is working overtime to fit into a male-dominated world; women, she tells the queen, are “too emotional.” Their bond is a bust.
Television acting doesn’t get much more nuanced and delectable than in those cool confrontations between the two powers. Whenever the queen abruptly ends an audience on “The Crown,” it’s a passive-aggressive treat, and when she dismisses Anderson, reaching her hand to press the button, it’s particularly entertaining. You could never peg their friction with the easy cliché of a catfight; “The Crown” doesn’t tend to traffic in those kinds of flat soap operatics, and Anderson and Colman are too layered in their performances to evoke that obvious formula. Their dryness and understatement carry the day, with Thatcher’s visit to Balmoral a peek into their struggle as the prime minister fails to master the absurdities of royal protocol. With someone to dislike, Colman’s reticent Elizabeth is especially vivid.
But of course “The Crown” isn’t only about Anderson’s Thatcher. The opulent, epic, and yet intimate series returns to Netflix on Sunday with a particularly eventful and poignant fourth season, as it tracks the punishing Thatcher era (1979-90) and the decidedly unromantic courtship and marriage of Charles and Diana. The royal family is as repressed and chilly as ever, but the changing world has plans to force them out of their hiding places, reveal their callousness and ruthlessness, and highlight their flaws. As he tracks history, creator and writer Peter Morgan also shows us how the titular force — the crown — evolves and copes with new realities while destroying some of them, most notably Diana.
In many ways, watching the Diana of “The Crown” is as compelling as watching Anderson’s “Iron Lady.” She is played by Emma Corrin, who hauntingly evokes the young princess’s innocence and growing loneliness — her sweet head tilt and her brow raised in frustration — and adds in some frustrating stubbornness. For decades, we’ve been inundated with clips of Diana from all phases of her life, as well as the familiar tropes of Diana as the ladybug lost in a royal hurricane, so cheers to Corrin for owning all the public perception and then taking her character a few steps forward. Diana falls apart, desperately alone despite the adoration of the world, an adoration that unnerves Charles (played with mumbling precision by Josh O’Connor, who delivers Charles’s famous line “Whatever love means” with all the appropriate ignorance and insensitivity). The series also features a disturbing portrayal of Diana’s bulimia, as she tries to gain some sense of control over an emotional life that she is supposed to sacrifice in the name of royalty.
Watching the Charles and Diana saga play out in “The Crown,” I kept marveling at how successfully the material rises above previous scripted efforts to tell the story. Morgan elevates it all without screaming out the big themes — sexism, depression, the uselessness of love in the shadow of the crown. We see how Diana’s benevolence and compassion emerge, out of spite and out of self-sustenance, and how it becomes a public balm to the adversities and damages of the Thatcher years. She grows into the antithesis of the indifferent crown — even though she was largely created by it — and in some ways becomes its mortal enemy.
One of the fortes of this series is the way it both follows an ongoing history from season to season, and yet finds a way to make each episode fall into a story with themes of its own. This new set of episodes continues to give us both the long run and the short, the epic and the specific, as it goes from strength to strength.
Starring: Olivia Colman, Tobias Menzies, Helena Bonham Carter, Gillian Anderson, Erin Doherty, Josh O’Connor, Emma Corrin, Emerald Fennell
On: Netflix. Season four available Sunday.