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A compelling new season of ‘The Crown’ gives the royals a reality check

Dominic West and Elizabeth Debicki as Charles and Diana in "The Crown."Keith Bernstein

As it charts the royal family’s continued expulsion from their pedestal in season five, “The Crown” remains as superbly written and as addictive as ever.

Peter Morgan’s epic drama returns Wednesday to Netflix in top form, as the real world — divorce, depression, recession, anti-monarchy sentiment — continues to poke at their bubble. They’re meant to be seen as models of behavior, somewhere between man and God, defining symbols of civilized England, but the 1990s media isn’t having it, and neither is Princess Diana, who takes her story of rejection, loneliness, and adultery to the BBC.

Each of the 10 new episodes is a small wonder of structure, as Morgan builds stories around singular events and smart metaphors. In one hour, he portrays Queen Elizabeth’s stubborn resistance to change through her loyalty to her faulty old TV set and, later, in her struggle with the updated television young William has obtained for her, largely so she can escape by watching horse racing. Now in her 60s, she’s dowdier and duller than ever, and out of touch with what her country — and, it seems, her more adventurous husband, Philip — need from her. In another remarkable episode, Morgan detours entirely from the royal family to give us the backstory of Dodi Fayed, the man who died alongside Princess Diana in a 1997 car crash (to be covered in season six) and whose wealthy, Egyptian-born father idolized British royalty from afar.

Morgan also devotes a poignant episode to revisiting Princess Margaret’s romance with Peter Townsend, whom Elizabeth forbade her to marry because he was a divorced man. Margaret has a bittersweet reunion with him, more aware than ever, in the shadow of the Diana and Charles split, of how wronged she was, and how radically the crown has been forced to adapt. Another episode explores shifting attitudes toward the monarchy through rifts within the BBC. Martin Bashir’s explosive interview with Diana, which is coaxed out of the princess on false pretenses, certainly is not the kiss-up some at the network feel the queen is due.


In keeping with the pattern of the Netflix series, the cast has changed yet again for the final two seasons — for good but, in two cases, for ill. All of the new actors, like most of those before them, are extraordinary as they capture something genuine of the public figures they play. But it’s hard to see any continuity between Josh O’Connor, who evoked Charles so powerfully in season four, and Dominic West, who takes over the role. West is fine, and he effectively gives us a frustrated man whose passions are subverted and whose ambition to be king are met with denial by his mother; but even after 10 episodes, my eye did not adapt to him as Charles. Likewise, Jonathan Pryce is excellent — but so visually disconnected from Philip that he seems to be lingering in the wrong palace.


Imelda Staunton and Jonathan Pryce as Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip in "The Crown."Netflix

On the other hand, Elizabeth Debicki is miraculous as Diana. Visually, she eerily evokes the princess, and she brings a layered complexity that makes Diana heroic for her persistent self-respect and for taking charge of the narrative, questionable for her over-sharing with young William, and at times petty — that last humorously depicted as she calls into a TV show repeatedly, a grin of vengeance of her face, to vote no on the question of whether Britain should still have a monarchy. Debicki picks up the role from season four′s Emma Corrin, who was indelible, and makes it very much her own. Her delicate body language and sensitivity serve as the perfect counterpart to Olivia Williams’s earthy Camilla Parker Bowles, who, we are reminded late in the season, also paid for her love for Charles.


Imelda Staunton is just right as the aging Elizabeth, wedded to drab clothing and so distant from the public that she fails to see the unseemliness of her fixation on spending millions to repair the royal yacht. The season drifts from her story a lot — it’s a little less focused than previous seasons, as it wanders among the cast, including bits featuring Jonny Lee Miller as Prime Minister John Major — but Staunton nonetheless presides over it all. We know she will ultimately win back the hearts of her people, largely thanks to her endurance and consistency, but in the 1990s that was in question. Lesley Manville, as Margaret, is, as usual, moving.

It all feels quite genuine, not least of all thanks to the production design, which is dazzling. But we know it’s a scripted drama, don’t we?

There have been much-publicized complaints recently, notably by Major and Judi Dench, that viewers might perceive “The Crown” as the one true take on Queen Elizabeth II and her family. Clearly, though, the show is not a documentary (not that documentaries are, by definition, purely factual) and, clearly, it has all been made up by a writer, who colors in the gaps between landmark public events with fully imagined private conversations and invented emotions.


It seems obvious, but historical fiction is, in fact, fiction. “Wolf Hall,” “The Tudors,” “The Great,” “Victoria,” “Anne of a Thousand Days,” “The Lion in Winter” — fake, fake, fake. Certainly some viewers will want to believe “The Crown” represents objective reality, even while knowing it’s ersatz; but then some still believe the 2020 presidential election was stolen. I enjoy watching various takes on enigmatic public figures, and particularly royals past and present, especially when they’re as finely wrought and intelligent as “The Crown.”


On Netflix, streams Wednesday. Starring: Imelda Staunton, Jonathan Pryce, Dominic West, Elizabeth Debicki, Lesley Manville, Olivia Williams, Jonny Lee Miller

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew.gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.