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The Crown season 5 first impression: The stage is set for an ‘all-out war’

At the end of the second episode of The Crown‘s fifth season, the intimidating Prince Philip tells the delicate Princess Diana that he is fond of her. Unable to put his finger on it, he begins speculating. He concludes that the reason why he feels ‘protective’ of Diana isn’t because she’s an intelligent young woman, which she is, but because she has learned unusually fast that the family she has been married into isn’t a family at all. It’s a ‘system’.

That’s a kind way to put it. The royals, as seen in the hit Netflix show, are indistinguishable from a mafia empire. But while even the Corleones were fiercely loyal to their own, the central conflict of this season — the second-to-last of a planned six — appears to be the fracturing of Charles and Diana’s troubled marriage.

Most of the second episode is dedicated to Diana’s preemptive measures to protect herself in the event of an all-out war. This isn’t an exaggeration. That’s what a tabloid journalist describes the situation as in one scene. Diana connects with the journalist and consents to talk about her troubled marriage with him, without ever meeting in person, of course. After spending an entire season in defense mode, utterly disorientated by the ways of the royals, it seems like Diana is finally starting to dictate the terms of her own life.

Elizabeth Debicki takes over from the radiant Emma Corrin, who made a star-making debut as the tragic princess in season four. While it would’ve been great to have her continue in the role, it would’ve admittedly seemed odd for her and Charles to remain the same age, while the rest of the cast became visibly older. It’s too early to tell, but Debicki’s performance has subtle differences to Corrin’s. Her Diana is more composed, no doubt after having spent several years in ‘the system’. But in the scenes where she bares her soul about her mental health — although, obviously, she doesn’t describe it as such — she’s frighteningly vulnerable.

The show’s apparent focus on Diana — and really, who could blame creator Peter Morgan for this — sort of overshadows the presence of the Queen herself. Now played by Imelda Staunton in the show’s final era, the Queen gets a suitably reverential introduction in episode one, after a black-and-white scene that would surely please longtime fans.

Her primary arc, it would seem, once again revolves around battling growing irrelevance. But in addition to age and an evolving society, she is challenged this time around by her own son. Charles makes some rather on-the-nose hints about wanting to take over the monarchy, making himself more irredeemable by the minute. The season premiere is called Queen Victoria Syndrome, a reference to how the legendary monarch refused to allow her son, King Edward VII, to take over, and maintained her grip on the throne for six decades. Charles views his own situation as history repeating itself.

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Of course, the timing is rather unfortunate, considering that the Queen died mere weeks before the show’s return. So, all the talk of her having become ‘obsolete’, ‘a creature of another age’, and ‘so obviously past her best’, feels awkward.

The Queen’s insecurities are symbolised by the increasing disrepair that her prized possession, the yacht Britannia, finds itself in. At various points in the first episode, the boat is described as ‘irrelevant’, ‘old’, and ‘expensive’. In case you aren’t able to make the connection yourself, the Queen eventually declares that the Britannia ‘is a floating, seagoing expression’ of herself. And she wants the taxpaying citizens to pay for its upkeep, something that this season’s new PM, John Major, refuses to sign off on. This lays the groundwork for potential conflict between the Queen and the government, which, as we know, will only intensify once they have to deal with the fallout of Diana’s actions.

There’s a sense that the show is keeping the Queen and Diana’s arcs separate, at least in the opening two episodes, as it puts them on a collision course with each other. Her differences with Charles seem almost passé. He’s more detestable in this season than he was in the previous one; he openly mocks not only his wife, but undermines the authority of his mother.

And that is the strange power of this show. For 10 hours, it makes you forget your personal opinions about these people and their many documented crimes. Instead, it welcomes you to empathise with them on a personal level. The Crown has always prioritised characters above all else, and the new season is a satisfying continuation of a truly epic story, albeit a little heavy handed with its themes. It could go either way from here.

This review is based on the first two episodes of the fifth season

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