[Editor’s note: The A.V. Club will publish new episode recaps of The Crown’s fifth season every weekday through November 22. Going forward, these recaps will drop at 1 a.m. Eastern.]
Well, this is awkward.
Look, when creator and executive producer Peter Morgan was writing the premiere of sseason five of The Crown, “Queen Victoria Syndrome,” of course he had no idea that by the time it dropped on Netflix, Queen Elizabeth II would have died and the titular crown would be on the head of her son, now King Charles III. But even unintentionally, the dramatic irony of watching fictional Charles (Dominic West) try to oust his mother from the throne in 1991, over 30 years before she would die, is quite something. Welcome to another season of The Crown!
Like the season-three premiere before it, “Queen Victoria Syndrome” faces the tricky task of introducing us to an entirely new cast playing the same old roles, which essentially feels like another pilot episode. But first, we’re watching a black-and-white reel of Claire Foy’s Elizabeth, launching the new royal yacht, Britannia, in 1953. In her speech, the young Elizabeth compares herself to the vessel, saying she hopes that she and the yacht will both be “dependent and constant, capable of weathering any storm.” Even the storm that was Princess Diana in the 1990s? We’re about to find out.
Subtlety is not The Crown’s thing. Each episode pulls all of the events of the moment, both historical and personal, under the umbrella of a rigid theme. The theme of this episode is Elizabeth = Britannia, and if you missed that while Claire Foy was telling you so, the script will hit you over the head with it a dozen more times before the hour is over.
We see many parts of Imelda Staunton as 1991 Queen Elizabeth before we see the whole: her eyes being examined, a tongue depressor in her mouth, a stethoscope on her shoulder. Her doctor tells her at the end of this check-up that the less time she spends on her feet, the better, and she reminds him it’s an occupational hazard. She’s about to set sail for Balmoral, the Scottish Castle where the royal family summers, and the doctor asks if it’s her favorite home. She reprimands him, almost tearily, for the personal question, but adds that it’s her second favorite, after another close to her heart (the yacht, obviously).
As Elizabeth boards Britannia with Philip (Jonathan Pryce), we cut over to the other important royal couple, about to hop on a ship of their own. Charles is delighted to hear the results of a recent poll, in which people reported thinking of the queen as old, expensive, and out of touch, and Charles as young, modern, and empathetic. Who are these people? I would like a word. But the pressing business is that he’s about to set off for Italy on a family vacation, and his lackey informs him they’ve told the press it’s a second honeymoon. Because what people like most about the idea of Charles as king is Diana as queen.
Cut to Diana, being informed by her own people of the charade. It’s our first glimpse of Elizabeth Debicki in the role, and it took my breath away. She’s looking up with those eyes, smirking behind her hand at the idea of going on a “second honeymoon” with Charles. Emma Corrin nailed a lot of the mannerisms last season, but Debicki simply is Diana.
At first, the family holiday (plus the friends Charles insists on bringing) feels far off from where we left this wretched couple last season. Diana tells Charles with a young Harry on his lap that she’s happy they’re doing this, and they agree to “give them some of the old magic” as they wave goodbye to the press from the ship, Charles kissing Diana on the cheek. But this breaks down rather quickly: Charles has planned an itinerary of visiting ruins and other historical outings, and dresses down Diana for requesting excursions like beaches and shopping. “Is anyone else interested in retail as recreation?” he sneers to an awkwardly silent table of guests aboard the ship. (In my notes: “What an ass.”)
But things really come to a head when Charles decides to cut the vacation short because he’s managed to get an article in The Sunday Times about the results of the poll, arguing Elizabeth should abdicate so he can ascend the throne. The article accuses her of having “Queen Victoria syndrome,” a reference to Queen Victoria’s own refusal to pass the crown on to her son, Edward VII, who was heir to the throne for almost 60 years. Buzzing with excitement, Charles wants to get back to London to arrange a meeting with the prime minister. Diana is furious, but Charles is unmovable.
He sits down with Prime Minister John Major (Jonny Lee Miller) and does some pretty aggressive sucking up before moving on to the topic of the article. “It’s just a poll,” says Major hilariously. A little deflated but not deterred, Charles encourages him to assess Elizabeth at their upcoming meeting at Balmoral.
Back on the Britannia, Philip notices some mechanical issues with the boat and realizes it needs some repairs. They discuss the need for a refit, with Philip pointing out that the 40-year-old yacht is coming to the end of her lifespan. “In many ways, she’s obsolete,” he says. “Sentimentally, we’d all like to stick with her.”
“I should hope so!” replies Elizabeth, as aware of the symbolism as the rest of us.
When The Sunday Times room comes out, her staff and even Philip go to great lengths to hide the article from her, wanting to spare her feelings, before Elizabeth demands to see it. She is hurt but assures the prime minister, now in town for the Ghillies Ball, that she sees any comparison to Queen Victoria as a compliment. Then she turns to her business and asks for money to repair Britannia, which the government maintains. Major pushes back–the country is in the midst of the most difficult economic recession since the war–and says public spending on the refurbishment of a luxury yacht would backfire on them both.
Elizabeth goes cold at the suggestion that the yacht is a luxury. She calls Britannia, not inherited from her predecessors but commissioned during the queen’s reign, “a floating, seagoing expression of me.” She is not asking, she is demanding, and Major backs down.
The episode wraps at the ball, where Charles goads Major about his mother’s attachment to the yacht: “Sometimes these old things are too costly to keep repairing. I’ll leave you with that thought.” Then, in the episode’s only bit of truly silly writing, Diana tells the prime minister that she and Charles, Andrew and Sarah, and Anne and Mark are all headed for divorce within the year. This is an absurd development. Why would Diana be sharing the state of her marriage with the prime minister? Couldn’t he have just overheard Margaret (Lesley Manville) gossiping about it? But it sets up the speech he makes to his wife to close out the episode. When he took the role of prime minister, he never imagined his potential challenges would be wrangling this messed up family, who should ultimately be “binding the nation together” and setting an example of “ideal family life.”
He pauses dramatically.
“It feels it’s all about to erupt…on my watch.”
Right you are, sir. Iyou’re going to be an eventful season.
- Balmoral was widely considered the queen’s favorite home. It’s where she was when she died.
- The montage of Imelda Staunton cutting ribbons and giving speeches in her final round of royal duties before Elizabeth kicks up her feet for the summer, I’m sorry to say, is distractingly reminiscent of Staunton in her role as Dolores Umbridge. Adjusting from Claire Foy to Olivia Coleman was tough, too, so I want to give myself time to adapt to our new queen.
- A lot has been said about Dominic West as Charles (casting as generous as it comes). Josh Charles imbued the young prince with a maddening petulance and deep loneliness so that you could hate him and feel sorry for him all at once. Though I see West doing that deliberate deep frowning with his mouth, I’m skeptical he’ll be able to inhabit Charles to the same effect.
- Tiny Prince Harry says he wants to go shopping too, and Elizabeth thanks him for sticking up for her. His reward? Super Mario before bed! Bring on the ’90s nostalgia.
- Princess Anne (Claudia Harrison) makes an appearance in this episode to pal around with her mother and ask about a new staff member, waving off Elizabeth’s protests that she’s married. Because the theme of this episode is nautical, she’s obsessed with lighthouses (affairs), “those beacons of light in an otherwise black and lonely night.”