With its sixth and final season almost upon us, “The Crown” is approaching 1997, and Princess Diana’s fatal accident in Paris. In its previous seasons, the opulent Netflix show covered six decades and numerous scandals, all under the careful eye of Queen Elizabeth II. The first group of final-season episodes will premiere on Thursday, which gives viewers time to look back at some of the show’s earlier chapters.
Certain themes emerge, which are also relevant to the final season: the royal family’s obsession with protocol, its awkwardness with public displays of emotion, its disapproval of inappropriate marriages and how its slipping grip on the press exposes it to exploitation. These are a few past episodes worth revisiting.
Season 1, Episode 10, ‘Gloriana’
If anyone knows how being a royal can ruin a romance, it’s Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby). Season 1 followed her attempt to marry a divorced commoner, Group Capt. Peter Townsend (Ben Miles), and the British press’s subsequent tizzy.
The royals struggle with damage control after attempting — unsuccessfully — to separate the two lovers (an intervention tactic they’ll try again with Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles). In the Season 1 finale, “Gloriana,” Margaret and Elizabeth learn how much opposition there is to such a match within church and state (although not among the more warmhearted public) thanks to the Royal Marriages Act of 1772.
One solution presents itself: If Margaret agrees to renounce all royal trappings — her title, privileges and income — she could become Mrs. Peter Townsend. Margaret agrees to forsake all for love, but in the end, she is blocked by the strictures of the royal establishment, and Elizabeth’s position on royals marrying divorced persons or seeking remarriage is established for years to come. As sovereign and head of the Church of England, she isn’t prepared to pull a Henry VIII just yet.
Season 2, Episode 6, ‘Vergangenheit’
King Edward VIII’s 1936 decision to abdicate the throne for love hangs over all the star-crossed royal romances that follow. In the years after his decision, Edward, or David Windsor (Alex Jennings), and his double divorcée, Wallis Simpson (Lia Williams), spin a web of fairy-tale romance, which gets them lots of party invites and undue influence over impressionable young royals. But their public personas conveniently leave out an important detail: their pro-Nazi sympathies.
A little belatedly, Elizabeth is finally given the secret files that reveal how much the duke and duchess did — not for love, or for England, but for the Führer. In “Vergangenheit,” watch Elizabeth process some rather difficult (and suppressed) truths about her beloved uncle, but then fail to alert the rest of the royal family to this ugly secret.
Season 3, Episode 3, ‘Aberfan’
Over the years, the queen gets a few lessons in public grief, including the death of her royal father or the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, when she was willing to break protocol and ring the bells of Westminster Abbey for a nonroyal.
But Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) is most sorely tested in 1966, when she initially fails to respond to the death of more than 140 people in a coal-mining tragedy in South Wales. When it’s suggested she visit immediately to comfort the bereaved, she sends only a message of sympathy, putting off a personal visit for more than a week.
Was she hesitant to hinder rescue operations? To violate protocol? What does the monarchy rule book actually dictate for accidents? How much agency does the queen really have? Elizabeth’s lagging response to tragedy is a recurring theme in Peter Morgan’s work, and will emerge again in the final season in the wake of Princess Diana’s death.
Season 4, Episodes 2 and 3, ‘The Balmoral Test’ and ‘Fairytale’
Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor) longs to be with Camilla Parker Bowles (Emerald Fennell), but she is inconveniently already married. To secure the future of the monarchy, the prince needs a suitable princess, so he begins to eye Lady Diana Spencer (Emma Corrin).
Diana realizes she’s auditioning for the part of Princess of Wales, but she doesn’t grasp that she’s being drawn into an arranged marriage. After she passes various social hurdles and wins the royal family’s approval, Charles begins to complain that he’s being “strung up and skinned,” but if anyone is being mounted as a trophy, it is Diana. She still requires “princess lessons,” though, the most difficult among them the sad truth that Camilla is already Charles’s wife in all but name.
Season 5, Episode 3, ‘Mou Mou’
As “The Crown” tells it, Mohamed al-Fayed (Salim Daw) set up his eldest son, Dodi (Khalid Abdalla), with Princess Diana (Elizabeth Debicki), so it’s crucial to understand al-Fayed’s obsession with the royal family. To sate his cravings for royal distinction, he hires King Edward VIII’s former valet, and then buys and restores Edward and Wallis’s former home in Paris, which he renames Villa Windsor.
Al-Fayed offers the royal family the contents of the house, and this gets the queen’s attention, since Elizabeth fears revelations about her uncle’s Nazi past. But she doesn’t let his offerings gain him access to her, sending proxies instead. Enter a lonely Princess Di, who becomes Mohamed’s consolation prize.
Season 5, Episodes 5 and 8, ‘The Way Ahead’ and ‘Gunpowder’
Both Prince Charles (Dominic West) and Princess Diana might be accused of giving T.M.I., but they are also victims of the royals’ evolving relationship with an increasingly intrusive media. In “The Way Ahead,” Charles and Camilla (Olivia Williams) must weather “Tampongate,” when one of their phone conversations is intercepted and recorded.
The newspaper in possession of the tape charitably sits on it for three years, only making the contents public after Charles and Diana separate. In the wake of the scandal, the Prince and Princess of Wales decide to take control of their public narratives.
Charles grants a controversial TV interview in which he addresses his aspirations and his adultery. Diana counters with her own TV tell-all, orchestrated by the duplicitous Martin Bashir (Prasanna Puwanarajah). The BBC debates broadcasting this encounter on the queen’s wedding anniversary, but the days of deference to the crown are now long gone. In real life, Prince William and Prince Harry have said that the airing of this program contributed to their mother’s “paranoia and isolation” before her death.
Season 5, Episode 9, ‘Couple 31’
In the wake of Diana’s Panorama interview, the queen (Imelda Staunton) not only approves a royal divorce, but actually requests it. This is a huge shift in attitude, given Elizabeth’s previous dictate that Charles remain married if he wishes to one day be king. But several high-profile royals — Princess Margaret, Princess Anne, Prince Andrew — have already undergone divorces, so why not Charles?
Of course, the next question will be whether Charles should be allowed to remarry — and if so, could he marry a divorced woman? Or have the crown’s discriminatory attitudes about divorce not changed? Overcoming public resistance might be required first, so Camilla confers with a spin doctor, while divorce lawyers and a prime minister endeavor to end the very public “War of the Waleses.”