Look, when creator and executive producer Peter Morgan wrote “Queen Victoria Syndrome,” the first episode of season five of The Crown, he had no idea that by the time it came out on Netflix, Queen Elizabeth II would have died and her son, now King Charles III, would be wearing the crown. But the dramatic irony of the fictional Charles (Dominic West) trying to get rid of his mother from the throne in 1991, more than 30 years before she died, is quite something, even if it wasn’t planned. Hello, and welcome to a new season of The Crown!
Like the season three premiere before it, “Queen Victoria Syndrome” has the tricky job of introducing us to a whole new cast playing the same old roles, which makes it feel like another pilot episode. But first, we’re watching a black-and-white clip of Claire Foy’s Elizabeth launching the new royal yacht Britannia in 1953. In her speech, young Elizabeth compares herself to the ship, saying that she hopes both she and the yacht will be “reliable and steady, able to weather any storm.” Even Princess Diana, who was a storm in the 1990s? We’ll find out soon.
The Crown is not about being sneaky. Each episode ties together the historical and personal events of the time under a single theme. Elizabeth = Britannia is the theme of this episode, and if you didn’t catch it when Claire Foy said it, the script will say it a dozen more times before the hour is up.
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Before we see Imelda Staunton as Queen Elizabeth in 1991 as a whole, we see her eyes being checked, a tongue depressor in her mouth, and a stethoscope on her shoulder, among other things. At the end of this check-up, her doctor tells her that the less time she spends on her feet, the better. She tells him that this is a risk to her job. The royal family spends the summers at Balmoral Castle in Scotland, and the doctor asks her if it’s her favorite home. She scolds him, almost crying, for asking about her personal life, but she adds that it’s her second favorite, after another that’s close to her heart (the yacht, obviously).
As Elizabeth and Philip (Jonathan Pryce) get on the Britannia, we cut to the other important royal couple, who are about to get on their own ship. In a recent poll, people said they thought the queen was old, expensive, and out of touch, while they thought Charles was young, modern, and caring. This made Charles very happy. What are their names? I would like a word. But the most important thing is that he’s about to go on a family trip to Italy, and his lackey tells him that the press has been told it’s a second honeymoon. People like the idea of Charles being king most because Diana would be queen.
Spoke with Imelda Staunton, Jonathan Pryce and Lesley Manville about showing the human side to their characters in Season 5 of @TheCrownNetflix: "They are exactly the same as us." @TODAYshow https://t.co/gfutfXVEbJ
— Liz Calvario (@lizcalvario) November 7, 2022
Cut to Diana, whose own people tell her about the act. It’s the first time we’ve seen Elizabeth Debicki in the role, and it made me gasp. She is looking up and laughing behind her hand at the idea of going on a “second honeymoon” with Charles. Emma Corrin did a good job with a lot of Diana’s habits last season, but Debicki is just Diana.
At first, the family vacation with Charles’s friends seems very different from where we left this miserable couple last season. Diana tells Charles, who has a young Harry on his lap, that she’s glad they’re doing this. 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 doesn’t work out for long. Charles has planned a schedule full of historical sites like ruins and museums, while Diana wants to go to the beach and go shopping. “Is anyone else interested in shopping as a hobby?” he sneers at a table of guests on the ship who is awkwardly quiet. “What a jerk,” I wrote in my notes.
But things really come to a head when Charles decides to cut short his vacation because he has gotten an article about the poll results published in The Sunday Times. The article says Elizabeth should step down so Charles can take the throne. The article says that she has “Queen Victoria syndrome,” which is a reference to the fact that Queen Victoria wouldn’t give the crown to her son, Edward VII, who was the heir to the throne for almost 60 years. Charles is so excited that he wants to go back to London to talk to the prime minister. Diana is very angry, but Charles doesn’t care.
He sits down with Prime Minister John Major (Jonny Lee Miller) and does some pretty aggressive schmoozing before getting to the point of the article. “It’s just a poll,” Major says in a funny way. Charles, who is a little deflated but not put off, tells him to judge Elizabeth when they meet at Balmoral.
Back on the Britannia, Philip sees that the boat has some mechanical problems and realizes that it needs to be fixed. Philip says that the 40-year-old yacht is getting close to the end of its useful life, so they talk about how it needs to be fixed up. “She’s out of date in a lot of ways,” he says. “From a heartfelt point of view, we’d all like to stay with her.”
A dispatch from the @washingtonpost's all-star London correspondents on the latest season of The Crown and its impact on the UK. "It matters for the future of the monarchy, and its ability to project soft power in the world, if Charles is viewed as a jerk."https://t.co/saLn1bec4P
— Annabelle Timsit (@BelleTimsit) November 9, 2022
“I hope so!” says Elizabeth, who understands the symbolism as well as the rest of us.
When the article in The Sunday Times comes out, her staff and even Philip go to great lengths to keep it from her. They don’t want her to feel bad about it, so they try to hide it from her until she asks to see it. She is hurt, but she tells the prime minister, who is in town for the Ghillies Ball, that she thinks it’s a compliment to be compared to Queen Victoria. Then she goes back to her business and asks the government for money to fix Britannia. Major pushes back, saying that the country is in the middle of the worst economic downturn since the war and that spending public money to fix up a luxury yacht would hurt them both.
When it is said that the yacht is a luxury, Elizabeth’s face goes cold. She says that Britannia, which was built during her time as queen and not by her predecessors, is “a floating, seagoing expression of me.” She doesn’t ask for something, she demands it, and Major gives in.
The episode ends at the ball, where Charles teases Major about how much his mother loves the yacht. He says, “Sometimes it’s just too expensive to keep fixing these old things.” I’ll let you think about that.” Then, in the only really stupid bit of writing in the episode, Diana tells the prime minister that she and Charles, Andrew and Sarah, and Anne and Mark are all going to get divorced within a year. This is a crazy thing to happen. Why would Diana tell the prime minister about how her marriage is going? He could have overheard Margaret (Lesley Manville) talking about it, couldn’t he? It does, however, set up the speech he gives to his wife at the end of the episode. When he became prime minister, he had no idea that one of the hardest things he might have to deal with would be this crazy family, which should be “holding the country together” and showing what a “ideal family life” looks like.
He stops for effect.
“It seems like everything is about to blow up…on my watch.”
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