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‘The Crown’ season 5 recap: The beginning of the end

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Although The Crown is a historical drama based on Queen Elizabeth II’s life, season 5 focuses on different branches of her immediate family tree. In ten episodes, viewers are transported back to the 1990s as they witness how the royals navigated the fall of the Soviet Union, multiple scandals, and the inevitable end to a fairytale marriage. 

The Crown

Elizabeth Debicki as Princess Diana and Dominic West as Prince Charles in season 5 of ‘The Crown’

| Credit: Netflix

Episode 1: “Queen Victoria Syndrome”

We begin the season with a flashback of a young Queen Elizabeth christening the royal yacht Britannia, intermingled with a current-day Elizabeth receiving a physical from her doctor. The fact that showrunners chose to have a bunion pad on the Queen’s toe was everything. Royalty: they are just like us!

But the point is not to feature the Queen’s strong heart rate or slight weight gain. The underlying issue is that Elizabeth is getting old. Especially when a poll conducted by the Sunday Times claims she is irrelevant and out of touch. Charles is modern, young, and energetic. More than half of Britain thinks he should be on the throne. 

Do you know who else thinks Charles should be king right now? Camilla Parker-Bowles. But that’s neither here nor there, since she wasn’t invited on the “second honeymoon” with Charles’ wife Diana and their sons. To Diana’s chagrin, Charles also invites a few cousins along on holiday, which means, once again, Charles wants nothing to do with her on an intimate level. Of course, that doesn’t mean they can’t fake it in front of the paparazzi. They put on a remarkable show with big smiles and enthusiastic waves for all the photographers. 

While the Prince and Princess of Wales are partying it up in Italy, the Queen is chugging along on the Britannia with Prince Philip, who delivers some distressing news to his wife. The Britannia is old and worn down. She’s antiquated and stubborn. It’s time to replace the royal yacht. 

This metaphor provides a through line throughout the entire episode. As one might suspect, the Queen has no interest in adopting the notion of “out with the old and in with the new.” And her staff goes above and beyond to keep that Sunday Times article from gracing her presence. 

Diana is devastated to learn that Charles is cutting their holiday short in Italy due to a “scheduling conflict.” We then see him with Prime Minister John Major. Charles teases the “Queen Victoria Syndrome” idea mentioned in the article, which means the public thinks the queen has been on the throne too long. However, John reminds Charles that this was just a poll and it’s dangerous to be guided by them. 

Charles presses harder. He informs John that his great-grandfather Edward VII waited in the wings for sixty years because Queen Victoria had no confidence in him. After all, the man was a free thinker. But when his time came, Edward proved doubters wrong. Charles believes it was a waste that Edward’s voice wasn’t incorporated earlier. Charles then invites John to Scotland to attend a ball to see first-hand if the institution is in “safe hands.” 

Imelda Staunton and Jonathan Pryce on ‘The Crown’

Imelda Staunton and Jonathan Pryce on ‘The Crown’

| Credit: Netflix

Never fear. The crown is in excellent hands. When Elizabeth finally reads the now-infamous article, she walks the corgis, straightens her spine, and considers it a compliment. In her opinion, the poll claims she’s constant, stable, and dutiful. What more could you want in your Queen? 

And to be clear, nothing is going to pasture, including her beloved Britannia. Elizabeth gently but firmly lets the Prime Minister know that the royal yacht is the one thing she has not inherited from generations before. It is a floating expression of Queen Elizabeth herself and the government will be paying for its refurbishment, thankyouverymuch

Cut to the Ghillie Ball, or the “gamekeepers ball” in Scotland. A quiet yet confident Prime Minster takes in the various generations of royalty, noting that the senior members seem dangerously diluted. In contrast, the younger generations are thankless and entitled. What’s worse is that the Prince of Wales fails to appreciate his one great asset (hello, Diana). John can’t help but feel that the country’s stability is about to erupt on his watch.

Spoiler alert: It does. 

The Crown Season 5

Elizabeth Debicki

| Credit: Keith Bernstein/Netflix

Episode 2: “The System”

At age 50, Prince Philip gave up the love of his life. 

Wait. Scratch that from the record. Prince Philip gave up the sporting love of his life. Yes, that sounds much better. 

Bumbling through an interview, Prince Philip manages to bore most people to tears by explaining the wonder of carriage driving. And in the process, we see him adopt an entourage with this newfound hobby.

One unlikely friend is his godson Norton’s wife, Penny Knatchbull (Natascha McElhone). After her daughter Leonora dies of kidney cancer, Philip visits Norton, only to comfort Penny while she’s grieving. He encourages her to find an escape to help with her grief. Eager to impress the Prince, Penny unveils a disheveled carriage in the barn. Philip welcomes her into the fold and offers to teach her how to carriage drive. 

Is this odd? You bet, but sometimes biographical facts are random, and we must go with it. Philip is an adrenaline junkie, and if carriage riding fills his heart with joy, so be it. 

Speaking of joy, Diana has very little in her life. But she is intrigued when her good friend James Colthurst (Oliver Chris) relays a message from journalist Andrew Morton (Andrew Steele). Rumor has it that someone is writing a book about her life, which will be a hatchet job. Morton is interested in telling Diana’s real story. And the best part is that no one has to know she was involved.

James is the middleman. Morton will provide questions to James to hand over to Diana. Diana will speak into a tape recorder and hand the tapes back to James to give to Morton. And boy, does she spill the beans. Diana discusses Camilla and the Queen’s refusal to acknowledge the problem. She speaks of her insecurities and how the crown can take custody of her children as legal heirs. Diana even confesses her eating disorder and previous suicide attempts.

The tapes go on to reveal that Camilla was the subject of many nightmares. Charles was never committed to their marriage. Diana simply couldn’t compete with his one true love. The broken woman put every emotion, frustration, and question into hours of recordings. 

Days later, James is run off the road on his bicycle, Morton’s apartment is trashed, and Diana is convinced someone is listening on her personal phone line. Is it a coincidence that Prince Philip comes calling soon after? I think not.

At first, Philip is cordial, speaking of the importance of privacy and confidentiality. He eases into his argument by reassuring Diana that he has always felt protective of her and even shared her frustrations with Charles at times. But the news of this book has him thinking differently.

She’s been in the royal family for more than a decade now and knows how things work. They are not a family. They are a system. For better or for worse, they are stuck in this system, and they can’t err their grievances like a normal family. The damage can be more extensive than she knows.

Philip encourages Diana to be creative and do whatever she needs to do to be happy. (One can only presume that he had this same conversation with Charles, which is why Camilla isn’t even tucked away in shadowed corners anymore.) The one rule Diana must abide by is to remain loyal to the family and her husband in public. 

Diana questions if this means that she is to be silent. The answer is yes. Do not rock the boat. Take everything to the grave. 

We all know that Diana did rock that boat. Andrew Morton’s book, Diana: Her True Life Story, depicting a deeply unhappy woman behind the fairytale facade, sold millions of copies. And as a result, the royal family spirals into genuine crisis. 

The Crown Season 5

Khalid Abdalla, Salim Dau

| Credit: Keith Bernstein/Netflix

Episode 3: “Mou Mou”

It’s 1946, and “the best salesman in Alexandria” is peddling Coca-Cola in the streets of Egypt. His name is Mohamed Al-Fayed, and his dream is to be just like British royalty, because they are treated like gods.

Fast forward to 1979, when Mohamed (Salim Dau) and his son Dodi (Khalid Abdalla) travel to France to purchase (and rescue) the notorious Hotel Ritz Paris. Claiming he wants to make her great again, Mohamed is discouraged when he and his colleagues are treated with contempt and discrimination, even though they have more money than the asking price. 

With a sudden change of heart, the hotel business people agree to a deal, and we find the Al-Fayeds celebrating in high fashion the following night. Sadly, Mohamed instructs his son to immediately dismiss a Bahamian waiter based on nothing more than the color of his skin. 

Dodi obliges and later laments to his father that it was a mistake. The man, Sydney Johnson (Jude Akuwudike), had been the personal valet of the Duke of Windsor (Edward) for thirty years until his death. Hearing royal terminology, Mohamed changes his mind and requests an audience with Sydney. We learn that Sydney took care of every aspect of the Duke’s life, from when he woke to when he retired for the night.

Mohamed is sold. He hires Sydney as his own personal valet to help him be a British gentleman. Sydney agrees and hands Mohamed a stack of books to read. Then he schools him on the finery of life, including the proper clothes to wear, the importance of polo, and that tea is a ritual to be savored. 

At a polo match, Sydney settles a frustrated Mohamed when he’s not sitting directly by the queen in her box. When Mohamed learns that the man with that privilege owns the department store Harrods, he decides to buy the “heart of British society” for six hundred million pounds. 

Then he tosses some money to Dodi so he can finance a small motion picture called Chariots of Fire. You may have heard of the Oscar-winning film. 

Finally, when the Duchess of Windsor dies (Edward’s American wife, Wallis Simpson), Mohamed purchases the Duke and Duchess’ home to restore it to its glory. He claims money is no object and gifts the villa back to the British royal family, hoping this will land him an audience with the queen.

Knowing that all manner of valuable possessions is in the house, the Queen sends people over to collect paintings, jewelry, furniture, and the Duke’s personal diaries… which may contain correspondence with Nazis. Yikes! Sydney, Dodi, and Mohamed watch as piece after piece of history leaves through the front door without a word of thanks.

Sydney whispers in Mohamed’s ear that whatever he’s feeling, the former Duke thought the same thing once upon a time. Mohamed did a great thing by saving the house and deserved more respect from the Queen. At the very least, she should have sent a thank you note.

A confused Mohamed looks at Sydney and replies that he’s just made the queen very happy. Why should he be upset? Sweet Sydney nods, and it’s clear that these two have a special friendship. It’s even more evident when Mohamed nurses Sydney and stays by his side until he passes away. 

We see Mohamed at Sydney’s grave, mourning the loss of a dear confidant. And then we see him in the Queen’s box at a polo match, right by Her Majesty’s chair, which is the one place he always wanted to be. Sadly, the Queen opts out of sitting next to the man who now owns Harrods and asks her team to sub someone in for her as she chats with her family. 

Who might that lucky royal be? None other than Diana, who charms Mohamed immediately, affectionally calling him by his pet name Mou Mou. When she briefly meets Mou Mou’s son Dodi, there’s a spark that is quickly extinguished. 

This is chilling foreshadowing, considering Dodi and Diana will fall in love, and their lives will be extinguished in just a few years. 

The Crown Season 5

Imelda Staunton and Jonathan Pryce

| Credit: Keith Bernstein/Netflix

Episode 4: “Annus Horribilis”

Any episode that features Princess Margaret, the Queen’s wayward sister, is one to be remembered. While being interviewed on the radio, Margaret shares that music is her first love, and the song “Stardust” has special meaning. 

That particular meaning has a name, and it’s Peter Townsend (Timothy Dalton). Remember, he’s Margaret’s soulmate and the one Elizabeth forbade her from marrying. Now, deacdes after they were forced apart, he’s written Margaret a letter informing her that he will be at a reception in London and would like to see her. 

Elizabeth is hesitant to share her feelings that it’s probably best for Margaret not to attend this reception. Still, she has bigger problems at the moment. Prince Andrew wants to discuss his marriage and how the mother of his children was featured in a trash magazine with another man sucking on her toes. To quote Andrew, “It’s embarrassing, Mummy!”

Andrew wants to talk about the d-word. No, Mummy, the word is not duty. The word is divorce, and he wants one. And he feels terrible about it, too. Fergie was supposed to be the fresh, modern, fun one, and they destroyed her because she was different. Andrew claims no one with character, originality, or spark has a place in the system.

Cut to Margaret meeting Peter Townsend after 35 years apart. But first, let me just say that Margaret’s fuchsia dress with the shoulder pads and bows was everything my ’90s heart loved. 

The old Margaret is back! The one who sings, wears the hats of other men, and smokes like a chimney is turning on the charm. But, after dancing with Peter, her hopes are slightly dashed when he divulges that he doesn’t have long to live, and he’d like to return the letters she wrote him, lest they fall into the wrong hands after his death. 

The next day, the Queen’s daughter Anne visits her mummy. She tells Elizabeth that she will marry Commander Tim Lawrence, even though the ink is barely dry on her divorce from her first husband. When Elizabeth balks, Anne quickly reminds her mother that she has dedicated her life to her role as a royal and she’s been bound by duty before all else. Including happiness. She’s done and will be marrying Tim. The end. 

Next, it’s Prince Charles’ turn to complain about his marriage. Unfortunately, as the future king, he is in his own category. You see, God’s law is marriage for life, and being happily married is a preference. Not a requirement. 

Charles reminds his mother that Diana is hell-bent on blowing up the crown. Oh, and here’s a quick tally: Margaret, Anne, and Andrew are all divorced. Their family is the opposite of proper moral examples. 

Finally, there’s a fire at Windsor Castle. Way to kick a queen while she’s down! We watch as Elizabeth witnesses her home burn around her. 

On a walk with Peter, Margaret gives the rundown of the damage. More than one hundred rooms were destroyed, including the crimson drawing room where they spent an entire day together. That afternoon, Peter made plans for their future. And, like the drawing room, those plans went up in smoke. Peter turns to Margaret and asks if their love was lasting. 

We learn the answer when Margaret bursts into Elizabeth’s drawing room to inquire how the fire started. Even though Elizabeth blames a blown fuse, Margaret wonders out loud if it was foul play. You see, there are multiple suspects who would want to burn the place down. Diana comes to mind after years of neglect. Andrew is furious at his mother. Charles would like a divorce. 

And what about Margaret? Of course! She has every reason to torch her sister’s house. Because she denied Margaret of her one true love. Peter was her sun. Peter was her water.

Elizabeth calmly tells Margaret that the Queen denied it, not her sister. But Margaret is quick to rebuff that the exact same prohibition was not extended to Anne. She gets to marry her average guy without question. The situation is identical in every way. Anne’s story ends happily. Margaret’s does not. Even after 40 years, why can’t Elizabeth admit her part in what happened?

This brings us to “annus horribilis,” or “horrible year.” On the Queen’s 40th anniversary of her succession, she blatantly shares with everyone that “1992 is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure.” She publicly admits the errors of the past and hopes for reconciliation. Then she pays tribute to her family, particularly Margaret, by noting that they have been her sun and water for 40 years. 

The episode ends with Elizabeth and Margaret chatting on the phone before bedtime. First, Elizabeth apologizes for the system being horribly hard on the rest of the family. Then Margaret asks Elizabeth to come over and get a little bit tipsy. Elizabeth refuses, of course, and Margaret says she has to get sloshed on her own with Rum.

When Elizabeth compares her sister to a pirate, Margaret laughs. Rum is her dog. Elizabeth giggles back like a schoolgirl, noting her dogs’ names are Brandy and Sherry. 

The news that Elizabeth and Margaret have both named their dogs after alcoholic beverages might make me happier than the fuchsia dress. 

The Crown Season 5

Olivia Williams as Camilla Parker-Bowles and Dominic West as Prince Charles on ‘The Crown’

| Credit: Netflix

Episode 5: “The Way Ahead”

Everyone is listening. And everyone wants to make a quick buck. With that said, it’s still shocking to learn that a very intimate phone conversation between Charles and Camilla could be intercepted, recorded, and sold to a newspaper for no telling how much money.

It all starts with an innocent call to the Parker-Bowles household, where Andrew Parker-Bowles answers the phone only to hear Charles’ voice on the other side. Awkward. Camilla races to the other room to chat with her lover, and I realize just how jacked up the details are to this romance. 

Charles asks Camilla to listen to a speech, and the scene moves from his manor, across the city, to a van in a neighborhood where a man is dialing into different frequencies on a transmitter. Recognizing a familiar voice, the man hits record just in time for the juicy bits. 

The man runs straight to the newspaper, where he’s paid a handsome sum. But the editors hold onto the tape, fearful that they would be responsible for breaking up a royal marriage if they publish the story. It’s held for safekeeping for another day. 

Skipping ahead three years, we find that the Prince and Princess of Wales have decided to separate. It officially gives everyone great sorrow, but behind closed doors, a task force called the Way Ahead Group is assembled to help save the monarchy. According to Charles, the group’s “modern changes” are a joke. 

Charles takes matters into his own hands and gathers his own little group of followers. When he reaches a bit of momentum, the Daily Mirror publishes the tape from three years prior, and all hell breaks loose. The self-destruct button has been pressed, and something must be done. 

The solution is to air a television special where cameras follow Charles. The public needs to see a future king at work. One who is preparing the monarchy for the upcoming millennium. In the piece, Charles promises that the crown will flourish by adapting and being open to the idea of reform. He also claims that as the future head of an established church, he is not a defender of one faith. On the contrary, he’s in favor of faith in general.

Suddenly the reporter switches gears to Charles’ failed marriage and asks specifically about Camilla and if she was a deciding factor in the collapse. With the newspaper article fresh on everyone’s minds, Charles cannot help but admit that Camilla is a dear friend. He pledged to uphold his wedding vows until it became obvious that the marriage could not be saved. But when nothing could be done, old friendships were rekindled. 

Charles bares his soul to the nation, and the PR stunt works. Younger people seem to be delighted by his response. The other two outcomes from the special are Camilla leaving her husband (finally) and Diana stepping out in public wearing what is infamously known as her black off-the-shoulder “revenge dress.” 

Anne visits her brother and notices his confident behavior. She reminds him that they are not in the business of creating rival courts. Instead, they are to walk behind the sovereign and not criticize. 

Then we see Anne in front of an audience of family members. She warns them that Charles is not as weak as everyone thinks. In fact, he’s setting up his own Camelot with advisors and a progressive agenda. Moreover, he’s showing them what a future King of England looks like, which is a tribute to those who have been overlooked. 

Check back soon for our recap of episodes 6-10 of The Crown season 5, which is now streaming on Netflix.

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