The Crown season 6 part 2 review: Juggernaut of a show has squandered its once-golden potential

As the final six episodes arrive on Netflix, bringing a saga spanning half a century to a close, Peter Morgan’s drama is haunted by the ghost of past glories

Katie Rosseinsky
Friday 15 December 2023 06:27 GMT
The Crown season 6 part 2 - trailer

As The Crown moves towards its end, laden not just with the burden of Peter Morgan’s ambitions but the weight of the countless storms it has stirred up in bone china tea cups, we see a Queen haunted. It is not, praise the Netflix gods, Diana’s ghost that’s plaguing her this time (that particular dramatic device has been left behind in Part One), instead, it’s the what-ifs and the paths not taken.

Who would she have become if she had lived as Elizabeth Windsor, rather than reigning as Elizabeth II, Imelda Staunton’s character ponders. If she had spent less time on formalities, more on family? And what if she decided to step down altogether, like Uncle David? Would a grinning Tony Blair (Bertie Carvel) fill the power vacuum, orchestrating his own coronation complete with a choirboy rendition of D:Ream’s “Things Can Only Get Better”? That particular scenario, brought to life in a fever dream-style sequence, is perhaps haunting in a different meaning of the word – the “can’t erase from your mind despite your most strenuous efforts” kind.

But when it comes to The Crown and what-ifs, the biggest one is this: what if this juggernaut of a show hadn’t squandered its once-golden potential? As the final six episodes arrive on Netflix, bringing a saga spanning half a century to a close, Morgan’s drama is haunted by the ghost of past glories. Remember when this all felt exciting – when these on-screen royals seemed painfully, gloriously human? Now they exist less as characters, more as vessels for exposition and knowing nods to present-day royal in-fighting.

It’s the younger generation of Windsors that are served particularly badly. And this is a problem, because following the death of Elizabeth Debicki’s Diana, chronicled in painful detail in the first part of season six, Morgan puts her sons, especially Ed McVey’s Prince William, at the heart of the narrative. As ever, the casting is uncanny: McVey is a dead ringer for the young prince when he’s dressed up in period-accurate stonewashed jeans and rugby shirts. But this clearly talented young actor (who will surely experience a post-Crown career bump like predecessors Josh O’Connor, Emma Corrin and Vanessa Kirby) often gets lumbered with thanklessly chewy dialogue.

Sometimes it feels like he and Harry (Luther Ford) are performing lines written by an AI bot whose only form of reference is the latter’s autobiography, Spare. “There’s no need for a number two in this family, except for entertainment,” he harrumphs at one point. A few fraternal jokes aside (Harry referring to Wills’s choice of university course as “history of fart”, for example, does feel like the sort of incisive wordplay a teenage boy would use), the nuances of their sibling relationship are largely flattened to bitter rivalry. There is little tenderness between them, despite the enormity of the loss they have experienced together; their present-day antipathy has been reflected backwards onto their past, using fun-house mirrors, leaving them trading barbs like very posh Gallagher brothers.

It doesn’t help, either, that so many of the narrative arcs playing out across these final six episodes have been built on scaffolding near-identical to previous storylines. Yes, a dynastic monarchy is by its very nature repetitive, but devoting so much airtime to William’s struggle to adapt to his royal role (and the crowds of screaming girls who seem to materialise wherever he goes) feels like a retread of material done better elsewhere. See also: the Queen struggling to connect with a prime minister who seems desperate to modernise the royal household. Morgan has already devoted a trilogy of films to studying Blair, but wastes no opportunities to take a few additional pops at the grinning face of New Labour, who we see floundering in front of an audience of stony-faced Women’s Institute members (Carvel has nailed that distinctive voice, while Lydia Leonard’s Cherie is enjoyably blunt).

Luckily the arrival of Morgan’s Middletons in episode seven injects a bit of camp humour (some deliberate, some surely accidental) into proceedings. In a strange, slightly mawkish flight of fancy, the writer imagines an early encounter between a teenage William and his future bride, while the former is out raising money in London with his mother at Christmas. It feels a little like a mocked-up image from a Diana-devoted Facebook group has come to life; you half expect to see Paddington Bear looming in the background for good measure. Carole Middleton (a scene-stealing Eve Best) becomes a Mrs Bennet-style meddler, constantly pushing her eldest daughter (Meg Bellamy) into the path of the Prince. “He seems kind, he has a nice face,” the young Kate ponders while sitting on her bed, cutting out photos of William from a stash of royal-themed magazines.

Wills (Ed McVey) moons over Kate (Meg Bellamy) in ‘The Crown’
Wills (Ed McVey) moons over Kate (Meg Bellamy) in ‘The Crown’ (Justin Downing/Netflix)

Wills’s new in-laws also prompt one of Staunton’s best line-readings. When her grandson solemnly informs the Queen that his new girlfriend’s family are from, whisper it, Berkshire, she remains unruffled. “Nothing wrong with that – it’s where we keep most of our horses,” comes her brisk reply. But for the most part, we see a monarch in reflective mode, slightly set apart from the action. One late scene, in which she watches old recordings from royal events past flickering on a projector, reaching out to touch family members either long dead or recently departed, is truly poignant  – albeit inevitably a little diminished by the decision to cut away to Harry’s Nazi fancy dress saga.

Instead, the emotional apex of the series comes in an episode titled “Ritz”. It is not, thankfully, a retread of more of Diana’s final moments, but a flashback to the young Elizabeth and Margaret’s carefree night out at the end of the war, the pair jitterbugging their way across a packed dance floor. Their memories are interspersed with a much sadder spectacle: Princess Margaret’s rapidly declining health. Finally, the always captivating Lesley Manville has more to do than sit in the corner, dishing out the odd put-down; these farewell scenes between Manville and Staunton are among the series’ most heart-wrenching – a powerful reminder of The Crown’s good old days. Sadly, though, it’s too little, too late.

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