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'The Crown' review: Season 4, focusing on Charles and Diana, is the best season yet

Emma Corrin as Diana, Princess of Wales in

Emma Corrin as Diana, Princess of Wales in season 4 of "The Crown." Credit: Netflix / Des Willie

SERIES "The Crown"

WHEN|WHERE Starts streaming Sunday on Netflix.

WHAT IT'S ABOUT The fourth season opens in 1977, when Prince Charles (Josh O'Connor) first meets Diana Spencer (Emma Corrin), just as "The Troubles" in Northern Ireland are escalating. Fast forward to 1979, when Lord Mountbatten (Charles Dance) — uncle to Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies), now effectively surrogate father to Charles — tells his great-nephew he must end his scandalous affair with the married Camilla Parker-Bowles (Emerald Fennell) and find "some sweet, well-tempered girl" instead.

Meanwhile, Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) is pleased to welcome England's first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson).

MY SAY Charles has his first glimpse of Diana from across a vast room, empty save for a few giant potted plants, at the Spencer's family estate in Northamptonshire. There's a hushed, shimmering quality to the moment — not quite real, not quite magic either, but as viewer you're primed for either possibility. Waiflike and scarcely 16, the future Princess of Wales is dressed in a costume — green tights, a mask rimmed with foliage — and explains that she's heading off to a school production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

Before disappearing back into the castle, she parts with this: "I hope I didn't scare you off by being a mad tree."

Funny line but completely made up, the scene too, because as Lady Diana would later recall, "we sort of met in a plowed field …"

Nevertheless, Shakespeare must always find a way into "The Crown," if not always this early (in the first episode) or conspicuously. As a quick reminder, "Midsummer" is about the fairy sprite, Puck, who sprinkles a love potion on the eyelids of four mortals asleep in the forest, so that when they awake they'll fall in love with the first thing they see, including a donkey.

That donkey would be Bottom, the character Puck has turned into an "ass," to use the play's own pun.

As 4th season setup, Charles is obviously meant to be Bottom, the ass (and how) while Diana is Puck. But each is also one of those sleeping mortals who fall in love with the wrong person, or in this star-crossed story, Diana with Charles, Charles with Camilla.

Like "Midsummer," the 4th is all about love but the wrong kind of love or the absence of love, or love denied, thwarted, twisted and finally corrupted. "What is 'love' anyway?'" Charles asks more than once. Foolish Bottom must've wondered the same thing.

Screenwriter and showrunner Peter Morgan has adapted "A Midsummer Night's Dream" to his own ends here, inverting the dream into a nightmare from which Diana will never awaken, the brutal scenes of her bulimia are a sharp reminder of that. It's a tragedy of interlocking pieces, each of which anticipate a "grotesque misalliance" — Charles' ice-cold epitaph for his own doomed marriage — and which mirror the British Empire's growing identity crisis. Not just prince against princess, this is mother against son, then Queen against Prime Minister.

And, pointedly, Queen against future Queen. In a late episode, Diana — desperate for approval but mostly for love — impulsively hugs the Queen whose arms drop helplessly to her side, while her hands slap the air like a duck paddling the water.

Elizabeth clearly has no idea what to do because no one's ever hugged her before, nor has she hugged anyone, her eldest son included. The 4th does toy with the idea (now nearly conventional wisdom) that Charles' devotion to Camilla is Oedipal, but mostly it's just another of those interlocking pieces, another gross misalliance, another inversion with tragic consequences.

Charles and Diana are misfits almost from the beginning. On their first date, he takes her to see "La Traviata" — more foreshadowing, this opera is about Violetta who also dies tragically in Paris — after which she says "I adore Verdi. He's so romantic."

Charles fussily corrects her with, "his music played such a key role in the Italian unification."

Years and episodes later, Diana dances to Billy Joel's "Uptown Girl" as a surprise gift at his birthday gala — a real moment which attracted considerable tabloid attention at the time in 1985. The crowd roars its approval while his face turns to granite — such a vulgar display! He's not even aware that the song's really about the two of them.

Yes, there are two big stories this season, but the one about Thatcher — Anderson, like Corrin, is brilliant, by the way — doesn't stand a chance opposite the other. Charles and Diana: Tragic characters straight out of Shakespeare, one whose blood runs cold, the other whose "passions are made of nothing but the finest part of pure love," to steal a line from another play.

Had she lived to see this, Diana might agree with the assessment. You probably will.

BOTTOM LINE Best season yet.

If you're just catching up, here's a quick at what happened in "The Crown's" first three seasons:

Season 1: It's 1947, and the dashing Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark (Matt Smith) has renounced his titles so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth (Claire Foy), daughter to the ailing King George VI (Jared Harris), heir presumptive to the crown. After his death in 1952, Elizabeth is crowned a year later then gets to better know her world-famous prime minister Winston Churchill (John Lithgow) who himself suddenly falls ill. Her brief honeymoon as monarch thus over, she realizes she's at the outset of a steep learning curve. Philip, who is often away, is of little help. Meanwhile, she soon has a new prime minister after Churchill resigns, Anthony Eden (Jeremy Northam), and a new crisis: the Suez Canal.

Season 2: By 1957, Elizabeth and Philip's marriage is in trouble, while Elizabeth has a growing crisis on her hands — Suez — and a prime minister under fire for failing to contain it. Throughout all this, the royal couple are on a world tour aboard the HMY Britannia, where Philip chaffs about his diminished role. To appease him, he's anointed Prince and Duke of Edinburgh but there are rumors of his infidelity. Meanwhile, Elizabeth's sister, Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby) has status issues and romantic entanglements as well — including with a photographer she meets, dashing Anthony Armstrong-Jones (Matthew Goode). Back in England, the Queen invites President John F. Kennedy (Michael C. Hall) and first lady Jackie Kennedy (Jodi Balfour) to Buckingham Palace. She likes Jackie, but is later wounded by comments Jackie has made … about her ankles.

Season 3: A new prime minister arrives at 10 Downing Street, Harold Wilson (Jason Watkins), who is rumored to have once worked with the KGB — but the mole turns out to be the Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures, Sir Anthony Blunt (Samuel West). Princess Margaret (now played by Helena Bonham Carter) and Snowden (now played by Ben Daniels) head to the United States at the behest of the Queen (now played by Olivia Colman). Their job: To charm the fractious president, LBJ (Clancy Brown), to help with the financial bailout back home. The trip's a triumph, but tragedy strikes in Wales when a rain-soaked mountainside of coal slides down on a village, killing dozens of children. Elizabeth has to face up to her own failings — an inability to express emotion, even during a crisis of this magnitude. Later, she learns Prince Charles (Josh O'Connor) is having an affair with a married woman, Camilla Parker-Bowles (Emerald Fennell). — VERNE GAY

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