Rot, decay, and destruction hang heavily over this season. When we first see Elizabeth she’s undergoing a routine medical checkup that has her feeling old and worn down. As the story unfolds, Philip strives to feel useful again, with Pryce delivering a tender, warm performance — perhaps too warm; the other Philips on the series never struck me as this pleasant. And it’s not just physical failure plaguing the royals — the public seems to have all but given up on the monarchy, calling into question their relevancy, and especially their use of public funds — Elizabeth turns to the new prime minister, John Major (Jonny Lee Miller), to help with finances to repair the royal yacht, much to the PM’s concern. And later, when Windsor Castle goes up in flames, the end-times metaphors begin to grow more than a tad on-the-nose and clumsy.
To make matters worse, the family itself is in shambles — specifically the younger generation, who are all seen as feckless and spoiled, blowing up their marriages in the process. Last season painted the royals in a particularly ghoulish light, particularly in how they treated Diana. The mistreatment of Diana continues into this season, but the characters have been softened a bit. We don’t always agree with them, and sometimes they’re downright foolish. But they’re not as ghastly as they seemed in season 4.
Still, trouble and scandal lurk around every ornate corner, particularly when it comes to Diana. She struggles to get out from under the thumb of the monarchy, so much so that she begins talking to journalists — first Andrew Morton, author of the tell-all book “Diana: Her Story,” and then journalist Martin Bashir (Prasanna Puwanarajah), who interviews Diana for an explosive TV special. Diana also falls in love with a kind befuddled doctor (Humayun Saeed). History tells us that she later entered into a relationship with Dodi Fayed, and while the character appears here (played by Khalid Abdalla), their relationship is something being held back for next season. But the Fayed connection results in one of the season’s best episodes — a flashback that doesn’t focus on Dodi, but rather his wealthy father Mohamed Al-Fayed (Salim Daw) as he attempts to break into British society. It’s a diversion from the main characters that expands the world of the show and introduces us to characters outside the immediate royal orbit.