The Prince of Wales is the obvious pick. But is the cause of all the devastation actually something much deeper? [Spoilers]
Season four of The Crown finally treats fans to the first chapter in the most combustible love triangle in British history between Prince Charles, Princess Diana and Camilla Parker Bowles. It is a fascinating, gut-wrenching and—yes—especially tragic true life inspired story filled with extramarital affairs, dramatic standoffs and unrequited love. By the end of it, a few too many instances of Charles chastising his rising star of a wife before retreating to his mistress might have left you with a strong aversion to the Prince of Wales. Indeed, in a strange instance of life imitating art, the official Clarence House twitter page disabled viewer comments following an upsurge in internet troll attacks. More recently, the UK culture secretary even urged Netflix to add a “health warning” to The Crown to define it as a work of “fiction,” undoubtedly worried that emotions stirred from the program could translate into harm against the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall. After decades of damage control, a streaming television series seems to have both opened up old wounds and, for the younger generation, shed some light on a tumultuous period in Royal history.
But for the purposes of this article, let’s put aside all the factual liberties taken by the series and examine it strictly as a form of entertainment. While scathing at times, The Crown’s account is still kinder to Charles than the most damning reports of him and does a great job of pointing the real finger of blame elsewhere… But where?
Don’t get me wrong. There is plenty to pick apart in Charles’ character. To say he is entitled would be an understatement. This is a man with endless resources behind him, who divides his time between landscaping his mansion getaway, polo matches and sumptuous dinners—and all while married to an arguably brilliant, attractive, charming young woman with a gift for connecting with ordinary people. At the same time, he is a product of his regal occupancy and finds himself, like the rest of the Royal family, often wretched and miserable in spite of these privileges. It was always going to be an uphill battle to make him a relatable, sympathetic character. Instead, what The Crown does is allow him to be a terrible husband to a bullied and bulimic wife, but with an obvious out: divorcing Diana.
But shirking his Royal commitments, particularly in the marital department, is not going to be that easy for the future King. A time-tested piece of screenwriting advice is to put your characters under pressure wherever possible and the sympathy will follow. Another way of putting it is, push your characters towards their abyss—that deep, hopeless chasm leading to their darkest fears. For Charles, it is the notion that he will never know a normal, accepted life with Camilla, his true and first love (for better or worse). To his credit, he sounded the alarm as early as last season, as well as countless times since, only to meet with stern rebukes from the Queen. Duty to the Crown often means more than just conformity to a set of intractable rules. It means sacrificing the thing you want most in the world.
No, the spectre that haunts the Royal family is not any one person. It is the institution itself, the ultimate master of Her Majesty, the cumulative input of generations of stuffy, myopic men towards an almost clannish code of conduct, that rendered Charles, Diana and all the figures in their orbit unable to make their own decisions. Look at Princess Anne, for instance, forced to separate from her own extramarital lover. And then there’s Princess Margaret, who even decades after enduring the Crown’s meddling into her would-be marriage to a divorced man (such low-hanging fruit by today’s standards) has devolved into something even worse than just a chain-smoker/binge-drinker, but a woman without a purpose.
While Charles earns himself the lion’s share of blame in his failed marriage, those appalled by Diana’s treatment should likewise yearn to take possession of the physical crown itself and melt it down, in the same way Daenerys’ dragon turns its scalding fire breath on its true mother’s murderer, the throne of Westeros, in the finale of Game of Thrones. This is a family “driven and derided by vanity,” to borrow a James Joyce quote—a pretentious compliance to the monarch’s prestige and standing—and a sort of mindless inertia, of which only a deeply distressed few have become truly aware. Charles isn’t necessarily wrong in his contempt for his marriage; he’s just going about it the wrong way.
His behavior is destructive and abusive because he is unsure of (or perhaps incapable of) facing the real villain: the Crown itself. Defeating this foe means facing consequences going as far back as the abdication of King Edward VIII in 1936, the effects of which still color the pin-needle-thin philosophy on Royal exceptions to rules. Roused by his late Uncle Dickie’s parting warning about repeating this fatal family misstep, the possibility of forfeiting his birthright, Charles is faced with a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. And so he despairs, and in his anguish he takes his wife and children down with him deeper and deeper into that abyss, until hitting rock bottom (likely next season) with the horrific death of Princess Diana. In the end, Season Four of The Crown is an unfolding tragedy that poses a question for its audience to ponder for the next year or more: how do you win at a game in which your adversary is the game itself?
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