After a two-year hiatus, the fifth season of The Crown is here, and it already looks set to be the most controversial yet. After the deaths of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Netflix's royal family drama faced increased scrutiny over its fictionalized version of events, with Judi Dench slamming the show's willingness to "blur the lines between historical accuracy and crude sensationalism."
On top of that, reviews for season five have been more mixed than expected coming off the Emmy-winning fourth season, with some critics arguing the latest episodes are more uneven than usual, while still well-produced overall.
Let's take a look at what critics are saying and some of the issues they've identified with the new season, from pacing problems to casting qualms.
A royal step down, or as good as ever?
Season five of The Crown is the show's weakest so far, Daniel D'Addario argues at Variety, writing that a "generally scattered and unfocused show is less disciplined than ever" with a season that slows down but feels like it has "nothing to say." At Decider, Meghan O'Keefe agrees the season is "uneven" and "uninspiring," arguing it doesn't "find the balance between classy and trashy" that earlier seasons did and "veers into Lifetime movie territory." The Telegraph's Anita Singh similarly says the show is "edging towards trashy telenovela" the closer it gets to present day, while The Independent's Nick Hilton criticizes the series for becoming "increasingly tawdry." The new episodes cover about six years worth of events, including Princess Diana's infamous BBC interview and the breakdown of her marriage to Prince Charles, beginning in 1991 and ending in 1997.
The Guardian's Jack Seale dubs season five "often just boring" because "everything [series creator Peter Morgan] has to say about the Windsors has already been said."
But reviews were all over the map, so many other critics perceived no decline in quality from prior seasons at all, with The Washington Post's Ashley Fetters Maloy saying The Crown is still "compulsively watchable" and Paste's Chris Panella writing that the "quite beautiful" season is actually the show's "most interesting" yet.
At TV Guide, Maggie Fremont also calls the series "engrossing as ever," while acknowledging that, as the penultimate season, this one "can feel more like setup for something bigger rather than standing on its own."
Meet the new royals
The Crown once again swaps out its entire cast for season five, with Imelda Staunton taking over for Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth II. So how do the new actors fare?
Critics largely had positive things to say about Staunton, with AwardsWatch's Tyler Doster writing she's a "force of nature" and gives the queen a "grittiness and frustration that is palpable in most scenes." Still, Time's Judy Berman says her performance is "impassive to the point of opacity" and that the "character doesn't feel entirely present," partially because the show spends less time focused on her.
For most critics, though, the highlight was by far Elizabeth Debicki, who steps in for Emma Corrin as Princess Diana and "steals the show," The Wrap's Kayleigh Donaldson says. She's "uncannily good — almost distractingly so," concurs People's Tom Gliatto, and some critics deemed her even better than Corrin. It's safe to say an Emmy nomination for Debicki is in the cards.
Lesley Manville and Jonathan Pryce also mostly earned praise for their performances as Princess Margaret and Prince Philip, respectively, though Slashfilm's Chris Evangelista thinks Pryce is maybe a bit "too warm" and "pleasant" in a way that doesn't fully comport with prior portrayals.
On the other hand, some critics argued Dominic West was miscast as Prince Charles, taking over the role from Josh O'Connor. At Vanity Fair, Richard Lawson criticizes the "silly" decision to cast a "dashing rake" as Charles, which "robs the show of one of the foundational dichotomies of Charles and Diana's marriage" by making him "something of a stud." Indeed, his version of Charles is "in possession of more charm than might be believable," Collider's Carly Lane argues.
Slant's Amanda Feinman also raises issues with Charles' characterization this season, noting the show wavers between portraying him as "utterly villainous" and showing him "connecting with inner-city kids via his charity" in scenes that "are so generous as to feel disconnected from the rest of the narrative" and even "bizarrely tone deaf."
Detours and digressions
While noting the show is "still executed at a very high level," Rolling Stone's Alan Sepinwall argues a wide focus on many characters and plot lines this season makes it "difficult for any one story to maintain the necessary momentum," and because viewers already know Princess Diana and Prince Charles' divorce well, it's hard for the show to "find new angles on" it.
At IndieWire, Ben Travers also writes that the season feels "woefully deficient in its focus" as the story gets "needlessly stretched out." And Entertainment Weekly's Kristen Baldwin, while still giving the season a solid B grade, notes it suffers from "choppier-than-usual pacing" and "struggles to cohere" because its "scope proves too broad to contain," and the "regular detours prohibit any one storyline from gaining momentum."
CNN's Brian Lowry adds that season five is "disjointed" and its "digressions seem more pronounced — and in some instances, questionable" than usual, though he concludes that while the show may not be as great as it once was, it's still "pretty good."
Fact or fiction?
Much of the debate surrounding The Crown's new season has centered around its historical accuracy, with former British Prime Minister John Major slamming its "nonsense" suggestion that Charles sought to oust the queen. But ABC's Peter Travers dismisses this controversy, arguing it's always been clear the show takes liberties to imagine events that may have occurred behind closed doors. "Did we really think that series creator Peter Morgan was bugging palace boardrooms and bedrooms?" Travers asks, and the Chicago Sun-Times' Richard Roeper says the show still "carries the essence of feeling true."
On the other hand, Deadline's Dominic Patten argues there are some scenes in the new season that strain credulity, arguing the show "degenerates any remaining suspension of disbelief," while The Telegraph's Anita Singh says season five features dialogue "so absurd that only a complete idiot would think it were true." And BBC's Hugh Montgomery feels the bigger problem is that "where reality might be too nuanced, the show goes for shortcuts," an example of how its storytelling can be "excruciatingly lazy."
After concern that the show might feel disrespectful just two months after the queen's death, though, critics mostly felt that this shouldn't be a problem. After all, The Hollywood Reporter's Angie Han notes the series continues to approach its subjects with "disarming compassion," which The Playlist's Emma Fraser says means season five never feels like a "hatchet job" — and it's also "starkly supportive" of Charles himself, Consequence's Liz Shannon Miller points out.
The Crown's sixth season is expected to pick up in 1997 to depict the death of Princess Diana, though her fatal car crash won't be shown on screen. It's not clear what year the show will go up to, but this will be the final season.