The Crown 5×09 “Couple 31” is a penultimate episode that feels so much calmer after the chaos that’s come before. It’s a screeching halt, and an opportunity to really take in the aftermath, and take stock of where the Windsors are as characters. This episode is a welcome relief. Elizabeth Debicki is at the height of her powers. Her performance is subtle, genuine, and enthralling to watch. In many ways, this episode represents so much of what the rest of this season should have been all along.
This episode is the final nail in the coffin of Diana and Charles’ (Dominic West) relationship. In the end, it doesn’t come with fire or flashing bulbs. Instead, it comes quietly. After everything, the secret biography, the sketchy interview, the end of this relationship is almost anti-climactic. This is such a stark contrast to the tone of the rest of the series, which has mostly moved at a break-neck pace and has moved rapidly through the disarray of the Windsors in the 1990s. In the end, Diana comes across as just incredibly hurt, rather than some media-savvy celebrity who could get the press to do her bidding.
What The Crown 5×09 “Couple 31” does so effectively is contrast the experience of such a high-profile couple with the experiences of ordinary Britons. The quiet moments in the courtroom are nothing less than devastating. Even when divorce is clearly the healthiest option, it’s always sad when love is lost regardless of the circumstances. Each of these couples we meet seeking a divorce evidently have rich stories that will always be lost when compared to the intense scrutiny of the royals. Their stories are no less worthy of attention, however. This contrast, between normal people and the Windsors, should have been the focus of the entire season.
This episode is also a really interesting meditation on divorce itself. Elizabeth II (Imelda Staunton) is so overcome with emotion at the thought of yet another child being divorced. She’s clearly worn down by dealing with all the drama that this misalliance has been embroiled in from the beginning. This is further development of this character’s stunning lack of self-awareness, of how real relationships work and play out. Hers are old values, that would rather see toxic marriages continue in the name of maintaining the status quo. This is again held in marked contrast to the ordinary citizens who don’t have the benefit of such an Elizabethan shield to protect them from the outside world. While the episode doesn’t go nearly far enough to interrogate these views.
On this note, this is a turning point for Diana and Charles as characters. By all accounts, their story here is reflected in real history. Apparently, following their divorce, the real Diana and Charles were able to find some semblance of civility, and continue parenting their children together. Watching the post-mortem of their relationship is a fascinating exercise in projecting one’s own opinion onto one of the most followed divorces in modern history. To be frank, neither of these two come away looking particularly golden. They both come across as incredibly and imperfectly human.
The Crown 5×09 “Couple 31” features the return of John Major (Jonny Lee Miller), in all his silver-foxed glory. If Dominic West has always been too pretty to play a certain horse-faced monarch, Miller is far too charismatic to play a man who was possibly one of the most boring politicians in recent memory. Miller manages to make “negotiations” between two at times insufferable people incredibly fun to watch. His role in this episode is also a great way to illustrate the questionable system that compels an elected political leader to engage in the personal affairs of a family with far too much power.
The penultimate episode of The Crown gives viewers so much to reflect on. It’s a shame that this reflection isn’t spread out over more entries. It’s also a shame that there isn’t more focus on the normal, everyday citizens, who have to present their stories of lost love to a court. This focus would have made the episode stronger and would have furthered the point that this family is like all others, and deserves no such elevation above anyone else.
The Crown Season 5 is available to stream on Netflix.