‘The Crown’ Season 5 Can’t Escape Its Miscasting Woes

“The Crown” Season 5 finally made its debut on Netflix Wednesday after a two-year-long wait for the most eager fans and critics of the royal family. The 10-episode season stars Dominic West as Prince Charles and Elizabeth Debicki as Princess Diana in the ’90s as they battle each other, the media and the monarchy itself. Imelda Staunton makes her debut as the queen, along with Jonathan Pryce as Prince Philip.

Audiences relive many of the big media moments between the Prince and Princess of Wales, including Diana’s big BBC interview, Charles’ “Tampongate” moment with Camilla Parker-Bowles and many others. But perhaps all the drama was eclipsed by one glaring error: Who in the world is supposed to believe that West is Prince Charles?

When West’s (known for HBO’s “The Wire” and Showtime’s “The Affair”) casting was first announced, many people raised eyebrows about it, especially after Josh O’Connor’s stellar portrayal as the prince in previous seasons. One thing about “The Crown” is that although it is a fictional portrayal of historical moments, we, the people, need a bit of accuracy when it comes to speech patterns, mannerisms and attitudes of the royal family. It’s no wonder so much of our conversation focused on the show’s casting missteps here.

For this conversation, Senior Reporter Marina Fang and Editor Erin E. Evans enlisted Senior Reporter and resident royals expert Carly Ledbetter to chat about what went wrong, what went right, and all the criticism worth mentioning about the new season — and well, at least West had perfected King Charles’ dance moves.

Alright, obviously, we’re pretty obsessed with the royal family because we binge-watched this in like 48 hours. It’s been a long time since Season 4 of “The Crown,” where we first met Princess Diana (then portrayed by Emma Corrin). I’m curious about each of your overall impressions of Season 5. Carly, Marina, was it worth the wait?

Marina Fang: I had the luxury of watching screeners, so I did not watch the episodes nearly as fast as you two did, lol. But l still flew through them and could not wait to keep hitting “next episode” because, as we knew going into this, the era covered in Season 5 is so endlessly fascinating. So I kept wanting more, even though (or maybe because?) many of these events are pretty publicly known. Look, there’s something intriguing about the royals, and this show understands, for better or for worse, many of us find them fascinating, regardless of how we feel about them as people or as an institution. However, as someone who absolutely loved Season 4, I found that this season was definitely weaker. It felt slow at times. I think, partly because it covers a shorter time period, and they’ve saved Diana’s death for the final season (set to premiere next year). The whole season felt like they were delaying the inevitable.

Carly Ledbetter: I’ll start by saying the show is beautifully shot, and some of the acting really is superb. I also really loved the episode focused on the Al Fayeds, as most of the time, the family is just seen mentioned as a part of the “end” of Princess Diana’s story. But this season didn’t capture my attention in the way that I’d hoped it would. The miscasting of Prince Charles bothered me, and the fictional storylines didn’t seem to add much to the story. It’s likely because my job is to report on the royal family. But I find that most of the time, while watching, my brain is saying things like, “that didn’t happen” or “I can’t believe they wouldn’t include THIS storyline, which is crazier than anything they could make up.” (Like Anne’s first husband having an illegitimate child during their marriage, which is why she moved on to her second and current husband.) I almost wish I could erase my knowledge of the royal family so that moments like Tampongate or the deception surrounding Princess Diana’s BBC interview would shock me, as those are parts I would assume – as a first-time viewer – are the made-up parts of the series.

Erin Evans: Yeah, I bet your extensive knowledge really can make your viewing experience totally different from the average viewer. I know next to nothing about the royals. So to me, it’s like watching a fictional story where some is historically accurate, and a lot is just for a viewer’s enjoyment. I wasn’t expecting to love this season because I didn’t love last season, either. But there were some juicy moments that had me screaming (in joy) at the TV screen.

Memorable Moments

Carly: Like the full reading of Tampongate and the (now) King Charles uttering the words “Tampax?” I also didn’t expect to see a conversation between Prince Andrew and Queen Elizabeth talking about the toe-sucking incident. That was also where I wanted “The Crown” to use a bit more real-life information, as, to me, it would make the story so much more interesting. Sarah Ferguson was actually WITH the royal family at Balmoral when that story broke, and pictures came out. Can you even imagine?

Erin: I liked the Tampongate moment, but my absolute favorite part that I really, really hope actually happened was when Margaret confronted Queen Elizabeth about Peter Townsend! I was literally screaming at my TV when Princess Margaret called her out about standing in the way of her love and happiness. I’ll look up the line in a second, but she said something to the effect of “You know what you did!” And I was like, “GET HER, PRINCESS MARGARET. Set the record straight!” The queen, at least on “The Crown,” really was trying to absolve herself as though she wasn’t literally in the middle of that. But, um, let’s talk about Dominic West, who portrays Prince Charles…

OK, So About That Cast?

Carly: What do you mean, Erin? (Kidding!) It distracted me so much from believing any part of the Charles-Diana storyline this season. Josh O’Connor was just so great at the role and at capturing the essence of Charles.

Dominic West as Prince Charles in “The Crown.”

Erin: I mean, no one is more mad about the casting on this show than my mother, who thankfully is not on Twitter, but just kept asking me, “WHO IS THIS?” while she was watching the whole first episode. One thing I absolutely agree with her on is that Dominic West doesn’t have the proper cadence that Charles speaks. West was speaking super fast, and I feel like O’Connor had that down pat.

Marina: I think West gets Charles’ smarmy asshole thing down, or at least the impression that I have of Charles being kind of insufferable. But yes, it was so distracting, to the point that I had trouble objectively evaluating the performance. In addition to, uh, not looking like Charles at all (to, uh, put it lightly), I think there are times when an actor is too famous to play a role, and this is one of those times. More than anyone else in the cast right now, he’s been such a fixture on several long-running TV shows. Like, it’s hard not to think of it as “McNulty playing Prince Charles,” which takes you out of it a bit.

Carly: In my opinion, West does capture some elements of his mannerisms and tries to occasionally move his face similarly to Charles. But I can’t focus on any of that because West plays the role in a very physically rough way if that makes sense? He’s too imposing. Though the king is known to have a temper, West doesn’t channel Charles’ posh upbringing and characteristics into the portrayal enough.

Marina: I’ve seen articles noting that by casting West, the show perhaps makes Charles look more sympathetic than he is. I still think he gets the vibe down, and we know, both from real life and in the events of this season, he treated Diana terribly. So I don’t think West’s performance actually makes Charles come out looking better. But what do you think?

Carly: This is definitely a more sympathetic portrayal of Charles. I remember people saying that O’Connor’s portrayal was accurate but almost too whiney for the show — making it tough to watch. West is also a current member of the Prince’s Trust and wrote to Charles to ask if he should resign before filming – AND – the actor has also complimented the king’s dance moves, so I would say he does see Charles as a sympathetic figure.

Erin: Wait, I’m sorry, but please tell me there is a video of the actual moment where Charles dances with the students from his organization.

Carly: I’m getting it now for you. IT EXISTS. Please hold. (Moments later) For your viewing pleasure:

Marina: OK, this is why I am so glad you did this with us, Carly!

Carly: I am truly so excited to be talking about this, and I already can’t wait for our Season 6 discussion. Too soon?

Erin: Never too soon, but let’s chat about Prince Philip before we move on to a few standout performances. I definitely missed Tobias Menzies, who, I can’t lie, made me feel sympathetic to Prince Philip at one point. (I know, I know!) Carly, I need you to tell me how to feel now.

Carly: Menzies did an excellent job with his portrayal of Phillip and capturing his complexities. Unfortunately, this portrayal of the Duke of Edinburgh didn’t quite translate for me. Jonathan Pryce seemed a bit too famous and a bit old for the role – which I think was a misstep because we’re supposed to believe he’s having an affair. How did you guys feel about it?

Marina: That’s a good point, Carly. I hadn’t thought about that. Now that I’m considering it, I felt indifferent toward both Jonathan Pryce and Imelda Staunton as the queen. It’s telling we’re deep into this chat and haven’t talked about the queen! No disrespect to Imelda Staunton, who is a legend, but I thought she was… just fine? I was definitely underwhelmed, though that might be because I absolutely loved Olivia Colman in Seasons 3 and 4.

Carly: Marina, that is an excellent point re: us just now talking about the queen. I didn’t particularly like the depictions of Prince Philip or the queen this season, and Elizabeth felt like such a side story. (I also get it’s more about Charles and Diana, but this was a year when audiences heard from the queen in her most personal speech ever, and she was faced with a crumbling family and castle).

Marina: Right, I was going to say I didn’t mind her being a side story because we all went into this season knowing that the major events were going to be about Charles and Diana.

Where Casting Got It Right

Marina: While we’re on performances, Lesley Manville as Princess Margaret: incredible. That scene you mentioned earlier, Erin, is one of the best scenes of the season. I also really liked Claudia Harrison as Princess Anne.

Erin: Yes, Princess Anne was perfectly cast! That moment with her and Prince Charles was so good; where she’s leaving and is like, “I’ll speak to you tomorrow, or whenever.” It felt like the perfect portrayal of how their relationship has been set up on the show.

Marina: Yes! I mean, I don’t know if they’re like that in real life, but I’ve always liked their sibling relationship on the show. On that note, I want to go back to something you said earlier about the accuracy, Carly. I’ve always gone into the show, understanding that it’s a mix of real events, imagined conversations, and sometimes fictionalized re-interpretations of said events. Other shows and movies have done this, too — it’s not unique to “The Crown.” So it doesn’t bother me that it’s not historically accurate, and I was a little taken aback by all the calls for Netflix to add a disclaimer. But I see why, as a royals reporter, you find that approach frustrating. Do you think the accuracy should matter? And why do you think “The Crown” has especially provoked the criticism that it has?

Does Historical Accuracy Matter?

Carly: I genuinely do think it needs a disclaimer, only because this is some people’s only source of royals news or their first exposure to certain royal events. It’s frustrating to me that some speeches are word-for-word accurate, and other storylines are completely fabricated and fictional. I think it’s one thing to have movies rewrite certain parts of history, but in six seasons, you get a lot of fact and fiction, and it can be hard to tell the difference between the two. I think “The Crown” has provoked this sort of criticism because the royals are alive (though some have now passed), and these are sensitive (or fake) storylines. To play devil’s advocate with myself, I normally think disclaimers and that kind of hand-holding are insulting to audiences, and I do realize that most people are out there Googling what is real and what isn’t (like this tweet so accurately says). How do you both feel?

Erin: Listen, I keep Google fired up when I watch this show. So much so that I start Googling absolutely ridiculous things. (I thought one actress was supposed to be Michelle Pfeiffer at one moment.)

Marina: Lol, Erin! Not unlikely, given that Dodi was a movie producer (which I didn’t know until watching this season). I, too, had Google and Wikipedia open as I was watching. (Note to readers: for this very purpose, I wrote this piece comparing some of the major media moments in this season with how they played out in real life. You’re welcome.)

Yeah, I’d like to think viewers are informed enough to know “The Crown” is a dramatization, not a documentary. You come for the prestige drama of it all. But I see what you’re saying too, Carly.

On a related note, what do you make of the criticism from people close to the royal family or defenders of the monarchy? Again, I find it all a bit baffling because the show is actually pretty sympathetic toward them, and much of its approach is trying to humanize them rather than, say, indict the system.

The royal family in "The Crown."
The royal family in “The Crown.”

Carly: The criticism of the show, especially from the actors, is very interesting to me. Personally, my approach to the show is: “If this were about me, wouldn’t I also want the show to be entirely truthful?” This is why I would never want to be a celebrity – I would be obsessed with shooting down rumors. And I don’t say this as someone who is “for” the monarchy and wants the royal family to be perceived as perfect; as Anne tells Charles in this series, most of the problems shown in the show they’ve created on their own.

Marina: Meredith Blake at The Los Angeles Times wrote this good piece about this topic, and one of the scholars she quotes points out that there’s so much we’ll never know about the royals because of the lack of access to them.

Carly: On that topic, Marina, I was just going to say I so enjoy the series because (despite my own reporting and the endless unauthorized biographies) it allows us to sit in on intimate moments behind closed doors. And sometimes “The Crown” has conversations we want to have imagined happened – like the one between the queen and Margaret or the kitchen scene between Diana and Charles.

Erin: This is interesting, and I guess it’s something I never thought about until now. Like, I know it’s a fictional historical portrayal, but I can see where the lines may be muddied. I started watching “The Crown” almost immediately after Meghan Markle’s interview with Oprah. Watching the show helped me color in the lines of some of Markle’s own experiences in the family. I knew nothing and did not care at all about the British monarchy.

Carly: That’s such a great point, Erin. I love that this show began at the start of another important era in royal history – 2016 when Meghan and Harry began dating. And now we’re seeing so many moments that are similar to the ones the royals experienced in the ’90s. Meghan and Harry’s Oprah interview very much felt like Diana’s BBC interview or Morton’s book to me. Covering the Oprah interview for HuffPost felt so momentous at the time because even preparing for it, I knew it would be something we’d look back on forever and continue to analyze.

Marina: Wow, yes. There are so many parallels between then and now. Obviously, the final season of “The Crown” will not cover the most recent royal events, and from what we know so far, it will probably stop somewhere in the early 2000s. But I’m curious if they try to set up how the Diana era leads into the modern era (if we can call it that).

I feel like we haven’t even talked about Diana!

Princess Diana’s Portrayal

Elizabeth Debicki as Princess Diana in "The Crown."
Elizabeth Debicki as Princess Diana in “The Crown.”

Carly: This season presented a more nuanced picture of Diana – not just someone young and naive. She was coming into her own, finding her strength, and fighting to share her side of the story. She also had a fairly complicated relationship with William in that we see her sharing certain personal details with him at such a young age. Debicki’s portrayal was as close to perfect as you can be without being Emma Corrin. One of my favorite Diana scenes was Debicki sitting down at the horse show with “Mou Mou.”

Erin: Yeah, William was like her best friend! (But also, was it weird that Prince Harry was barely in the season? But let me not divert the conversation. I found Elizabeth Debicki’s portrayal of Diana to be magnificent. She had the voice and the mannerisms down. And she looked incredible in that “revenge dress.” There were a couple of very fictional moments that I thought were really great (and one really hilarious and petty one).

Marina: Yes, I agree completely. I thought the extended conversation after she and Charles signed the divorce papers was well done, from the acting to the writing to the set design. It felt like its own little play within the show. But per our earlier discussion, I knew immediately it was fictional and idealized.

Carly: Which is why I should probably stop advocating for disclaimers!

Marina: Wait, Erin, which was the hilarious and petty one?

Erin: When Princess Diana calls into a hotline answering “no” to whether constituents want a monarchy. She’s literally on the couch redialing the hotline in Episode 10. Loved it.

Marina: Omg, yes! The idea of her delighting in calling into a show to vote against the monarchy.

So Should You Watch It?

As evidenced by how long we’ve gone on about this, I think it’s clear we all think this was worth the watch, right? I mean, we haven’t even talked about so many things, like the fact this is the first season to air since the queen’s death and the ascension of King Charles and Camilla as queen consort, which makes all the discussion in this season about whether that would ever happen so wild! And so many other things.

Erin: So… it’s my least favorite season, but I still devoured it. In many ways, this is a good season for someone who hasn’t watched any other seasons to jump in and go. It’s so recent that I think people will find it interesting.

Carly: So I agree with both of you. The royal family – however you personally feel about them – is endlessly fascinating. And I love that “The Crown” gives us a chance to revisit and examine these moments in history while we experience and compare them to the current royal news cycle.

Marina: Give us Season 6 now, please!