The world of Buckingham Palace is so unmoored from time that it’s easy to forget The Crown has covered over 30 years of history so far. Last season, scenes of Anne listening to David Bowie or Princess Margaret wearing a vibrant zebra patterned sundress were a jarring reminder that the world outside the palace keeps spinning, even as the royal family seems frozen in amber. This time around it’s Diana who conveys a sense of just how much the world has changed since the series began in 1947. She and her roommates blast Stevie Nicks’ “Edge Of Seventeen” as they head out for the ultimate early ’80s club night to celebrate her engagement to Prince Charles. Lady Di is a young woman coming of age at the dawn of a new decade. Unfortunately, she soon gets a harsh lesson in how little the royal family is equipped to adjust to the times.
Like “The Balmoral Test,” “Fairytale” helps use see the surreality of monarchy anew by anchoring itself in Diana’s point of view. Director Benjamin Caron has his camera swirl around the overwhelmed princess-to-be as she stumbles over the correct curtsey protocol during her first evening with her new in-laws. Even her puffy-sleeved evening wear marks her as an outsider among the old-fashioned Windsors. Despite how much Diana impressed the family at Balmoral Castle, she’s not quite prepared for the pomp and circumstance of Buckingham Palace. Especially when her new fiancé isn’t particularly interested in showing her the ropes—or particularly interested in her at all, in fact.
“Fairytale” is essentially a tragic take on The Princess Diaries, with Diana’s teenage dreams curdling into intense loneliness and rigid princess lessons. A staircase motif emphasizes the lonely labyrinth Diana finds herself trapped in at Buckingham Palace. Everyone is highly concerned that she behave properly, but no one is particularly interested in how she’s actually doing. Charles uses a six-week royal tour to cut off all communication with his bride, and no one else in the palace is interested in taking Diana’s calls either. While the public sees a heavenly romantic fantasy, Diana’s life is slowly becoming a living hell. She’s left to wander Buckingham Palace alone, seeking solace in her loving fan mail, rollerskating through the halls to Duran Duran, and attempting to regain a sense of control by binging and purging. I spent most of this episode wanting to reach through the screen and give her a hug.
The Crown is really emphasizing Diana’s youth in these first few episodes, and Emma Corrin is fantastic at conveying the physicality of a 19-year-old—not just in Diana’s signature head tilt, but also in the way she idly twirls during her ballet lesson and casually lounges in an armchair while watching reruns of the children’s TV show, Bagpuss. While Diana and Charles’ wedding was hailed as a fairy tale at the time, from a more modern perspective, Diana’s youthful marriage to a man 13 years her senior looks positively medieval.
To use a tragically appropriate metaphor, Diana and Charles’ impending union is like a car crash in slow motion. And the most terrifying part is that everyone in the palace can see it coming. Diana and Princess Margaret (who knows a thing or two about unhappy marriages) both openly vocalize the idea that this wedding absolutely should not happen. “How many times can this family make the same mistake?” Margaret opines. Yet through a mixture of apathy, misplaced optimism, and royal duty, no one steps in to intervene. The staircase motif doesn’t just represent Diana’s loneliness, it also represents the cyclical nature of the monarchy. Philip and the Queen Mother handwave away Margaret’s concerns about Charles’ infidelity as “how things have always been.” And, per usual, Elizabeth chooses the path of tradition rather than evolution.
Charles’ tear-eyed, firework-lit conversation with his mother does an effective job framing him as a tragic figure within this cold monarchical system. And yet I also feel like this episode misses a beat in not holding him more accountable for his role in creating this situation in the first place. True, Charles doesn’t exactly come off great here; in addition to flat out ignoring his fiancée, he also makes the absolutely bizarre power play of encouraging her to befriend his ex-girlfriend/current mistress. But there’s also little acknowledgement of the fact that Charles pursued Diana of his own volition and then chose to escalate the seriousness of their relationship by inviting her to Balmoral Castle. While it’s certainly tragic that Charles now finds himself pressured into an unwanted arranged marriage, it’s worth acknowledging that he helped arrange it himself. Diana may be a trapped teenager, but Charles is a 32-year-old man.
Of course, there’s still plenty of time for the season to dissect Charles’ complicity. This episode frames marriage not as an endpoint, but as a beginning. Elizabeth cites her grandmother, Queen Mary, to explain that a marriage based on work and duty may one day grow into something resembling happiness and love. And Diana, at least, seems to find a touch of hope after Charles gives her his signet ring and promises he’s ended things with Camilla. In voiceover, their officiant explains, “Our faith sees the wedding day not as the place of arrival, but the place where the adventure really begins.” And while we know how Charles and Diana’s “adventure” ultimately and tragically ends, there’s still plenty of their journey left to unfold.
- Speaking of this cyclical nature of this episode: Charles and Diana’s quarrel in St. Paul’s Cathedral is staged a lot like Elizabeth and Philip’s pre-coronation fight in the first season episode “Smoke And Mirrors.” Coincidentally (or maybe not), that’s also the episode where Queen Mary dies.
- The opening game of telephone is a fun way to depict Charles and Diana’s engagement. And focusing on the wedding rehearsal is a clever way to avoid having to replicate the actual event—which even this show doesn’t have the budget to do.
- There’s a great laugh line when Elizabeth turns down the offer to become Diana’s royal tutor: “You know me, I’m far too much of a softie.”
- The Diana/Camilla dinner scene is a fascinating study in subtle power plays. Camilla carefully toes the line between trying to appear helpful and pointedly marking her territory.
- Infamously, Charles really did quip, “Whatever ‘in love’ means” to a reporter. You can watch the engagement interview this episode recreates here: