A matter of character: How "The Crown" squares Charles with our longstanding villain edit

Queen Elizabeth II was a monarch for the TV age, but once her son broke Diana's heart the camera's cut wasn't kind

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published November 11, 2022 3:30PM (EST)

Dominic West as Prince Charles and Elizabeth Debicki as Diana in "The Crown" (Netflix/Keith Bernstein)
Dominic West as Prince Charles and Elizabeth Debicki as Diana in "The Crown" (Netflix/Keith Bernstein)

The reign of King Charles III began by being dragged on social media when a video of him throwing a tantrum over a leaky pen went viral. The offending incident occurred while he and Camilla, the Queen Consort, signed a visitors' book at Hillsborough Castle near Belfast.

"Oh god, I hate this . . ." he says in a tone that some might call frustrated and others whiny.

"Oh look, it's going everywhere," Camilla adds as the help bustles about to remove the offending item from His Majesty's presence. From there Camilla calmly takes over, sitting down to sign the tome as Charles steps back and seethes.

"I can't BEAR this BLOODY thing," he angrily spits. "Every stinking time!" And with that, he is whisked away from that inhumane battlefront.

Our sarcasm is unkind, we know. Cameras captured this moment while Britain's king was still fresh in grieving the death of his mother Queen Elizabeth II. Then again, the queen belonged to the age of television. She knew a camera lens was always capturing one of her angles, so she worked tirelessly to ensure most would be inscrutable. The public loved her mystery.

Charles, on the other hand, came of age in the era of the 24-hour news cycle and celebrity coverage. By the time he married Diana Spencer, he was already more of a character than a real person, that gawky oaf with overly large ears co-starring in a show known as the British monarchy, which is sometimes a drama and occasionally a comedy.

Through "The Crown," series creator Peter Morgan adds additional dimensions by humanizing the royals through dramatic scripts and a carefully selected cast of actors, tasked with filling in the emotional blank spaces between public appearances and drips of tabloid gossip. It is the most believable fictionalized story about people who spend their lives carefully presenting to the world a fictional version of themselves.   

By the time Charles married Diana, the public considered him more of a character than a real person.

That was never going to be an issue for Queen Elizabeth, who has been played with grace and dignity over its run by Claire Foy, Olivia Colman and, as of this fifth season, Imelda Staunton. Morgan always designed his drama to be a "love letter" to the recently departed monarch, and it plays as such, even in these creakier new episodes.

Even if that weren't the case, Elizabeth had fully embraced her alternate identity as a freewheeling character capable of parachuting out of a helicopter with 007 or hosting Paddington Bear for tea. Charles never did because he couldn't – he'd already been cast in a supporting role to Diana while they were married, and as the villain once their union crumbled.

Josh O'Connor's fourth-season portrayal of Charles lives up to that while empathizing with the future king's lot as a man who feels stifled by the lifelong duty into which he was born. Still, the actor doesn't hold back in portraying Charles' petulant anger at being upstaged by Diana's glamour and approachability, captured in those same episodes with uncanny simplicity by Emma Corrin.

Maybe we felt a bit sad for the prince, but that doesn't approach the depth of feeling people still hold for Diana thanks to years' worth of documentaries, news specials, and TV tributes to her.

All of those considerations make this new season of "The Crown" hit a bit more awkwardly than previous ones. Morgan writes Queen Elizabeth and Philip with intimacy and a knowing that steers the directions of every character around her and their relationships, which Lesley Manville reminds us of through her time as Margaret in this round. Then again, the queen left a carpet of breadcrumbs for Morgan to shape and reshape into narratives that tell her life's story in tandem with that of the 20th century.

The CrownElizabeth Debicki, Will Powell, Senan West and Dominic West in "The Crown" (Netflix/Keith Bernstein)

Diana, meanwhile, established her narrative as best she could, first through her secretly recorded testimonials that led to Andrew Morton's 1992 bestseller "Diana: Her True Story," and later via an interview with Martin Bashir, each ensuring she continues to be accessible for decades after her death.

According to a former aide who spoke with Reuters, Charles is "known to be fun, but was also short-tempered and demanding."

And that decision impacts how we view the end of Diana's marriage to Charles, with Elizabeth Debicki and Dominic West stepping into their parts, respectively. Reddit threads and other social media discussions will likely dissect Debicki's take, but West's interpretation is quite the glow-up to Charles' personality.

Admittedly this assumes that the little we've seen of his temperament is accurate; according to a former aide who spoke with Reuters, Charles is "known to be fun, but was also short-tempered and demanding." That second part is confirmed by the video discussed above and others that don't exactly show him in the best light, along with other unflattering recordings.

I guess Morgan's Charles gives us the fun side . . . if you can call it that. West makes him simply a man who wants to modernize the monarchy and make his mark in the world. Sure, he's the man captured on a tape telling his lover Camilla Parker Bowles (Olivia Williams) that he wishes he could live inside of her underwear. But he also founds a charity known as The Prince's Trust, for which West serves as an ambassador. According to Variety, the actor offered to quit to avoid any conflicts of interest, but Charles turned him down.

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Obviously, the newly crowned monarch isn't stupid, because West rewards that decision with performance that styles Charles as a man long denied agency by this family, including the choice to marry Camilla – an unfortunate story of true love secretly tangled inside a fairy-tale union Charles never wanted, fabricated by The Firm.

And if that approach doesn't bruise as deeply as Corrin and O'Connor's dark and icy duels, that could be a matter of Morgan not quite knowing how to map the emotional atria and ventricles of this painful relationship in its end stage. Or one could fault the unspoken villain cut edited over years of coverage that makes Charles seem either silly or peevish or . . . standing there.

The CrownDominic West in "The Crown" (Netflix/Keith Bernstein)

It feels odd to softly penalize a performance for being too convincingly vulnerable considering that in nearly any other instance, that would be an asset. It could also be the case that West's performance will align with a version of King Charles III we've yet to meet. Regardless, it brings into relief the strained pull between the British monarchy romanticized in "The Crown" and the one we know through Charles and Diana's children, one of whom is determined to live more openly and be more publicly real than his grandparents and father.


By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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Commentary Dominic West Elizabeth Debicki King Charles Netflix The Crown Tv