The buzziest storyline for season four of The Crown is best described during the penultimate episode, "Avalanche," when Princess Anne (Erin Doherty) sits Queen Elizabeth II (Olivia Colman) down for a foreboding conversation.
"Once upon a time, there was a beautiful young girl who fell madly in love with a handsome prince," Anne says. "Unfortunately, the prince was already in love with someone else, who was herself in love with someone else—and they all lived unhappily ever after. That's it, in a nutshell. Do you need more?"
Anne, of course, is referring to the marriage of Prince Charles (Josh O'Connor) and Princess Diana (Emma Corrin), a tempestuous romance complicated by the woman who eventually became his wife, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall (Emerald Fennell). After three seasons of watching the Queen (first Claire Foy, then Colman) grow in her power, season four of The Crown finally introduces Diana and all the beautiful chaos that follows: Her legion of adoring fans, her devastating battle with bulimia, her whispered-about affairs, her tumultuous relationship with the British monarchs, and yes, her two children, Prince William and Prince Harry.
Since its release on Sunday, Nov. 15, your Instagram feed has likely been flooded with images praising Corrin's transformation into the People's Princess. Yes, fans of The Crown are hosting all-day viewing marathons and ogling at Diana's coquettish energy and her sharp dancing skills. But can you watch season four if you've never seen the others? And why, exactly, is this show so freakin' captivating?
The short of it is that season four is sweet, sweet candy for anyone remotely interested in the royal family and all of the hot, glamorous gossip that's surrounded them for decades. If you've spent hours deep diving into Diana's greatest off-duty fashion moments, watch it. If you're enamored with why, exactly, Charles would pick Camilla over Diana, watch it. If you're captivated by conspiracy theories about the details surrounding Diana's tragic death, watch it.
The Crown's first three Emmy-winning seasons are magical and fantastic for anyone who loves painstakingly well-researched period pieces. They offer excellent examples of how to tell stories inspired by real-life people we all have strong attachments to. But truthfully, they can be pretty sleepy. And unless you're particularly obsessed with all things royals, or history, or even TV shows deemed "serious," it doesn't have the same ridiculous, meme-able hold on pop culture as something like, say, Tiger King or Selling Sunset.
That changes with season four, where the juiciest parts of the plot surround Charles and Diana. You'll get to see The Crown's interpretation of their aristocratic meet-cute. You'll get to see Corrin in a replica of Diana's iconic David and Elizabeth Emanuel wedding dress. And you'll get to see the many heartbreaking reasons why her life was rife with sadness. It's like a soap opera, but one worthy of critical acclaim.
We'd be remiss not to mention the other half of the season explores Queen Elizabeth II's many head butts with Gillian Anderson's perfectly depicted Margaret Thatcher—and epically illustrates the family's unsettling relationship with mental health, as Princess Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter) battles her own demons. Trust us, you'll want to have the Google search tab ready to work its magic after wondering, Did this really happen?
If you're completely new to The Crown, know you might need some help deciphering who is who (aside from obvious ones) and what exact time period is being shown. (For that, this handy guide should help). But no, there's absolutely no need to go back and study up on the first three seasons, though props to you if you do.
Despite the darker, more ominous scenes we're given in season four, it just might be remembered as the one in which Diana—new to the family, new to motherhood, new to fame—experienced the most joy. And as a result, it's likely the most fun season to watch. Season five, the second to last of the entire Crown series, will not be released until at least 2022. And the entire cast (including newly-introduced Corrin) will be refreshed for a third time as it fast forwards us straight to the ‘90s, the same decade in which Diana met her unfortunate fate.
In the final few minutes of season four, Diana tells Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies) that abiding by the family's rules feels like "a cold, frozen tundra. An icy, dark, loveless cave with no light, no hope, anywhere, not even the faintest crack."
Cruelly and almost threateningly, Philip then warns her of what'll happen should she break away from the family. "Let's just say, I can't see it ending well for you," he says, explaining that being miserable is par for the course as a royal. "Everyone in this system is a lost, lonely, irrelevant outsider apart from the one person, the only person that matters. She's the oxygen we all breathe, the essence of all our duty. Your problem, If I may say, is you seem to be confused about who that person is."
Clearly, Diana wasn't interested in being dutiful or bowing down to anyone.
Season four of The Crown is now streaming on Netflix.