She is Sarah Spencer, Diana’s older sister that Charles was taking out on an afternoon date. Of course, we know how that turned out: Charles is clearly intrigued by the younger Spencer. And she with him. It’s a dance of sorts, which foreshadows the very public one these two will do throughout their relationship.
Viewers know all too well how tragically this story ends, but thanks to creator Peter Morgan’s multilayered storytelling—and Emma Corrin and Josh O’Connor’s portrayals of Diana and Charles—you actually think for a moment these two can make it work.
“I had a friend of mine say, ‘We all know the end, but there was a moment where you go, Oh, maybe they’re going to be okay.’ That is literally all Emma and I wanted to achieve,” O’Connor tells Glamour. “The thing you’re fighting against on The Crown is that everyone knows what happened already. To make people have hope that this relationship might work is a real achievement for us.”
In early episodes, Charles is taken with Diana, and there is chemistry there. But ultimately Charles is still in love with another woman—even though she is now married with children. While it’s possible Charles could have found happiness with someone other than Camilla Parker Bowles (Emerald Fennell), we’ll never know because of the speed and urgency in which his family made him settle down. Even Uncle Dickie (Charles Dance)—who was tragically killed in a planned explosion in the premiere—tells Charles that the most important task is to find a princess “that the people will love.”
If that wasn’t enough, Camilla also urges Charles to settle down. “Find a woman who will give up her whole world for you—like this new one, Diana,” she tells him. “She’s a child,” he replies. It’s dysfunctional, sure, but perhaps the court of public opinion blamed Charles for more than he deserved. Even Princess Anne (Erin Doherty)—Charles’s closest confidant—berates her brother for finding fault with Diana. “She’s perfect,” Anne says. “Don’t fight it.”
Lady Diana Spencer was 20 when she married 32-year-old Charles—and, as The Crown shows us, the relationship was challenging from the start. Not only was Charles still in touch with Camilla, which Diana knew, when they wed, but he went away on a six-week tour right before the wedding. Diana was left to fend for herself in the palace—without friends or family—and adapt to a new way of life. She had to learn whom to bow to, what to say, and when to say it. “You simply cannot fail,” her grandmother warns. Should Diana have walked away when she could? Perhaps. But could she have realistically done that without feeling like she failed herself and the country? Maybe not.
Most twisted of all is that in Morgan’s version, Charles urged Camilla to spend time with Diana while he was away on tour. (That may not be that far-fetched, as the real Diana Spencer was pictured socializing with Camilla Parker Bowles at a polo match for Charles in 1980.) During an afternoon lunch, Camilla tells Diana that Charles is very set in his ways, so he will love it if she adapts to him. (Yikes.) Camilla also conveniently lets it be known that Charles calls her Gladys and she calls him Fred. Camilla says it all in a way that is “very sugar-coated iciness,” Corrin tells Glamour.
If there’s one person who recognizes the insidious nature of the marriage, it’s Princess Margaret (Helena Bonham-Carter). “Charles loves someone else,” Margaret tells the senior members of the royal family. “How many times can this family make the same mistake…forbidding marriages that should be allowed, forcing others that shouldn’t, and paying the consequences each time?”
It falls on deaf ears. “The older Diana gets, the more confident and beautiful she’ll become, and Charles will fall in love with her even more,” Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies) says. Margaret—forever the wise one—quips, “What, and in the meantime, he juggles them both?” The queen mother declares that’s how it’s always been, which is madness to Margaret. “We can stop them now, before they tie the knot,” she pleads. “Not just for the sake of the monarchy, but for them as human beings.” It doesn’t happen.
O’Connor acknowledges that Charles is a “much less likable character” this season. But for the first time, we understand why he’s so miserable. “What Peter Morgan does so brilliantly is present both sides of the argument. It’s never really as clear cut as one person’s fault, and that’s what most marriages are like,” O’Connor tells Glamour. “There are occasions in our narrative where I wish Charles dealt with some things differently, but every single step of the way, Charles has been overshadowed by his mother and his father. He then meets someone he’s not allowed to marry, and told he should marry someone else.”
O’Connor points to a key moment in season three, when Charles comes back from the Investiture. “He’s a huge success, but walks into Buckingham Palace and no one is there to tap him on the shoulder and say well done. And that’s all he really wants.”
Unfortunately, Charles takes that frustration out on Diana. “He is totally overshadowed by Diana,” O’Connor says. “Wherever he goes, they want to see her and not him. So he spends his whole life waiting to be in the spotlight, and then he meets someone that creates an even brighter spotlight than anyone else. I feel so much for Diana, looking back.”
The two have a rare moment of clarity during their Australian tour, but it’s short-lived. By the end of the tour, they are at odds as much as ever. When they return home, Charles runs to Camilla, while Diana is carrying out affairs of her own.
“There’s a scene that beautifully explains things when Camilla and Charles are telling a joke, and Camilla gives Charles the punchline,” O’Connor says. “Diana would have taken the punchline if she was there. Instead, Camilla tells the joke with him and gives him the spotlight. I think that tells the story really deep.”
Or as Princess Anne says in the show, “There was already an age gap, but this is an age chasm, with Diana younger than her years and Charles older than his. Even though they come from similar aristocratic backgrounds, their personalities come from different planets. Different interests, different friends. She doesn’t understand him, he doesn’t understand her, and given that, they’ve actually done remarkably well. But there comes a point in any failing marriage when you realize it’s not worth trying anymore and it’s easier to let the current take you away.”
Corrin is thankful that the new season allows viewers to finally see all the complexities and nuances of Charles and Diana. “You can’t really blame anyone,” she tells Glamour. “Charles loved one person his entire life, which is better than many of us do, to be honest. It’s so rare. And for whatever mistakes he made, I think the biggest one is that [Charles and Diana’s relationship] happened in the first place. It’s probably the fault of the institution. You feel for everyone.”
Season four of The Crown is now streaming on Netflix.
Jessica Radloff is the Glamour West Coast editor. You can follow her on Instagram at @jessicaradloff14.
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