‘The Crown’ Season 6, Episode 5 Recap: ‘Willsmania’

The Crown


Season 6

Episode 5

Editor’s Rating

3 stars

Photo: Justin Downing/Netflix

Early in season three of The Crown, Tobias Menzies’s Prince Philip lays out the key difference between the senior members of the royal family: Some are “dull” and the others are “dazzling.” The “dazzling” ones are who provide entertainment (read: scandal), while the steady “dull” ones, like Philip’s wife, Queen Elizabeth, are responsible for keeping the monarchy afloat.

The way The Crown tells it, Prince William, the first-born son of Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana, and, as of September 2022, next in line to the throne, falls squarely into the “dull” category. Look, there is nothing inherently boring about a teenage boy grieving his mother. Unfortunately, “Willsmania,” which opens Part Two of The Crown’s final season, is a snoozer due to its “dull” protagonist and overall lack of drama.

From a narrative perspective, this was unavoidable. There was no way The Crown could jump into a storyline about the queen and geopolitics after Part One closed on such a heavy note. Now that Prince William has been recast with an older actor (Ed McVey), The Crown had to put Diana’s eldest child and his angst center stage. Still, no matter how much William lashes out at his father or retreats into his generically late-’90s soundtrack (The Cardigans! Natalie Imbruglia!), his storyline is flat-out boring.

“Willsmania” does its best to create drama, however, by showcasing how William’s attempts to follow the family example by repressing his feelings are rudely interrupted by his newfound status as a teenage heartthrob. All this poor kid wants to do is return to school and go back to normal, but he’s thwarted by his Diana-esque good looks and charm. Not only does he have to deal with the loss of his mother, but also hordes of screaming girls at every turn.

William spends the episode blaming his father for his misery, but Philip eventually steps in and sets his grandson straight in the episode’s most powerful scene. Once Philip imparts his grandfatherly wisdom, William can patch up his relationship with Charles and obtain closure over his mother’s death. Ah, good ol’ television: solving generational trauma in 50 minutes or less!

The episode takes place roughly from fall 1997 through spring 1998, with William all but bolting back to Eton following his mother’s funeral. Returning to the familiar confines of his elite prep school — or the enormous amount of condolence cards from his schoolmates and worldwide female fans — doesn’t do much to ease his suffering, though. He’s just as sullen and aloof there as he was at home with his father.
Meanwhile, The Crown highlights another critical outcome of Diana’s death: Prince Charles now has to step up and actually be — gasp! — a father to his two sons. This is illustrated primarily through Charles’s daily phone calls with Camilla Parker Bowles. But what I can’t get past is how suddenly Charles is a father desperately trying to understand his son’s feelings, and burgeoning momfluencer Camilla is giving him parenting advice? Is The Crown giving these two the softball treatment because they’re now the king and queen?

So Camilla has to give Charles parenting lessons, ordering him to put on his big-boy pants and support William even if he’s jealous of his son’s attention. Charles then makes a ton of excuses for his piss-poor parenting, blaming Philip for being a cold and distant father. Which Charles understands happened because of how Philip was treated by his own terrible father (both were covered in the same season-two episode). Okay, so BREAK THE CYCLE, CHUCK!

Nah, too easy. “I’m afraid we don’t do fathers and sons very well in this family,” Charles dithers. Brava to Camilla, though, for calling bullshit on that excuse and for reminding Charles that she’s not the one suffering here. The only ones who are truly in pain are William and Harry.
Charles takes the boys on a father-sons trip to Canada, where they’ll combine official engagements with a bonding ski vacay. This is a real trip that Princes Charles, William, and Harry took to Vancouver in March 1998, where “Willsmania” reached its peak. (The Crown even re-created the pink sign from this report.)

Needless to say, William isn’t comfortable with this level of attention, regardless of how many cute teenage girls are willing to marry him. And he’s certainly not pleased when his father announces they must participate in a photo call as part of their skiing holiday. Charles is such a fool in this scene, completely incapable of understanding why his sons aren’t keen on putting on a royal show for the press AFTER THE PAPARAZZI CHASED THEIR MOTHER TO HER DEATH.

Of all people, it now falls to the Queen and Prince Philip to teach Stating the Obvious 101 to Charles. Elizabeth reminds her son that it makes perfect sense for William to “hate” the press after what happened to Diana, while Philip is all, “Um, have you forgotten William is just a teenager??”

Charles, to his credit, is rightfully concerned that his son hasn’t grieved properly, and I’m glad The Crown has Charles acknowledging his parenting shortcomings. Still, it’s infuriating that the series portrays him as someone who’s in touch with his feelings. I’ve read Spare

The Prince of Wales may want William to release his emotions, but that doesn’t mean he knows how to facilitate such a delicate endeavor. (By the way, what about Harry? He’s going through the same thing, you know. Then again, we know the No. Twos don’t count in this family.) Charles arranges a surprise meetup at Windsor Castle, and it is an unmitigated disaster.

William places every ounce of blame for Diana’s death on his father, namely, for “loving someone else” in the first place. What Charles doesn’t understand is that William is only 15 years old here, and from his perspective, Diana would never have been with the Fayed family in Paris and the victim of a car crash if Charles had just loved her and kept their marriage intact. Of course, we know — and Charles knows — that what happened between himself, Camilla, and Diana was far more complicated. So instead of bellyaching about how “deeply unkind” William’s comments toward him are, maybe Charles should help his son understand how he, Diana, and Camilla were all victims of the royal family.

I also find it highly unlikely that the real Charles would’ve admitted his parenting faults out loud. Saying he hasn’t “got anything right” and apologizing for not having “risen to the occasion”? When did Charles turn into a self-aware millennial parent?

It feels like Charles might be getting somewhere with William, though. Until he starts talking about himself — namely, his own grief. Nooooo, Charles! You were doing so well, but this isn’t about you. William is furious and drops the real reason why he blames Charles for Diana’s death: Diana only escaped to the South of France and got tangled up with the Fayeds because she was upset Charles threw a birthday party for Camilla.

Upon his return to Eton, William resumes roaming the halls in a morose stupor. That is, until Grandpa Phil arrives to, once again, put this broken family back together. See, since Charles couldn’t break the family cycle of emotional neglect, Philip decided to adopt a “better late than never” attitude. Earlier, while Charles was avoiding his own fatherly duties by begging the Queen to talk to William instead, we see Philip revisiting his early parenting years by poring over old photos, movies, and letters.
We get an adorable moment where Philip assures William there’s nothing wrong with lining his dorm walls with supermodel posters — and each learns about the other’s preferred pinups. William: Naomi Campbell. Philip: Rita Hayworth. But then it’s time to get down to business. Family business. Over a game of chess, Philip calls William out for projecting his emotions onto his father instead of acknowledging the true source of his anger. As in, maybe William is angry with Diana for being so comfortable and confident in the spotlight, and now all of a sudden, he’s being expected to behave the same way?

(Okay, there’s a kernel of truth to that idea, but I also think it’s another example of The Crown’s ongoing hatred for Diana. Girl wasn’t always so comfortable and confident with the press, at least not in the beginning.)
But the crux of this scene is when Philip floats the difficult, albeit understandable, reason behind William’s hostility: He’s angry at Diana for leaving him behind. This scene is also notable for being the only form of “therapy” William appears to receive in light of his mother’s passing. I mean, Philip is no stranger to the benefits of talking about one’s feelings, but I still don’t think he’s the right person to help William come to grips with his grief.

Then Philip encourages William to envision the future when his own son is staring at him “with murderous eyes,” and maybe William will remember this conversation with his grandfather. So when Prince George inevitably goes off on William for putting the future of the monarchy on his shoulders, or Prince Louis expresses his fury over being a “spare,” William can approach them with kindness, empathy, and understanding. But what understanding can there ever be in this archaic family? That’s not The Crown’s problem anymore because there are only a few minutes left in the episode, which means the show needs to resolve three generations’ worth of emotional childhood neglect before the end credits roll. Philip drives William to Highgrove, where William gives Charles a hug. As Philip watches in awe, he remains on-brand by not allowing himself to let the tears fall.

Now that he’s healed his relationship with his father with a big ol’ cuddle, there’s only one thing left for William to do: Row out to his mother’s island grave site, leave a bouquet of flowers, and move forward. Yes, it’s a dull ending, but what else can you expect from the Prince William perspective? It’s always the dazzling royals who will open up about their grief and their healing process. If you want a more visceral portrayal of a son’s heartache, pick up a copy of Spare.

• I’m sure my fellow The Gilded Age fans were as thrilled as I was when I realized Blake Ritson, devoid of Oscar van Rhijn’s distinctive mustache, sunglasses, and shoddy business decisions, plays Williams Eton housemaster Dr. Gailey.

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