The royal family — or at least its fictional, ridiculously attractive counterparts — has once again returned to our screens. Season 5 of The Crown is now streaming on Netflix. The latest installment of the critically acclaimed drama follows the family in the early ’90s as they navigate the breakdown of Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s marriage — and the very public consequences that stem from it.
This season tackles several major historical events and high-profile scandals, from the fire at Windsor Castle to Sarah Ferguson’s toe-sucking photos (yes, really) and Princess Diana’s revenge dress.
One of the biggest moments of the season is ripped straight from the ’90s tabloid headlines: Tampongate (or Camillagate, depending on who you ask). Yes, Netflix really went there. Episode 5, “The Way Ahead,” depicts the infamous leaked transcripts of an intimate phone conversation between Charles and Camilla that took place while both were still married to other spouses (Diana and Andrew Parker Bowles, respectively). Here’s the TL;DR: While there had long been speculation, the phone call was public, outright proof of Charles and Camilla’s affair — very, er, explicit proof. During the conversation, Charles suggested he ought to just “go live in [Camilla’s] trousers,” and then the pair joked about him being reincarnated as…a tampon. Netflix sticks pretty damn close to the real dialogue.
The press published the full transcript three years after the phone call took place, once Charles and Diana had separated. The leak had negative repercussions for both Charles’ public perception and the image of the royal family as a whole. Multiple polls indicated that the public thought Charles’ reputation was “tarnished,” and a substantial amount of people even supported the idea that Prince William (who was 10 years old at the time) should succeed Queen Elizabeth instead of his father.
In a recent interview with Variety, Dominic West (who plays Season 5 Charles) spoke about re-creating the incident and why he has a different perspective on it now. “When we look back on it now after 20 years, and in a drama, what comes across is it was not the conversation that was sordid, but the prurient interest in it and the way it was printed on the front pages of papers and became a tape that you could call up and listen to,” West said. “I think people feel very differently about that now and you see who the villains are in the piece. It wasn’t the two lovers, it was the people exploiting them.”
Olivia Williams (who plays Camilla) shared a similar sentiment. “The point of it is not what they say to each other, it’s what is done with that information,” Williams told Variety. “A gross invasion of privacy and then to publish it maliciously. And the point of the conversation, which I felt we discovered in the playing of it, was that they were joking. It was a loving, jokey conversation.”
Indeed, Netflix seems to adopt a more sympathetic approach to Charles and his relationship with Camilla this season. “Over the years, you’ve brought a great many of your problems upon yourself — but no one deserves this,” Charles’s sister Anne says to him in Episode 5 while he’s shown bedridden and humiliated. “As if none of these journalists have ever spoken to a lover over the phone [or] said embarrassing things.” She adds, “Once I’d taken my head out of my hands and my fingers out of my throat, there was a surprising residue left of being touched by two teenagers of a certain age being so gloriously human and entirely in love.”
It’s an approach not all viewers are thrilled about. “They’ve really portrayed Princess Diana as this vindictive, silly young woman whilst Charles and Camilla are these star-crossed lovers kept apart by out of date royal rules,” one user wrote in a Tweet that has over 5,000 likes. “This season of #TheCrown is pandering to the royal family. Ew.”
It definitely does seem like it The Crown wants to humanize Charles more this season — but whether Netflix succeeds in getting us to empathize with his and Camilla’s star-crossed lovers narrative is another matter. At best, it feels like a clumsy attempt to add some balance to the story after last season arguably made Charles look pretty awful. From an entertainment standpoint, that’s somewhat understandable — after all, nobody wants to watch cartoonishly evil, one-dimensional characters, especially when they’re based on real, complex people. And no matter how you spin it, it is true that Tampongate was a major invasion of privacy. But on the other hand, it’s incredibly difficult to reconcile this with all the cruelty we’ve witnessed from Charles toward Diana, most of which didn’t even have to be exaggerated for fiction (“Whatever in love means” was a real thing the guy said).
This season of The Crown is an ultimately entertaining, though flawed, look at one of the most talked-about periods in British history. And as for Tampongate? It’s hard to imagine any of us will forget seeing this on our screens any time soon.
You can stream Season 5 of The Crown on Netflix now.