Maybe I, like Elizabeth, have been lulled into a twilight sleep. Maybe I’ve finally been soothed by The Crown’s comforting distance from the present moment. Maybe I’m entranced by the idea of a time when marrying someone unsuitable was tantamount to the sky falling.
I don’t think so, though. What’s actually happening is much better: The Crown is finally coming into its own. The introduction of Matthew Goode’s Antony Armstrong-Jones really kicked things off, and now, “Matrimonium” feels like a more daring, more introspective Crown, both stylistically and narratively.
Elizabeth has gotten the staid and buttoned-down treatment so far, built out of pensive worried looks and prim, careful blocking as she stands inside echoing rooms and rings her bell. Meanwhile, Margaret is all bluster and drama and pain and modernity. It’s a frustrating way to tell this story, but at least it’s a wind-up to what we see in “Matrimonium,” where everything crashes together in a tense, overwhelming mess. Margaret and Tony’s marriage is like a black hole: Everyone knows it can only lead to disaster and ruin, yet no one can seem to stop themselves from sliding into it.
That said, the episode could have done without Tony watching Jacqui Chan dance and then having energetic, nipple-silhouetting sex with her. (Chan, if you’re curious, is straight out of the very real, very long list of Armstrong-Jones’s lovers, but there was zero need for her to do an exoticized dance in Tony’s studio while he looked at her hungrily.) But otherwise, The Crown seems as enamored of Tony as Margaret is. The camera hovers lovingly on his wounded expression as he sits across the table from his icy, horrible mother. The scenes with him and his two lovers, Mr. and Mrs. Fry, make it seem as though Tony’s right — there really is no choice. For some cosmic, inexplicable reason, he really does have to marry Margaret, and there’s no point trying to judge him on such a blindingly bad decision.
“Matrimonium” is designed around the thematic and stylistic collision of their whizbang spectacular wedding at the Abbey: Margaret’s people and Tony’s people all together in the same room, glaring at each other disdainfully. You can see it coming when Tony comes to pick up Margaret on the motorbike and they dash away to his flat, intercut with shots of Elizabeth’s mother watching a deadly boring TV program about Galápagos iguanas; Margaret is escaping a world that’s crushing and ancient and mind-numbing, and she’s flying away to the pinnacle of modernity. You can also see it in what Tommy Lascelles might describe as Tony’s avant-garde sexuality, and in the way The Crown presents it as a ho-hum sort of thing. If you need any more evidence of how contemporary Tony is, his chic photography-themed proposal takes place in his darkly lit studio, which features a rug that I am sure you can buy at West Elm tomorrow.
The palace engagement party is the height of old meets new and the olds hate it. Margaret and Tony’s people crash the palace like it’s a club (a weirdly golden, well-lit club), and Philip and Elizabeth look on in despair as commoners laugh at everything much too loudly. Philip rants angrily about how much uproar there was about him — he was from a royal family! At least he knew how to behave! — and Elizabeth can only shake her head sadly and say nothing. Tony’s friends mimic the royal portraits and mock the footmen. The Queen Mother even tries to get a conga line going. It’s a testament to the world The Crown has created that we feel any sympathy for Elizabeth in this moment, because on its own, she’s just rolling her eyes at a bunch of partygoers having a good time. Instead, most of the camera shots find her at seated-height level, meaning that the boorish guests loom over her in the background. She is diminished, overwhelmed by them. Of course we sympathize.
Things just keep happening to Elizabeth, and “Matrimonium” emphasizes our alliance with her in that party scene and in the birth scene, which follows Outlander in depicting a historically accurate, barbaric-seeming twilight birthing process. (One more and it’s a trend!) When Elizabeth goes into labor, there’s a shot of a hand gripping a gauzy white curtain that was so melodramatic I actually snickered. She’s then knocked unconscious while a fleet of bonneted nurses and white-coated doctors haul the baby from her using massive forceps, and one particular shot follows the line from Elizabeth’s unconscious face down to the blurry distance of her disassociated body. We’re with her. We’re unnerved by the strangeness of a newborn infant being carried away from her ravaged body.
It’s such a disorienting moment that, in the scene that follows — when Margaret visits the baby and instantly asks for permission to announce her engagement — we’re even more inclined to credit Elizabeth. She tries to ask, as delicately as she can, whether marrying Tony is actually a good idea; Margaret laughs disbelievingly. When Elizabeth came out against Margaret and Peter’s marriage last season, it was hard to see it as anything other than a thoughtless, cruel choice. The relationship between the sisters feels more evenhanded now, and more effective. Margaret is wounded and not thinking clearly, so you can’t fault her for wanting to leap into a marriage with Tony. (It’s the worst idea for a marriage, though. Truly terrible.) Meanwhile, Elizabeth is doing her absolute best to be reasonable and make concessions, for the sake of getting along with Margaret and Tony. We feel for her, too.
It’s possible Margaret’s line at the end of their big scene together is too obvious, but honestly? It works. Elizabeth takes one look at Margaret’s grandiose speech about being a woman who’s “free to live, to love, free to break away,” and points out that actually, Margaret was free to do all those things but chose to keep her title and her privileges instead. “Whereas all I wanted to do,” Elizabeth continues, “was give it all up.” That achievement is even more impressive, Margaret shoots back, because Elizabeth has “managed to disappear and become invisible while wearing the crown.” It was an awfully direct line, but I didn’t care. Amid all the excess and hoopla, it’s a relief to have the main idea stated so baldly. It’s an explanation, too: Elizabeth is so stubbornly hard to see because she’s trying to be invisible.
We conclude with the disaster Margaret has been heading toward all season. Tony sits glumly next to his mother (played by Anna Chancellor, who I was so happy to see), and she denies him any love even as they roll up to his own wedding. Members of the press are everywhere, and historical audio plays over the top of typically sumptuous visuals. It is a circus, and Margaret is in seventh heaven. Everyone else looks on, slightly queasy.
Congrats to Margaret and Tony! You don’t need to know royal history to know that this marriage will not go smoothly.