It’s time, at last, to dig into the drama between Princess Margaret and Group Captain Peter Townsend, which The Crown has dangled over our heads since the first episode.
I understand that Margaret and Peter want to get married, and it’s incredibly frustrating that they can’t do whatever they’d like because they’re stuck inside an oppressive monarchal framework. I understand, too, what it’s like to be in your early 20s and desperately want to see your boyfriend and not be able to do because circumstances conspire against you. (I swear, I do understand. The dreaded long-distance relationship played a major role in my college experience.) And I also get that this isn’t modern times — being forced to be apart from someone in 1953 is a dramatically different experience than it is now, as The Crown works hard to remind us with its extensive, impressively detailed sequences of what it was like for Margaret to call Elizabeth on the phone.
At the same time, this is also where the historical setting of The Crown is slightly flummoxing. To modern ears, being told that you’re not going to get a two-day vacation with your fiancé before he’s shipped off to Brussels does sound disappointing, but not necessarily worth vowing a blood feud over. Being told that you’re not allowed to get married until you’re 25 sounds even less worth the fuss. (Two years?! Surely it takes half that time just to plan the thing!) So in spite of how much effort The Crown puts into building sympathy for Margaret and Peter, its work is undermined by the incipient modernity of its setting.
So much of the series (and Elizabeth II’s reign) is about negotiating between ancient traditions and changing social norms. The Crown is at its best when it tackles that conflict head-on, and some of the better pieces of “Gelignite” come from the slightly under-explored aspect of what television and the press has done for Elizabeth and Philip’s fame.
When the episode begins, Elizabeth is at the height of her post-coronation stardom. As some time passes and news of Margaret and Peter’s relationship begins to circulate through press rumors, Elizabeth’s popularity threatens to be overshadowed. First, Peter pulls focus from her. Later, she’s shamed for denying her sister’s romantic desires. This tension is pretty fascinating, and it goes a long way toward allowing Elizabeth to be a complex, fully drawn character rather than a pretty face wearing a crown who desperately wants to please her husband. She is notably miffed when the photographers seem more interested with Peter than with her. When he has a moment of grandstanding on the stairs outside the plane, Elizabeth is downright displeased. (Her small face framed inside the airplane’s tiny window while Peter waves cheerily in the sunlight is one of the episode’s stronger visual choices.)
Elizabeth’s desire for popularity and her need to shut down anything that overshadows her offer a new tint of complexity for the character. Until this point, she’s been a largely blameless young woman just trying to do her best to manage an unmanageable situation, balancing her husband’s desires with her sense of monarchical responsibility, her father’s and grandmother’s opinions, and her own preferences. She’s been unquestionably right at pretty much every juncture. This is the first time we see her making a choice for what could be seen as a selfish reason. (Selfish and affronted. The moment Peter called her “Lilibet,” the family pet name for her, he was toast.) It’s not that simple, of course. She’s separating Peter and Margaret because it’s the advice of her mother and stodgy Tommy Lascelles, and because she’s operating under the belief that it’s important for the monarchy to remain the lead story in any media coverage of her family. If Margaret and Peter’s romance takes over the narrative, Elizabeth worries that the royal family will become just like any other famous British family, and all the magic and majesty of the monarchy will dissipate. But in protecting the monarchy, Elizabeth is conveniently also protecting herself.
This is an interesting, plausible, and emotionally compelling story. Elizabeth struggling to negotiate what television has done to her fame is a real issue, as is her subsequent failure to predict how press coverage would change from her father’s era to hers. It’s central to the story of her monarchy, and it’s one of the primary through lines between the Elizabeth of the 1950s, the Elizabeth of the 1990s royal catastrophes era, and the William-Kate circus of today.
But that story is not the focus of this episode. It appears, and it’s fascinating, but the spotlight is clearly on Margaret and Peter and their forbidden love. And again, I do feel for them. They must have known this was going to be a whole situation, though. As the newspaper man says in one of the opening scenes, “When this lot brush up against divorce, you end up with either reformation or abdication,” and there’s no way Margaret and Peter could’ve been ignorant of that history. The result of that disconnect (and of the historical gap between them and The Crown’s viewers) is that Margaret and Peter’s romance is unsatisfying in two directions. First, they seem willfully blind to their own circumstances, which makes it hard to be on their side. And second, when things turn out to be actually far more humane than you know it could’ve been — just wait until she’s 25! — Margaret reacts as if Elizabeth is putting Peter in prison.
Elizabeth is not blameless here. She uses Tommy Lascelles to get rid of Peter when it’s clear he’s stealing her thunder, and it was truly irresponsible of her to agree to the marriage right away if she wasn’t fully prepared to stand up to her mother and Lascelles and everyone else. And really, the conflicted depiction of Elizabeth’s actions is summed up by two matching images from the episode. The first is that one of her on the airplane, looking out at Peter as he waves to the press. This is protective, defensive Elizabeth, gripping onto old-fashioned ideas of what the monarchy should be and how hierarchy works.
The other image is of Elizabeth standing in the window of Buckingham Palace as Philip merrily drives off to a house party in the country, abandoning her for the weekend. It’s a very similar shot, framing Elizabeth from the outside as she watches the car drive away through a French door. The idea has been turned on its head — from the airplane, Elizabeth is the stuck-up, distant monarch, watching her subjects from on high and judging them. She’s a woman passing judgment on a man who disappoints her. From Buckingham Palace, she’s Rapunzel locked in a tower, looking out at the freedom she does not have, watching a man escape whenever he wants.
This is where The Crown is strongest, when it picks apart the different frames we use to understand Elizabeth’s reign, ultimately drawing a portrait that escapes the simplicity of old-school monarch stuck in a modern moment. And my sense is that The Crown would like its audience to feel for all the different players of its doomed love affair. The show would like to build a case for Margaret and Peter, who are kept apart by dumb, outdated monarchal rules. It wants to create compassion for Elizabeth, and it’s increasingly successful in that task. But while I’m completely ready to feel empathy for them all, “Gelignite” struggles to fully make that connection.