Well, huh. After “Matrimonium” created a gorgeous, inevitable collision of Elizabeth and Margaret, totally at odds and yet trapped in their positions, “Dear Mrs. Kennedy” comes along with a muddled heap of JFK imitations, jealousy, African politics, and Elizabeth learning lessons about public grief.
Watching “Dear Mrs. Kennedy” is like riding a rollercoaster. First, it gives us scenes set in Ghana, reigniting the whole “Britain is losing its place in the world” idea that seemed really important in the first few episodes of the season. Then, after the Kennedys appeared so that Elizabeth would feel jealous and Philip would hit on Jackie, I thought, “Oh, I am going to hate this episode.” If Elizabeth is so “invisible,” as Margaret put it last episode, why is she green with envy that Jacqueline Kennedy impressed the president of France? Why is she desperately zipping herself into a too-tight ball gown?
But then the rollercoaster swings up again! Actually, Jackie is terribly lonely, which is precisely the sort of thing that would make Elizabeth like her. Jackie pulls out some deeply personal revelations about attaching oneself to a strong character and being left unprotected by his fame; it’s a conversation that seems like improbable chitchat for a first meeting between the First Lady and the Queen of England, but I’ll take it. At least we’re moving past the whole “Elizabeth is painfully jealous of an American First Lady” thing. Plus, corgi puppies. Corgi puppies! Named Whiskey and Sherry! I’m back onboard!
Until … nope. Margaret tells Elizabeth that Jackie said terrible things about her at a dinner party, and the whole thing swings back into rough territory, with Elizabeth as an uncultured, unintelligent figurehead who lacks the ability to charm African presidents into not hanging out with the Soviets. But I get why The Crown wanted to do this. Things look okay for Margaret’s marriage at the moment, and the slow diminishment of British global power doesn’t make for the soapiest story. You’ve got to get gossip somewhere, so why not make Jackie Kennedy call Buckingham Palace “second rate, dilapidated and sad” and compare it to “a provincial hotel”? Why not underline the whole idea by having Jackie describe the palace as “a tired institution without a place in the modern world”?
And then, why not have Jackie go all-in by saying cruel things about Elizabeth herself? If one of the dominant questions of The Crown is whether Elizabeth is smart enough to hang out on the international stage, why not tell that story through Jacqueline Kennedy gossiping about her at a dinner party and describing her as “a middle-aged woman, so incurious, unintelligent, and remarkable that Britain’s new reduced place in the world was not a surprise but an inevitability”?
However, Elizabeth does have the dignity of a comeback. She listens to the insults Jackie has slung at her, pauses for a moment, and then says, “Well, we must have her again,” with a delivery so cold it should be the new international standard for absolute zero. But that’s the thing: Claire Foy is so astoundingly great at portraying the moments when Elizabeth shoots back that it’s impossible to know what The Crown actually wants us to think about her. Is she actually an incurious, unintelligent leader? Is she trapped in her role, or does she choose to be trapped? Foy’s performance is so razor-sharp that she reveals depths that the writing doesn’t always support.
On this rollercoaster ride of an episode, the nadir is definitely Elizabeth consumed with jealousy and hurt that Jackie said mean things about her. But then, somehow, Elizabeth is spurred by this experience to take a larger role on the international stage and become a player in the growing crisis in Ghana? “I’ll show that Jackie,” she apparently says to herself, “by playing a little brinksmanship with Kwame Nkrumah and having a dance with him, even though this show has completely ignored that Ghana became independent from Britain in 1957, which you’d think would be a major part of any diplomatic situation, but whatever.”
To be clear, Elizabeth’s triumph in Ghana was absolutely real. In spite of security concerns and open questions about the impact of her trip, she did fly to Ghana and dance with Nkrumah, and the trip was seen as a huge success. The Crown does a remarkable job of re-creating the visit. The costuming, the setting, and the whole scene look like precise reconstructions of the historical footage. But the decision to link that triumph to Elizabeth’s jealousy of Jackie Kennedy? That’s pure construction, and it feels unnecessary.
From there, “Dear Mrs. Kennedy” throws another wrench in the Elizabeth and Jackie story. Elizabeth may have been jealous of Jackie, but at least she turned it into an international success. Until we discover that Jackie didn’t actually say those things! Or maybe she did, but she was hopped up on International Diplomacy Uppers and repeating lines fed to her by JFK, who was actually manipulating Jackie and Elizabeth all along!
Bent on repairing their relationship, Jackie sets up a private lunch to apologize. Elizabeth insists on hosting at Windsor Castle so she can make sure Jackie cruises down the driveway in the middle of a dozen completely unnecessary military drills. (This is a height of petty insecurity, but when a troop of guards on horses was immediately followed by a parade of soldiers in the bearskin hats, I laughed.) Jackie once again dives into incredibly personal territory, and lays out to Elizabeth not only how sorry she is but also that she’s been suffering from postpartum depression. Also, she and JFK were on meth all the time and that’s why she said that nasty stuff at the dinner party.
This episode is like having a normal conversation with an acquaintance who suddenly drops some wild conspiracy theory out of the blue, and then just keeps chatting calmly about the weather. “How’re you doing today? Jet fuel can’t melt steel beams, but isn’t it nice that the rain has stopped?” Elizabeth and Philip are dealing with the slow dissolution of the Commonwealth and things are still rocky with Margaret, but meanwhile, JFK and Jackie are high on meth all the time, he’s abusing Jackie, and he also manipulated Elizabeth into intervening in international affairs. Anyhow, here are more corgis!
“Dear Mrs Kennedy” ends with the titular letter address, as Elizabeth sits down to write a condolence letter to Jackie after JFK’s death. We don’t know what the letter says, but we do get to see Elizabeth look carefully at Jackie on television, still wearing a dress covered in Kennedy’s blood. “It’s deliberate,” she realizes, before ordering the bells of Westminster Abbey to be rung in his honor even though it’s not customary. That’s quite a nice way to end this mess of an episode. (Even if it doesn’t really jibe with reality, since Elizabeth was famously criticized for being reluctant to perform a similar display of grief after Diana was killed.)
Here’s hoping the last two episodes of the season pivot back to Margaret and Tony, because like Elizabeth, I’ve had enough of the Kennedys.