The Crown has been exploring the harsh truths of primogeniture since the start, but one of this rule’s cruelest ironies is how it prevents Princess Margaret from taking center stage in the context of the TV series as often as we’d like. Even in the season-three premiere, the obvious and predicted early breakdown of Margaret’s marriage to photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones, now Lord Snowdon (Ben Daniels), took a backseat to the spy caper taking place within Buckingham Palace.
Thankfully, we didn’t have to wait long for “Margaretology,” an episode that deftly combines the froth and emptiness that go hand in hand within the life of the Queen’s younger sister.
Set in late 1965, this episode sees The Crown again massaging history for its soapy purposes (this is in no way a complaint, because I love the idea of Margaret, especially as played by Helena Bonham Carter, using dirty limericks to win over Lyndon B. Johnson). This time, the show spins a publicly disastrous trip the Snowdons took to America into one that supposedly saved Britain’s economic welfare.
“Margaretology” also revisits the complicated relationship between the two royal sisters, by bookending the story with a heartbreaking flashback to 1943: With Elizabeth’s blessing, 13-year-old Margaret boldly asks the King’s private secretary/royal family manipulator Tommy Lascelles (it’s a flashback, so Pip Torrens returned to the role, yay!) if she can become queen instead. She is then basically informed that her life will have no purpose other than to “serve and support” Elizabeth, and that she’d better get used to watching “from the wings.” No, that couldn’t possibly cause lifelong emotional damage to an adolescent girl, could it?
It’s one thing for The Crown to paint the party-hearty Margaret as a sympathetic figure in light of her shattered love affair with Group Captain Peter Townsend. But I was pleasantly surprised to see the series compounding the princess’ melancholy with a fierce albeit futile desire to do something useful. I’d like to think there was some ambition lurking underneath the false eyelashes and designer wardrobe, but she never had the chance to prove herself in the long term thanks to, at least according to The Crown, 18th-century British law, an alcohol-soaked Lascelles theory, and the Queen’s jealousy over Margaret’s popularity, as evidenced by Elizabeth’s hate-watch of her sister’s American tour newsreel.
Per “Margaretology,” the United Kingdom is on the precipice of a serious financial collapse, and a bailout from the American government would mean the difference between financial solvency and the devaluation of the British pound. But President Johnson (Clancy Brown, hardly needing to tweak his Texas blowhard character from Billions to pull off a blustery LBJ) ain’t in the mood to help out his jolly old allies. He’s sore because Prime Minister Harold Wilson and the Labour government aren’t supporting his growing actions in Vietnam.
This, and particularly what transpires with Margaret, is an oversimplified explanation of U.S.-U.K. relations at the time. But it’s since much more fun to watch a glamorous princess secure her country’s future by drunkenly singing show tunes than through tedious meetings between stodgy old white men, The Crown gives us “Maggie Does Diplomacy.” While the Snowdons did attend a dinner at the White House, the Netflix series is now suggesting that it happened because Margaret-Wan Kenobi was Britain’s only hope.
Following a prodding from Wilson, the Queen commands her reluctant sister to accept the president’s dinner invitation. By appealing to her sister’s belief that she’s a “wasted resource,” Elizabeth presents Margaret with an opportunity to prove her mettle as a stateswoman. What the Queen never expected was for Margaret to succeed with flying colors by taking the royal playbook and tearing it to pieces.
Diplomacy, shiplomacy. Yes, Margaret impressed LBJ with the aforementioned songs and limericks (the morning-after debriefing between an embarrassed Wilson and the unflappable Queen is a delight), but she won his heart in the long-term by pointing out their commonality of living in another’s shadow.
Returning home with both an American bailout and a newfound confidence in her diplomatic aptitude, Margaret brazenly asks to “share duties” with the Queen (Olivia Colman demonstrating advanced-level wide-eyeball work here). As a sister, Elizabeth is sympathetic: Margaret’s idle life, while comfortable and pampered, is also “soul-destroying.”
But it takes a heart-to-heart with Philip for Elizabeth to come to the realization that, once again, she must break her sister’s heart for the sake of stability — and also to prevent Margaret from outshining her. I can’t believe I’m agreeing with Philip in this scene, but the guy makes several salient points by laying out how problematic a monarchy is in the first place. The bottom line is, Margaret’s White House success was a fluke, with the princess’ nonexistent diplomatic skills hidden by vulgar poems and an open bar. Secondly, Phil tells his wife about a theory Tommy Lascelles imparted to him during a drunken night together some time back, which boils down to the idea that the royal family has endured because of dependable yet dull monarchs like Elizabeth. The dazzling ones, like Margaret and the Nazi-sympathizing King Edward VIII, may be more interesting, but do you really want people like that in the top job? Take it from an American: A flamboyant leader who makes great copy — but not much else — rising to the highest office in the land isn’t something to be celebrated. It’s something that should raise a red flag.
The royal family may be an institution, but they’re also, as their name states, a family, which is what makes these kinds of blows even harder to withstand. So when Margaret sees a vacant expression on her sister’s face following the queen’s conference with Philip, she knows her request for a more well-rounded royal existence has been denied. Bonham Carter plays this scene with perfect plaintiveness, her face rapidly moving from hopeful to crestfallen. Adult Margaret is then juxtaposed with her 13-year-old self, after she received that angry dressing-down from Lascelles for having the audacity to ask if she could be queen. As both Margarets look in the mirror, for a split second, we mourn these gazes of untapped potential. We’ll never know what Margaret could’ve done with her life had she not had the bad luck of being born after her sister.
• I’m glad The Crown found a way to feature the famously naughty image of Princess Margaret in the bathtub wearing her wedding tiara. But unfortunately, it’s at the sacrifice of historical accuracy: Lord Snowdon took the photo of his wife back in 1962, not during their 1965 U.S. tour.
• Fun piece of trivia for Downton Abbey fans: Both actors who have played the Queen’s assistant private secretary Martin Charteris on The Crown portrayed both of Lady Edith’s most significant love interests (forget you, Sir Anthony Strallan). Harry Hadden-Paton (a.k.a. Bertie Pelham, Marquess of Hexham, aka Edith’s eventual husband) played Charteris in seasons one and two. For season three, the role has been recast with Charles Edwards (a.k.a. Michael Gregson, a.k.a. Edith’s baby daddy, the one killed by Nazi thugs).