When there are so many historical milestones to establish in a short period of time, it’s ironic that episodes like “Dangling Man” end up fulfilling little more than a transitional purpose. But that’s not to say there isn’t a boatload of drama ahead: The cliffhanger-y ending, in which the Queen reads Charles’s impetuous proclamations about his love life in his letters to his great-uncle, the Duke of Windsor (now played by Derek Jacobi), all but seals the Prince of Wales’s fate regarding Camilla Shand (Emerald Fennell).
As if the introduction of the future Duchess of Cornwall wasn’t enough to indicate that The Crown has entered yet another turbulent era, “Dangling Man” also covers, in no particular order: a new decade (the episode takes place roughtly between 1970 and 1972), a new prime minister in the form of Conservative Party leader Edward Heath (Michael Maloney), the retirement of the Queen’s longtime secretary Michael Adeane — and the Duke of Windsor’s death.
It’s hardly a surprise that “Dangling Man” should devote most of its emotional bandwidth to creating love-story parallels between the former King Edward VIII and his American wife, Wallis Simpson (now played by Geraldine Chaplin), and Charles and Camilla. The episode also doesn’t waste time confirming that the onetime monarch, known among his family as David, is not long for this world. (He coughs up blood in the opening scene, which is TV/film shorthand for “Make the funeral preparations now.”) But even in death, David leaves one final slap in the face to the family that exiled him for the crime of falling in love: Charles now intends to be a “dazzling” king just like his uncle was — wearing the crown on his terms. And if there are any words that are anathema to the Queen and the rest of the royals, it’s “progressive” and “individuality.”
Since the explicit details of Charles and Camilla’s meeting are still relatively unclear, The Crown sensibly keeps things vague, with one exception: Camilla and her eventual first husband Andrew Parker Bowles (Andrew Buchan) have a classic on-again-off-again relationship. To make things extra murky, Princess Anne hooks up with Andrew while Camilla is off having her fling with Charles, with Andrew telling Anne not two minutes after having sex that his heart will always belong to Camilla. Then we learn Camilla’s loud polo-match cheers for Charles were ostensibly just to make Andrew jealous.
Whatever the confidence-oozing Camilla is playing at, Charles has fallen hook, line, and sinker. (So have I; I’ve been a fan of Fennell’s since Call the Midwife and she’s exquisite in this role.) Ignoring both Uncle Dickie’s advice to sow his oats and Anne’s warning that Camilla and Andrew may not be entirely dunzo, Charles gives his new girlfriend a personally guided tour of his long-suffering heart during an intimate candlelit dinner.
It’s done under the ruse of a carefully orchestrated prank, so Camilla walks away from it thinking the Prince of Wales just has a morbid sense of humor. But considering that devastating exchange he had with his mother two episodes ago, I don’t think Charles was bullshitting Camilla when he talked about feeling “trapped” by his position. Or that he felt the need to compare himself to the protagonist in Saul Bellow’s novel Dangling Man, stating “Until [the Queen] dies, I cannot be fully alive.”
Charles’s feelings of being stifled by his “predicament” are further illustrated through his visit to his great-uncle David’s home in France, and later, while watching a BBC interview with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. The prince is rather taken with not just the brightly burning love between them, but David’s statement that the royal family feared his “freedom of character and freedom of thought.” We’ve known since his investiture episode that Charles wants to break the royal mold while still holding on to the crown. Given the anguish of what’s to come over the next couple of decades, the impending doom surrounding his idealistic intentions is palpable.
By the time “Dangling Man” reaches 1972, David’s days are numbered, and Elizabeth, during a state visit to France, is encouraged to see her ailing uncle for the last time. (While The Crown portrays David as cut off from the rest of the Windsors, there were periodic visits between the royal family members over the years.) Elizabeth is visibly uncomfortable, with Olivia Colman expertly keeping the interaction icily formal, because there is a lot of baggage here. To her credit, Liz does achieve some closure with her estranged relation: She confronts him about his derogatory nickname for her, “Shirley Temple”; calls his abdication “a blessing”; and stops short of kissing him as a reminder that his personal choices came at a great cost to her family’s happiness — even though David has to concede, “The crown always finds its way to the right head.”
But David is no fool, and he’s got a score to settle with the family that turned his back on him. So before he leaves this earth, he wickedly sows the seeds for yet another succession crisis by manipulating Charles’s vulnerability and Elizabeth’s reservations over her son’s aptitude to be king. First he plants further doubt over Charles’s potential as monarch by suggesting he can only do it with “the right woman by his side.” Then he shrewdly encourages his niece to read Charles’s correspondence with him, under the auspices of understanding her son better.
The letters, as recited by Charles in voice-over, praise everything about David that the rest of the royal family viewed as a threat: His “progressiveness and flair.” His “individuality and imagination.” All of the words that fit into the “dazzling” (and dangerous, if you’re the sovereign) category.
That’s not even the most naïve, and pitiful, part of this letter. That comes when Charles insists that the crown is “the changing face of the changing times.” I mean, I don’t even know where to start with that statement. Clearly his parents haven’t gotten around to explaining how the dullards are the ones who keep the monarchy alive, not to mention that the stuffy Charles is the last person anyone would think of as the poster boy for revolution.
But it’s when Elizabeth reads Charles going for the jugular, insisting to the Duke of Windsor that he “will not be denied what you have been denied” (cutting to Charles gazing at a blissful Camilla soaking in the bathtub), that she realizes she might have a David/Wallis redux on her hands.
At that moment, I’m pretty sure I heard the Duke of Windsor cackling from beyond the grave.