At first glance, it’s perplexing that The Crown, a TV series about the queen, devoted its season-three finale to Princess Margaret. But it’s because, as “Cri de Coeur” shows, Elizabeth still cannot survive without Margaret and vice versa. By at last accepting the role that she spent decades fighting against — serving and supporting Elizabeth — Margaret fulfills a greater purpose than anyone else in this episode. She is the one to provide her sister with the sage advice she so desperately needed to move the royal family forward.
As Elizabeth prepares to celebrate her Silver Jubilee, she finds herself filled with self-doubt, taking the blame for a country that’s “fallen apart.” Margaret must remind her sister that her job is to “paper over the cracks,” something we already know Elizabeth has perfected over the years, because most of her speeches this season seemed to be about how the royal family’s purpose is built on the concept of smoke and mirrors.
Margaret’s importance also cannot be underestimated when it comes to the inevitable conclusion of her ill-fated marriage to Antony Armstrong-Jones. It’s played down in the episode, but the queen’s agreeing to, and even encouraging, the eventual 1978 divorce between Margaret and Tony set an important precedent regarding marital dissolution within the royal family.
Timeline-wise, this episode is all over the place: Even though much of the action is restricted to Margaret’s scandalous (for the time) affair with the much-younger Roddy Llewellyn, whom she met in 1973, it also needed to cover the 1974 general election that saw Harold Wilson returning as prime minister, Wilson’s 1976 resignation, and the queen’s jubilee in June 1977. As a result, a lot of the historical moments feel crammed in, and certain Crown-worthy events are ignored completely (i.e., Princess Anne’s 1973 wedding and the 1974 attempted kidnapping of her).
We know by this point that Margaret is insufferable, but that doesn’t mean it’s healthy for her to remain in a toxic marriage, the evidence of which is strewn about her bedroom. When the queen visits her depressed and disheveled sister, she has to tiptoe around broken glass and knocked-over furniture. “An exchange of views” is Margaret’s explanation for what has obviously crumbled into an abusive relationship. While Tony is off with his new conquest (and second wife), Lucy Lindsay-Hogg, Margaret remains in denial by insisting she and Tony prefer having separate lives, and that, disturbingly, “War is our love.”
It’s during Margaret’s birthday-party scene that Helena Bonham Carter deftly transfers any and all sympathy back toward the ignored princess — with some help from Marion Bailey’s insensitive Queen Mother. In typical dramatic fashion, Margaret drunkenly insists that her family “punish” her cheating, absentee husband. (Basically, she wants Tony to be stripped of all royal privileges and for everyone to publicly announce they’re on Team Margaret.)
The Queen Mother’s response to Margaret’s outrageous demands is to talk about how great Tony is, with Philip joining in with this ghastly comment: “Perhaps we’re just sick to the back teeth of you.” Margaret, understandably, blows a gasket, with Bonham Carter in many ways making us wait all season to relish in the gravitas that we knew she could bring to this role. When you’re given no purpose in life, when you’re never encouraged to build on your natural gifts, when your family won’t support your choice of husband, you’re going to end up dragging everyone else down with you.
Margaret runs away to her friend Anne Tennant’s house party, where she meets Roddy (Harry Treadaway), 17 years her junior. Roddy ends up being good for Margaret, offering enough of a distraction from her reality that she’s willing to admit, while luxuriating on the Island of Mustique, that she’s happy. (Another observation about their “She’s Not There”–soundtracked Caribbean sojourn? It’s the sexiest this show has gotten in all three seasons.)
Well, happy until the paparazzi photograph of Roddy rubbing sunscreen all over her body. Then Margaret is subjected to an endless cycle of hypocrisy from the press (“The Lady and the Tramp”; “The Floozy and the Scrounger”), her mother, and her own womanizing husband.
So when Margaret and her “toy boy” return home, she and Tony have another one of their vicious fights, where they trade savage verbal insults, and Roddy bolts. (The Crown suggests he’s been scared off, but in reality, he and Margaret had an eight-year relationship that ended in the early 1980s.) I don’t see how anyone wouldn’t hit rock bottom after a row like this one, which makes it the perfect time for The Crown to explore Margaret’s rumored suicide attempt. Elizabeth gets word that Margaret has overdosed on anxiety pills, and, unlike the Queen Mother, who callously dismisses her younger daughter’s behavior as a “cri de coeur,” the queen gives her sister the love and support she’s been aching for. In a rare moment of emotion, Elizabeth says, in no uncertain terms, that it would be “unbearable” if Margaret, “the closest and most important” person in her life, had succeeded in killing herself.
If the queen is concerned that she hasn’t had anything to show for herself over the past 25 years, this final scene between her and Margaret signals more of an accomplishment than all of her diplomatic skills combined. Ever since the beginning of this series, there has been no question that these moments between Elizabeth and Margaret have always been the strongest ones. We didn’t get too many in season three, but that just makes them, especially when acted by Bonham Carter and Olivia Colman, all the more special.
None of this means the sisters are in much of a celebratory mood when the episode jumps to the morning of the queen’s jubilee. As Elizabeth quietly prepares for the day, we cut back to her conversation with a post-overdose Margaret, where she worries she’s been “useless” in her reign. That’s when Margaret feeds Elizabeth a version of the lecture that the queen herself has been dispensing all season long: “You cannot flinch. Because if you show a single crack, we’ll see it isn’t a crack, but a chasm. And we’ll all fall in. So you must hold it all together.”
No pressure! But Margaret gets it, maybe better than Elizabeth ever did, because after all, it’s a job she’s coveted her whole life. She’s had to learn the hard way that “there is only one queen.”
To emphasize Elizabeth’s loneliness, the queen climbs into her golden carriage solo, even though, IRL, Philip rode with her. Despite the roar of the crowds, just like at the end of last season, even a happy event prevents her from smiling. It doesn’t matter that Elizabeth has mastered the art of being an impeccable monarch. Much as she tries to suppress it, she’s still human deep down, and we need those reminders every now and again. That’s why I will always be grateful to The Crown. It may be more fiction than fact, but it’s the closest most of us will ever get to seeing what’s inside the queen’s heart.
• Margaret’s birthday party scene seems to have been scripted from this line in a 2017 obituary for Antony Armstrong-Jones: “The royal family, well knowing the princess’ tantrums, tended to take his side.”
• That was a supremely nice touch when Tony presented some old photos to the queen of her and Philip, and they were of Claire Foy and Matt Smith.
• There is no more quintessential image of Princess Margaret than her sitting by a pool in a fur coat.