Sister relationships are complicated, particularly by the rules of rigid patriarchal standards that have historically been a divisive force among young girls. Divide and conquer isn’t just a wartime tactic, it’s used all the time to ensure people — particularly women — are fighting against one another rather than fighting the system that holds them down. This mentality has defined the relationship of the Windsor sisters, Margaret and Elizabeth, at least as presented on Netflix’s The Crown, and it’s precisely what makes their hard-fought union at the end of season three so important. The strength of this latest season, its most compelling emotional through line, is seeing two sisters, in their own way, coming together despite all the bullshit thrown at them.
Sisters always seem to find themselves jealous of what the other has that they believe they lack, a schism that society is all too happy to reinforce. As Philip (Tobias Menzies) says in so many words late in the game this season, for every dull Windsor there is one brimming with charisma and chaos, essentially dubbing Elizabeth (now played by Olivia Colman) the dullard and Margaret (portrayed by Helena Bonham Carter) the charismatic ray of light. The layers of negative reinforcement, divisive language, and manipulation at play in this comparison between the sisters reinforces the idea that women must behave and perform a certain way, anchored in an old, controlling, and patriarchal point of view.
We see the beginning strains of these expectations in season three’s “Margaretology,” which revisits the siblings’ childhood relationship through the context of older, arguably wiser eyes. As children, the sisters struggled with rules and roles and expectations, and attempted to buck convention, only to succumb to the easier action: to simply fall in line. But The Crown’s final two episodes find a glimmer of hope within the tragedy of the relationship of these two women: When Margaret crumbles following the dissolution of her marriage and her subsequent suicide attempt, she and Elizabeth seem to find their way back to each other.
After Margaret attempts to take her own life, at her limits with her family’s lack of empathy and her own struggles, Elizabeth sees the truth of her sister, and by extension of herself. As Margaret, Bonham Carter continues to evolve Vanessa Kirby’s original interpretation of the younger Windsor sister, cuttingly witty and perceptive, terrifyingly combative and vulnerable in equal measure — troubled to the bone thanks to her own repressed state, both as a person and within the family. Both women have carried the weight of history, precedence, and expectations since birth, and the need to “stay the course” burdens them both, not just Elizabeth. In the final moments of the season, watching Elizabeth struggle to and ultimately connect with her younger sister, it becomes heartbreakingly clear how the monarchy has shattered this sisterly bond.
As depicted in The Crown, in their younger years, Elizabeth (Verity Russell) and Margaret (Beau Gadsdon) were incredibly bonded, their differences complementing each other and creating a united force. As adults, though, that unity has been eroded by the insertion of the monarchy itself, which forced the women apart in the name of austerity and antiquated expectations. This helps explain why, in earlier seasons, Margaret (then embodied by Kirby) and Elizabeth (played by Claire Foy) were much more outwardly disdainful of each other, their interactions charged with the bitter aftertaste of a childhood camaraderie gone sour. Though the box in which these women are kept is a gorgeously rendered and detailed one, beautiful to behold, it is a confinement nonetheless, and one defined by the tradition of monarchy, where stability, peace, and morality are the principal measures of a person’s worth. And though Elizabeth’s worth is immediately positioned as greater than Margaret’s, it’s clear from previous seasons that Elizabeth has often felt uncertain of her place in all of it — and her ability to do the job — and yet must keep up appearances at the cost of everything else.
Because here’s the rub: Both Margaret and Elizabeth know that Margaret might have made an incredibly gregarious and charming head of state. “Margaretology” puts a fine point on the tragedy that is the sisters’ circumstance when Margaret has to woo President Lyndon B. Johnson (Clancy Brown) into giving the U.K. a bailout, following a long snub of the queen herself. Margaret’s ability to do all the untoward things that Elizabeth can’t, and that being exactly what’s needed in the situation, seems to gut the queen, resurfacing all those repressed feelings of envy and unworthiness that have undermined their relationship for so many years.
Here and elsewhere throughout season three, we see Elizabeth grappling with the sister she knows and the person those around her reduce Margaret to be, but it is in the finale that we finally see how the sisters can only be their most human selves with each other. While visiting Margaret as she recuperates post-overdose, Elizabeth is quick to point out how much Margaret means to her. “Of all the people everywhere, you are the closest and most important to me,” Colman declares through tears. “And if by doing this you wanted to let me imagine for one minute what life would be like without you, you succeeded. It would be unbearable.”
It’s an emotionally saturated moment, right down to Colman’s quivering delivery. It is clear by the end of the season that their bond, however tarnished it’s become, is what’s needed to keep them both — and by extension the monarchy they represent — feeling whole and stable. “Then we must both carry on,” Margaret declares, which is, perhaps, the British verbal equivalent of a long, loving hug.
In spite of the of-their-time barriers (and general stiff-upper-lip Britishness) that keep them from connecting in a more vulnerable and strengthening way, Elizabeth and Margaret still find a way to return to each other: the big sister and the little, the dependable one and the rule-breaker. This new understanding between sisters sets the table for what will be the first royal divorce, providing a glimmer of hope that the monarchy may be able to slowly, in its lumbering and archaic fashion, evolve to the point that, one day, a young prince may be able to marry the black American actress he loves. But the monarchy, and by extension Elizabeth, still has plenty of rocky terrain to navigate before that point, and as the final moments of The Crown season three make clear, the queen will endure it only by knowing that the one person who truly understands is still there despite, and maybe because of, it all.