As The Crown inches closer toward the 21st century, it’s inevitable that the focus will shift onto Queen Elizabeth’s children. It also means, in case you haven’t noticed this season, that Princess Margaret has been relegated even further to the periphery – of both her family and the Netflix series.
“The Hereditary Principle” is the first and only Margaret-centric episode of season four, and Helena Bonham Carter makes up for her reduced screen time brilliantly. She is tasked with not just capturing the princess’ aimless existence, but as she’s been doing all season long, positioning Margaret as the only royal confident enough to call bullshit on her family’s atrocious behavior.
We learn about yet another royal family secret in this episode, as well as delve deeper into Margaret’s depression – something that’s managed to get even worse since she ended her destructive marriage to Antony Armstrong-Jones in 1978. But the real tragedy of Margaret’s story is how she seems to suffer from a kind of Stockholm Syndrome. Now, I know I have no right to make any sort of diagnosis since my therapy credentials extend to multiple viewings of all four seasons of The Crown. What I do know about Margaret, though, is that she always returns to the source of her misery. Time and time again, whenever she’s offered the opportunity to take control of her life (marrying Group Captain Peter Townsend, or, in “The Hereditary Principle,” converting to Catholicism), she can never go through with it, because it means relinquishing her title – thus allowing the toxicity cycle to continue. After watching the stories of Princesses Diana and Margaret this season, I am even more in awe of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s decision to leave their senior royal roles. Second-born royals like Margaret and Prince Andrew have a pretty ugly track record, so bravo to Prince Harry for taking pre-emptive measures not just for his own well-being, but that of his wife and son.
I don’t think The Crown was terribly concerned with timeline accuracy for this episode, because two of the major events that sent Margaret spiraling in “The Hereditary Principle” – the partial removal of her lung and Prince Edward replacing her as Counsellor of State – occurred in 1985. But the public discovery of Elizabeth and Margaret’s developmentally disabled cousins, Katherine and Nerissa Bowes-Lyon, didn’t happen until 1987. Also, Prince Charles mentions that Diana is pregnant, and Harry was born in September 1984.
So, following a health scare, a pale and weakened Margaret makes a “familiar request” of her sister: She wants to take on more royal duties. Talk about terrible timing: shortly afterward, the Queen informs Margaret that she must relinquish her role as Counsellor of State — one of six senior royals who can deputize for the monarch when needed— to the now-of-age Prince Edward. (If you ever wondered what a Queen Elizabeth-crapping-her-pants expression looked like, Olivia Colman grants your wish beautifully in this scene.)
Now devoid of any purpose, Margaret boards a private jet to Mustique, where she mopes around her neglected beach house, dreaming of the good ol’ days with Roddy Llewellyn. It’s a short-lived escape, though, because she almost immediately returns to London at the behest of her nephew Charles, a recent convert to psychotherapy: It’s time for Margaret to get some professional help.
Margaret begrudgingly attends a therapy session, but it doesn’t take much prying for her to open up, or for Bonham Carter to rival Colman’s tear-duct work. As the camera moves into a close-up of Bonham Carter’s profile, her quivering lip belies Margaret’s stoicism, with the princess admitting to her depression. Strangely enough, that isn’t the most memorable part of the appointment. When the therapist (Gemma Jones) discusses the Windsor family’s mental health history, she lets it slip that the princess has two institutionalized first cousins on her mother’s side.
There isn’t a huge amount of information available on this topic, which, of course, makes it ideal for a Crown episode. What we do know is Katherine and Nerissa Bowes-Lyon were the daughters of the Queen Mother’s older brother, John “Jock” Bowes-Lyon. They were committed to the Earlswood Asylum in 1941 – and both were listed in Burke’s Peerage as having died by 1961. In truth, as verified by the photos and birth and death dates included in the epilogue for “The Hereditary Principle,” both sisters were very much alive during the events of this episode. Nerissa died in 1986, and Katherine died in 2014.
A quick check of Burke’s substantiates the official declaration that the sisters are deceased, but Sherlock Margaret believes there’s something fishy going on. And since she literally has nothing better to do, I hereby give you the most Princess Margaret-in-The Crown sentence ever written: She enlists her gay former lover, Derek “Dazzle” Jennings (Tom Burke), now a priest-in-training, for some mental-asylum detective work.
As soon as Dazzle confirms that the sisters are alive, a distraught Margaret hightails it to the Queen Mother’s Scottish bachelorette pad. But the news is still as raw as the beachfront weather for a rational conversation. Decades of pent-up rage toward her family for shutting out those who don’t “fit the perfect mold of silent, dutiful supplication” are released as the Queen Mother – who, yep, totally knew about her nieces – attempts the standard excuses: “We had no choice,” “The abdication made us do it!” and “It’s complicated.”
May I talk about Marion Bailey’s costume here for a second? Because it is the third character in the scene: On top of the traditional pearls, skirt, blouse, and cardigan, the Queen Mother is wearing a wool scarf tied around her head, a hat, and a giant hooded rain jacket. The only reason why this sartorially ludicrous (and likely very necessary, given the climate) ensemble doesn’t upstage the two actors is because Bailey and Bonham Carter are masters of their craft.
Later in the evening, the Queen Mother gives what she truly believes is a reasonable explanation for why Margaret’s cousins were hidden away: When she suddenly became Queen, every aspect of her bloodline was scrutinized. Basically, “What would the neighbors think?” Anyone who’s been reading my Crown recaps since last season knows I am not a fan of the Queen Mother, mainly because she imposes outdated, harmful mindsets onto the younger generations. Her speech to Margaret here is just another example of how integral she’s been to the royal family’s permanent damage. She openly admits she wanted to conceal any hint of mental illness in her family – and unapologetically uses the phrase “100% purity.”
But when Margaret learns from her therapist that the Bowes-Lyon cousins inherited their developmental disabilities from their mother (Elizabeth and Margaret were related to the sisters through their father), it doesn’t do much to assuage her sadness. That’s because The Crown’s version of this story suggests the Queen Mother was complicit in locking Katherine and Nerissa away even when they didn’t pose a public-relations threat to the royal family.
You’d think that Margaret would’ve ditched Kensington Palace for good at this point, but like I said earlier, what happens next is the real heartbreak of the story. When Dazzle invites her to convert to Catholicism – something she apparently considered – she instead doubles down on her family, a family that continues to diminish her at every turn.
Returning to Mustique, Margaret resumes her position as the saddest, loneliest party girl in the world. All because she couldn’t find the courage to stop hiding behind the shadow of her title.
Anyone else have “Woke Prince Charles” on their Crown bingo card this season? As in, his telling Margaret she can’t call mental-health professionals “headshrinkers”?