If you’ve been looking forward to Prince Andrew’s wedding, the introduction of Fergie, the relationship between Diana and her at-first ally Fergie*, and a rich look at the complicated sibling relationships between Charles, Anne, Edward, and Andrew… sorry! Granted, some of that may yet come, but the building blocks could have been properly stacked. The show has a lot of meaty family politics yet to mine, but picks actual politics instead; I feel like The Crown always struggles to find the balance, and too often leaves out the interpersonal stuff. UNLESS it involves Princess Margaret feeling slighted.
* There is SO MUCH here to mine: Di and Fergs were cousins, and friends before Diana got married; Diana even gave her a scrap of fabric from her dress, and they had weekly lunches at which Sarah was Diana’s confidante, with Diana eventually playing matchmaker for Sarah and Andrew — which might have been fun to see amid Charles’s semi-standoffish relationship with Andy, and Diana’s other miseries. I assume we’ll get bits and pieces going forward of their rambunctious friendship, before it falls apart, but once again when presented with the chance to give deeper roots and richness to a real-life relationship between two important women in the royal family, Peter Morgan passes on it in favor of… what, exactly? Making the Queen look wrong-headed or cruel (with Shea) or impotent/pointless (Thatcher etc.)? Maybe she is all those things and maybe she isn’t, but ye gods, is that the only hammer in his toolbox? [Editing to add that I’m not downplaying her anti-apartheid stance or that this conflict itself might be important to depict; just that because it comes at the end of a long line of choices that I think have caused other important aspects of the show to suffer, my frustration is magnified. We spent a full minute and a half here on her press secretary writing his novel. We didn’t need it. Also I’m biased because I can’t stand the Thatcher scenes.]
I’m going to bungle the nuances here, I’m sure, because I have to be honest: This episode bored me enough that I had to rewind a lot because I had checked out.
The Queen vs. Her Other Margaret
The crux of this hour is Elizabeth’s devotion to the Commonwealth bumping up against Thatcher’s apparent disdain for it. We begin with Claire Foy reprising her role to read a speech on her 21st birthday, in which the young future queen praised the union of nations and pledged her life to serving it. Cut to the mid-80s, when South Africa is in the throes of apartheid and the other nations have imposed sanctions. Thatcher didn’t trust Nelson Mandela, reportedly, and thought modernity would carry apartheid away on its own. (It did not.) (There is also an implication herein that Mark Thatcher’s business interests in South Africa might have colored Maggie’s aversion to sanctions.) The Queen, however, wanted the UK to join the rest of the Commonwealth in this approach to protesting apartheid, and the episode claims she voiced this concern to Maggie, who pooh-poohed it. Hoarsely. Under a helmeted cloud of hairspray.
Elizabeth feels tugged between her devotion to and respect for upholding/leading the Commonwealth, and the passivity of being a symbolic Head of State. (She tells Andrew, “There are two families I care about: my own, and the Commonwealth Family of Nations. Keeping them all together is my life’s work.”) She tries to butt in by going back and forth with Maggie passive-aggressively on the wording of the anti-apartheid document to be signed at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 1985 (I had to look this up, because as you know The Crown declines to ground us in what it’s considering ‘present day’ from moment to moment, presumably so it can compress timelines willy-nilly). Maggie is trying to avoid agreeing to sanctions, and the Queen is searching for crafty synonyms to get Thatcher to do what she wants. They settle on the word “signals,” and Thatcher agrees; while her staff praises the Queen for melting the Iron Lady, Thatcher turns around at the summit and tells everyone — I’m paraphrasing — that a “signal can be easily changed” and that this was not a case of her moving toward the other nations but rather all those other nations bending to the UK’s will. (While it’s unclear whether the Queen’s level of involvement here is true, Thatcher’s statement is real and did seem to offend just about everyone.)
This is where the show takes an even bigger leap into the unknown and the assumed. The Queen feels she and the UK have egg on their faces, in a way that tarnishes their reputation in front of the rest of the Commonwealth, so she asks Michael Shea — her press secretary — to leak a statement to the press indicating that the Queen is deeply unhappy with Thatcher and her actions and basically everything about her. It verges on a political statement, which is a no-no from The Crown, but the Queen insists. She’s pissed. No, she’s pissed with a lot more Is than that. She’s piiiiiiiiissed.
Michael Shea wants it noted that he hates this idea, but obediently leaks to the Sunday Times that Elizabeth hates Thatcher’s policies. The ensuing piece — which is real — creates a firestorm. Thatcher saunters into her meeting with Elizabeth and essentially boxes her ears, lecturing her about how her policy approach is the best: teach Britons to be Every Man For Himself and only help thy neighbor when you’re rich enough (“No one would remember the Good Samaritan if he only had good intentions. You see he had money as well”). Elizabeth says she’s learned that the hardest part of her job is supporting her PMs even when she thinks their policies are crap, and wonders why Maggie couldn’t have offered her that support on this issue just once. They are at an impasse, and worse, nobody buys the Palace’s denials. Finally, it’s determined they need a scapegoat to say they overheard Liz’s opinion and leaked it (so, not a DENIAL, but also shielding the Queen from accusations that she directly did anything political or ordered her remarks to be published). Guess who? Poor old good soldier Michael Shea. Per the show, he takes the fall and then clears out his office. In reality: OBVIOUSLY the Queen is never going to come forward and be like, “You’re right, it DID all come from me, I AM THE MOLE!” For whatever it’s worth, it’s never been confirmed that she overstepped here, and several staffers have backed up that she didn’t and wouldn’t. However, Shea has also always maintained that it wasn’t him. He also didn’t leave immediately; this happened in summer of 1986 and he resigned his post in 1987, though it’s possible that’s because him taking the fall as a palace mole — or being one, I suppose; he could be lying too — cast something of a pall on things. The episode ends with Elizabeth sitting at her desk, the echoes of her 1947 speech playing in her head, reflecting on her promise to protect the Commonwealth and the tightrope she has to walk in order to do it. And Jared Harris presumably got a small stipend for the fact that she does so while gazing at a photo of her father.
Shea had a writing background. Here we see him turning in his magnum opus to his agent, and it appears to be a load of pretentious twaddle, and she is like, “Hmm, did you ever think of political thrillers?” He looks appalled. Naturally, Michael Shea became a prolific writer of political thrillers after he left the Queen’s employ, many of them centered around the work of spin doctors. The twaddle we see from the beginning does not ever appear to have been published. If the poor dude didn’t actually write any of the prose we hear, then his memory has been hella-besmirched. Also, we didn’t need the writing storyline. It didn’t add to the story, other than to be a winky nod at his future. We spent 90 seconds alone listening to him type and read to himself a terrible book that he never actually sold, plus the scenes with his agent… Take that time and hand it to the kids.
The Rest of the Family
Andrew has chosen Edward to be his best man, and he gloats a bit that this means Charles will get to know how it feels — for once — to be passed over, and a reference to Chaz’s apparently already-entrenched beliefs that the monarchy should be streamlined. Okay. Well, that would have been good information to have had sooner, but they squeaked it in I guess.
Then we get one great scene the day of Andrew’s wedding and that’s it. Charles walks in to see Andrew lounging pathetically on the divan, Anne perched at his head. Edward is also present, and Edwarding. Andrew whines that he’s SO MAD at mummy for blabbering to the press about Thatcher because it has totally eclipsed his wedding in the papers and now nobody cares. Nobody!!!!!!! PAY ATTENTION TO MEEEE. Amusingly, the show itself now has done exactly what Andrew accuses the media of doing. Can someone tell me how accurate that is? As a kid, I would have ONLY cared about Sarah Ferguson, so it’s not surprising I don’t remember. A cursory Googling does suggest that they got plenty of coverage in the papers, though, and I certainly don’t remember thinking, “Wow, we have heard hardly anything about this wedding,” much less any ensuing newscast — as we get here — claiming DURING THE BALCONY KISS that the wedding has been overshadowed by Liz and Maggie’s shenanigans. It would be very challenging to upstage a royal wedding of any kind, honestly, especially one at the Abbey. It’s not like they got hitched at a small vicarage in Wiltshire.
Anyway, next, Charles chuckles that Liz finally did the thing she always tells Charles he can’t do — opened her mouth — and then casually adds that it’s possible the wedding would be overshadowed anyway because Andrew is just “a fringe member” of the family. Andrew is all WHAT BRO and Charles doubles down, listing all the reasons why Andrew is not only already fringey but destined to be EVEN FRINGIER once William sprogs up (William, who is like three at this point). It comes across not as malicious, but simply oblivious, and when he saunters out he leaves a gawking Andrew in his wake. This was so amusing to me. Between this and the agonizing birthday toast in the previous episode where Philip is like, “We had extra children for no reason but it turns out they’re okay,” I really REALLY wish the show had dug into the thorny relationships between these four a bit more. Not least because Andrew IS so terrible that I might enjoy seeing Charles be high-handed about him, and to him, more often.
We have some time yet, but think about the stories on this show that have struck emotional gold the best: Margaret’s entire arc, and anything involving Charles, both of which benefit from comparatively expansive attention to their characters since the beginning of the series. There is a LOT to cover in just ten episodes per season, it’s true, but oh, the missed opportunities do truly sting. Especially when THAT stuff was the part of this hour that was engrossing.