The Crown: “Fairy Tale” and “Favourites”

Posted on November 16, 2020

In the sardonically titled “Fairy Tale,” Diana gets her ring and The Crown gets to the juicy stuff.

If anyone had concerns that The Crown would gloss over the darker parts of the Windsor-Spencer marriage, the pre-show viewer advisory warning about the depiction of bulimia should’ve firmly settled the matter. They’re going all in, so brace yourself. That sense of foreboding permeates every scene about the impending marriage. Show creator and writer Peter Morgan knows he doesn’t have to do much to inspire that knot-in-the-stomach feeling, banking on the idea that the audience will know enough of the broad strokes to feel that sense of unease. It works pretty well, especially when the show switches from displaying a series of red flags about the relationship to the family talking about it with a misguided sense of hope and even romance.

There’s an entertaining opening scene of the Windsor women calling each other up to gossip about the details of the engagement after Charles dejectedly informs his mother “It’s done. I did it” without a trace of happiness. We’re not sure we entirely buy that these women would be so filled with thoughts of romance, given who they are. None of them are prone to sentiment, one of them suffered a painful divorce that left her bitter for life and another one’s currently in a marriage on the rocks. Still, hope springs eternal, we suppose. There’s definitely a sense that everyone in the family is being willfully delusional about this match. This is contrasted with scenes of Diana and her flatmates partying their faces off over the news of the engagement and giving extremely naive (in retrospect, of course) toasts about “One day, not too far away, being the fucking queen.” It’s interesting to see the story shift to a time when folks started considering the end of Elizabeth’s life and reign. She wasn’t yet 60, but given her father’s medical history and relatively short life and reign, it wasn’t odd for people back then to assume that Charles – and later, Diana – would be ascending to the throne within a few decades. It’s easy to forget that no one had any reason to assume Elizabeth would break records and become the longest reigning monarch in English history. To be fair, the women in her family tend to be long-lived, but still. When you think about it, it would have saved everyone so much stress and trouble in their lives if they’d all just assumed she’d still be on the throne for another forty-plus years. Anyway, Morgan and director Benjamin Caron underline the sense of foreboding and embrace the obvious symbolism once again by playing Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen” over these scenes of youthful exuberance and fatal naivete. Last episode, Diana was a hunted stag, this episode, she’s a white-winged dove.

The Queen and Charles present Diana with a “special box of chocolates,” a selection of potential engagement rings, from which she chooses her famous sapphire; the one Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge has been wearing since her own engagement (which was announced exactly ten years ago today, by the way). Later, we’re treated to an exquisitely recreated scene of the Charles and Diana engagement announcement, including the infamous “Whatever ‘in love’ means” moment from Charles. Scenes like these feel like boxes being checked off on a list. Here is the famous ring and why she chose it. Here is the famous press event where they looked so deathly uncomfortable with each other. Morgan uses and positions them to tell a cohesive story, but it only really feels alive when we’re not seeing the animatronic historical recreation moments – which are, to be fair, necessary in a lot of ways. It took us a while to come to terms with the choice not to depict so much as a second of their wedding, but the more we sit with it, the more we think it was a good idea not to fall further into the mimicry trap.

The Queen notes that “She is lovely. But so young.” As always, Elizabeth is given a level of empathy the rest of the family tend not to have. She is depicted here as approving, but mildly concerned, which really doesn’t track with any version of the real story. Still, Morgan is more critical of her and the family generally than he’s been in seasons past. Like the hideousness of Balmoral from the perspective of the Thatchers last episode, we are shown how intimidatingly awful the family can be to someone entering their space when Diana is invited to dinner at Clarence House, the Queen Mother’s London residence. Margaret dresses her down for interrupting her by entering the room, everyone mocks her for getting the order and manner of address wrong, and they all make vaguely racist jokes about Imelda Marcos’ accent. Martin Charteris suggests that Diana be taken under the Queen’s wing and any sense of empathy quickly evaporates. Elizabeth is shocked by the suggestion and denies the request under the laughable suggestion that “I’m far too much of a softy.”

Charles leaves to go on an unbelievably ill-timed tour and Diana is moved into Buckingham Palace (note the use of the passive voice), where she is largely abandoned, except for the history, etiquette and comportment lessons being drilled into her by her grandmother (and the Queen Mother’s Woman of the Bedchamber), Lady Fermoy. She is taught by the deliciously venomous Baroness things like “Gestures reveal us” and “One should never try to show one’s emotions.” It’s a testament to her naivete and lack of experience that the poor girl didn’t run screaming from the palace, never to return. Instead, she stays locked in her literal gilded cage, roller skating the grand hallways to the sounds of Duran Duran’s “Girls on Film,” yet another extremely on-the-noise choice for the girl about to become one of the most photographed women of the 20th Century. When she’s not alone in her room watching television, alone in her room reading fan mail, or alone in another room practicing dance, she’s alone in the kitchen in the middle of the night food-bingeing, which she follows up by purging. We can feel the increasing sense of panic and desperation in her – so much so, that it almost makes sense for her to set up (dun dun DUN!!) LUNCH WITH CAMILLA. Illa… illa… illa…

The show’s been more than obvious in its use of symbolism and foreboding, but nothing could prepare us for the “Oh honey, no” moment of Diana sitting down with her someday-legendary nemesis. Morgan did not shy away from the soap opera of it all. When it came to the aforementioned heavy symbolism and obvious foreboding, he served up a platter of it. The maitre’d helpfully announces to Diana “Welcome to Menage a Trois.” Diana says she “More than happy to go with the flow” when she agrees to eat the same lunch Camilla ordered. Diana suggests they “go Dutch” on lunch and Camilla agrees. “I’m all for sharing.” The Crown is simply more fun when it doesn’t try to be subtle or too clever about its depictions and with Diana and Camilla, it has its perfect subjects to go for the shallow pleasure of old-fashioned Dynasty-esque bitchery. “He has a soft-boiled egg with everything. You must know that.” “Darling, you really know nothing, do you?” “He’ll love it if you adapt to him.” Emerald Fennell has great fun in the scene, even as Emma Corrin shows her obvious pain.

Skipping the wedding to focus on the faux-wedding of the rehearsal (with the cute touch of Diana walking down the aisle with what looked like a bunch of tablecloths pinned to her waist) was a clever choice, underlining the point that the marriage was false from the start and giving Corrin – and the audience – the satisfaction of seeing her tear into Charles after an hour of watching her suffer abuse. It’s obviously not a triumphant moment – they’ll be hard to come by in the telling of this tale – but it was exactly what the audience needed to see to close out this preamble to disaster.

After Princess Margaret begs the senior members of the family to call the wedding off with that rather on-the-nose “How many times can this family make the same mistake?” Elizabeth decides to do the highly uncharacteristic thing and goes to speak with Charles directly. She does not call off the marriage. She doesn’t even ask how he’s feeling. She simply speaks to him of duty and offers the story of her grandmother Queen Mary. This seems a bit rich coming from her, since her own marriage was a love match that went against her family’s wishes, not something she did solely out of a sense of duty. It’s a beautifully acted scene on both Colman and Josh O’Connor’s part, dramatically staged with the pre-wedding firework celebrations exploding outside the palace windows of the darkened room. We were afraid the show would fall into a long disproved “Love gone wrong” telling of this tale, but the heaviness of the symbolism aside, it’s done a great job of setting it up as a disaster from the jump.

With “Favourites,” the show takes a slight respite from the Diana drama and focuses on both Margaret Thatcher’s family life as well as the status of the Queen’s children, including the introduction of both Princes Andrew and Edward.

What makes The Crown fun – and what Morgan is particularly good at – is the way it weaves the historical and interpersonal together in order to form a framework for telling a specific story with specific themes, episode to episode. When it came up in press interviews a while back that Morgan planned to explore the connection between Thatcher and the Queen over their shared status as mothers, we braced ourselves for something reductive and possibly even sexist. To be fair, The Crown as a whole is reductive. That’s a feature, not a bug. Engrossing, addictive storytelling about almost literally unknowable people, based on historical events and decades of rumors, with the understanding (hopefully) that quite a bit of creative license is taken.

The Queen, in her weekly meeting with the Prime Minister, demands to know why Thatcher’s England has seen inflation and rioting, to which the PM rather condescendingly replies that running a country is more than fiddling with a few knobs and buttons. You’d think from there we’d be off and running on another prickly Margaret-Elizabeth sparring match but instead, Thatcher shocks the sovereign by doing the last thing you’d expect her to do. She starts crying. “It is by no means the first time a Prime Minister has broken down in here,” the Queen assures her heartily when Thatcher expresses embarrassment. Her son has gone missing in the Sahara desert during a racecar rally, which would seem like an astonishingly exotic problem to have if it came up anywhere but Buckingham Palace.

Elizabeth is shocked to hear the PM casually refer to Mark as her favorite of her two children, but Philip teases her about it in a fairly cute scene. Tobias Menzies doesn’t get as much to do as he did last season, but he takes his moments as a foil for Elizabeth where he can get them. “Your lack of self-knowledge is breathtaking,” he tells her after she pretends not to know if she has a favorite child. She is again shocked – or pretends to be – when Philip immediately names Anne as his favorite. She asks Martin Charteris to arrange separate meetings with each of her children and to have a briefing document prepared on each one “focusing on each child’s hobbies, interests and so forth. One would hate to appear uninformed.” Colman can’t help but play the moment with subtle comedy, but it’s notable how much the series is leaning into the dysfunction of the family this season. You can’t tell the story of the royal family in the 1980s without acknowledging how screwy they were.

As with the firing of her cabinet ministers, the Falkland War is being positioned as Margaret Thatcher reacting to some sort of personal issue on a national or global scale. This time, her missing son is distracting her from the escalating situation and when she finally pays attention to the situation, she turns out to be furious with her cabinet for not preparing for that which was obvious and inevitable to her: war. “Our people!” she yells at them. “Far from home! Their lives are in danger!” Nudge-nudge wink-wink. To be fair, much of The Crown is reductive in this way, including the depiction of Thatcher’s predecessors in the role, but given the series’ sometimes uneven way of depicting women and their inner lives (most barely have any), these storytelling choices feel a little cheap and facile at times. “We will not survive not going to war!” she cries out dramatically. Gillian Anderson’s choices still take some getting used to, but there’s no denying her Thatcher is a meticulously maintained creation from the sensible heels to the cotton candy hair. It’s so bizarre to think of the Prime Minister adjourning a meeting to go upstairs and literally make dinner for her cabinet, but Anderson and Morgan go all the way in showing just how odd and contradictory this woman could be as put-upon un-favorite child Carol confronts her mother about her raging dislike of women. Margaret ties her aprons and starts dinner preparations as she cooly tells her daughter that with some women, “There is a limit to what one can do if people are themselves limited.” Yikes.

Meanwhile, in some neatly parallel storytelling, we get to check in on all of Elizabeth’s children, giving each of them a moment to demonstrate how awful they are. Edward comes in berating the staff, immediately asks about money, and mocks the lunch menu. “Life has dealt you rather a good hand,” his mother mildly retorts to his many complaints and high expectations. “There has to be some upside for being who we are, he says. The Queen suggests that’s “not a particularly attractive attitude.” Once again Morgan is using other members of the family to make the Queen look good. It routinely comes off a little flat, but this is partially by design. Later, she goes out for a ride with Princess Anne, where we hear about her bad marriage, her hatred of the press, and her resentment of Diana (“Lovely her, dumpy me”). Like everyone else in the family, she doesn’t think she gets enough recognition.  “I’m only human. Sometimes a pet pony needs a pet on the head.” Elizabeth tries to counsel her on her bad marriage by giving her literally the only advice she’s capable of giving: Do nothing. Anne leaves her mother and rides off angrily.

Andrew arrives for lunch landing on the lawn of Windsor Castle in a Royal Navy helicopter, immediately mentions that he’s second in line for the throne, and launches into a discussion with his highly publicized relationship with Koo Stark, including a lascivious re-telling of the plot of her soft-core erotic film to shock his mother. He may as well have been wearing a t-shirt that says “I’M HEADING TO EPSTEIN ISLAND IN 15 YEARS.”  Still, he clearly charms his mother and insists that he be allowed to see action in the upcoming Falklands war, which charms her even further. Then it’s off to Highgrove for lunch with Charles.

We see Charles fussily making grand preparations, going over the menu, checking the silverware, berating Diana, who won’t come out of her room. Josh O’Connor was so charming as the young Prince last season, but he’s done an amazing job of turning the character ever so slightly, so that the light hits a different facet of him. Everything about his officiousness, his self-absorption, his jealousy and his cruelty was already well established, even back when he was charming his Welsh teachers and getting bullied at school. He and Colman have tremendous chemistry and their scene as Elizabeth lightly mocks his grand plans for the house (“So the grand idea is … you.”) is one of the funnier ones of the season. Still, she tears into him over lunch for neglecting his wife and being selfish.

All of these scenes were welcome check-ins on several characters who’ve been ignored a bit too much, especially Anne and Andrew. The storytelling was a bit too neat and the theme was broadcast just a bit too obviously. “It’s our children who are lost, not the Prime Minister’s. Each in their own deserts,” the Queen helpfully points out to her husband. And if that wasn’t enough, the mention of Andrew’s leering conversation inspires her to get all prophetic on our asses. “If he doesn’t change …” She leaves the sentence hanging, but we are, of course, meant to fill it in with “he may one day scandalize the family with his perversions!” She then claims to have had her two younger children to “make up for her failings” with her two older children, which is a hell of a thing to say. Having spent the episode demonstrating that she and Philip raised a quartet of miserably awful people, the show makes a plea for sympathy as Colman does an absolutely knockout job accessing that part of Elizabeth that’s emotionally stunted and confused as to why. Tearfully telling us that she didn’t know how to hug or touch her own children enough to bathe them may be a classic example of “gilding the Lilibet,” as we call it, but it’s hard to argue against such scenes when Colman’s so good at performing them.

 

 

[Photo Credit: Netflix]

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