There are two parallel stories told here and they are both about marriage – more specifically, the necessity of the monarch having support in their consort. Naturally, one of those relationships is that of Edward VIII (“David”) and Wallis Simpson, while the other is Elizabeth and Philip. To a lesser extent, this is an episode about the precarious balancing act asked of a monarch in the tug-of-war between duty and personal happiness. The latter is universal, of course, but it’s an entirely different bag when one of the weights pulling on you in Winston Churchill and the entirety of the British government.
The episode opens in a flashback: it’s December 1936, David has abdicated and he decides that it’s his duty to address his public (the newspapers are on his side, after all) despite the protestations of his mother, Queen Mary. In his address, which is listened to by the new king, George VI, Queen Elizabeth and their two daughters, he pledges his allegiance to the new reign and notes that he will be able to rule because he has a loving wife and children – a pleasure not afforded to him. In short, he cannot rule effectively without the woman he loves by his side.
Flash forward and it’s 1952 again. Elizabeth is departing Clarence House for Buckingham Palace, but more literally she is leaving the personal sphere where Philip is decorating their first real home together (his first ever) for the public sphere of Buckingham Palace where she is the sovereign and coming face-to-face with the dreaded red boxes her father showed her in the first episode.
She meets with her mother and grandmother, both of whom must now curtsy to her, as they plan the seating arrangement for George VI’s funeral. The question that waylays them is where to seat David – by Churchill, Elizabeth answers. Really this scene only underlines the viciousness with which they are drawing the Queen Mother. Her curtsy to her daughter is reluctant, shallow and borderline petty. She takes too much delight in telling her daughter the nasty nickname David and Wallis have for her (Shirley Temple). She is too pleased with herself for the fact that she’s taken the time from her mourning to screw over the happy couple financially. This is certainly a departure from the benign, grandmotherly figure most associate the Queen Mother with and it’s an interesting choice for the show to make – not necessarily inaccurate, but still interesting that they are pointedly underlining her resentment of her own daughter. It’s a theme the series returns to, so more on that later.
Next up we are shown yet another petty mother – Queen Mary meeting with David. In a lovely speech of passive aggression she bemoans the loss of the “perfect” son who never thought of himself. A marked contrast, she implies, from the son standing in front of her who had the audacity to abdicate, literally and figuratively, all of his responsibility. You feel sorry for David in this scene, to have a mother like this. Even in his middle age you get a sense of how much such a conversation must wound him. You feel it again when he meets with the Queen Mother, Elizabeth and Margaret and tells them that their shared grief unifies them. He hopes that they will have another private moment to dine together or take a walk and is met only with stony silence until the diplomatic Elizabeth jumps in that she hopes that too.
But then you see him alone, writing to his wife. He tells her how much contempt he has for them all, how he is only making nice so he can milk as much money out of them as possible. He says that he can never forgive them for not respecting her as his wife, for not bestowing on her the HRH. So, which is real? The rejected man, spurned from his family and forced into a shadow life as an exile? Or the petty, resentful and vindictive man who has the ability to callously shakedown his mother and his dead brother’s daughter. Well, both.
There is a compelling scene at the end of the episode where David and Elizabeth have lunch and she tells him that she hopes he will offer up fatherly guidance and wisdom now that her own father is gone. He is genuinely surprised and touched that she would see him as fit for that role. She is genuinely seeking paternal support. Even so, he uses it as an opportunity to steer her the way Churchill wants her to go as part of a deal he worked out with the Prime Minister previously. In exchange for it, he gets his money.
The consequences of Elizabeth taking his advice, which mirrors that of the rest of her family and government, means she is disappointing Philip. For most of the episode he is nagging his wife to ensure that they stay in Clarence House instead of moving to BP and that the House of Windsor becomes the House of Mountbatten, adopting her married name. She promises him that she will, even going to so far as to strong arm Churchill at one point by pointing out his delay of her coronation helps him keep his office – as such, she reckons that he owes her. It is from this conversation that Churchill and David work out their back room deal and the result is that Elizabeth bows to pressure and chooses to disappoint Philip over the other men in her life.
And yet, she needs Philip. At a public event for the first time as monarch she is emotional and nervous. He places his hand comfortingly on hers and it is from that – their relationship – which she draws strength. The image is juxtaposed with one of David dancing with Wallis, the clear comparison being that it’s cruel to deprive a monarch of a loving spouse if they find one. That attempting to separate David from Wallis would not have made him a better king. That Elizabeth is able to perform as queen more effectively with Philip by her side.
Yes, that may all be true, but for Philip it means his role is one of support. He cannot give his wife or children his own name. He cannot choose his own home. He cannot walk at his wife’s side, but rather two steps behind. She leaves him at home. He decorates. He raises the children. It’s in 1952 and this is not what Philip was raised to think appropriate. Obviously more to come.
In the background, Peter’s wife has asked for a divorce and Margaret is elated. Finally she sees a path clear to marry him. When she visits his office and he tells her the news, they are interrupted by Philip who comes in to inquire about flying lessons. She hides behind a curtain while Philip tells a personal story about how his sister died in a plane crash (true story) – it’s too personal not to be awkward, but Philip brings levity back by finding Margaret’s purse on Peter’s desk and laughing at the fact he is clearly having an affair.
The unspoken question then is, can the monarch’s sister, at least, marry for love? In 1952, Margaret certainly thinks so.