Good lord, I forgot what a dour note this season ended on. By all reports, the second starts where the last picked up, in the middle of the Suez Crisis, which sounds fine to me considering the snapshots we got of the rising tension this episode deserved more and not less screen time. Alright, let’s get into it.
We open in yet another heavy-handed flashback: December 10, 1936. Otherwise known as Abdication Day. Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson are dancing on the Titanic, as it were, though it shows up as a drawing room in Buckingham Palace. When recapping these episodes I like to assess them with the proper spirit, which to me means not picking apart relatively minor deviations. I’m going to be a bit stricter this time because we’ve come to the climax of all the tension we’ve watched boiling over for 10 episodes and I think it’s a fair question to wonder how accurate all of this is.
As of when Edward abdicated, Wallis was already living in France and was certainly not at his side as he went through the legal and public process of stepping down from the throne. Similarly, the conversation that Edward has with George VI in the next scene, in which the younger brother asks the elder if he’s sure he wants to choose “that woman” over his country and family, would never have happened. Certainly the sentiment is about right, but Edward wasn’t thrown out of the country quite that abruptly. He well-understood that he would need to live for a time abroad, and that if he married Wallis it would need to happen out of the country. What he didn’t understand as of 1936 is how permanent that move would be. The real Edward VIII thought that he would eventually be able to return to England and settle. Such would not be the case, but that was never laid out quite that abruptly on the day of.
George VI summons his young daughters to him and tells them to never let anything come between them. Naturally they both promise with the solemnity of 10 and six-year-old. Drum roll please…
Flash forward to the present day and we are in August 1955, about nine months ahead of where the last episode left off. Margaret is turning 25 while the Windsors holiday at Balmoral and you know what that means – Peter can come home from Brussels and marry her without any problems! Ha, no. Of course not. But all of this is apparently news to Elizabeth who is told by her new private secretary that there is a second part to the Royal Marriages Act, which still requires Margaret to receive the approval of Parliament.
But this time at Balmoral was rather fascinating in real life because Margaret and Elizabeth, contrary to what is shown on the screen, actually never had a direct conversation about the issue. Elizabeth knew which ways the wind were blowing and Margaret, naturally anxious for Peter to return, never confronted her.
Next up to cause Elizabeth problems is the troubling combination of her mother and her husband. As she stands watching Philip show Charles how to fish – or more accurately, berate him for not fishing properly – the Queen Mother walks up and says he’s too hard on the boy. “He can be kind, too,” Elizabeth defends him, “And he’s wonderful with Anne.” Yes, so long as he’s wonderful with one of the children. And again, of course, we have Elizabeth looking on at the parenting of her own children, because God forbid she take an active hand in it, even on holiday.
Philip does himself no favors back at the house, commenting to his wife that their children are “the wrong way around – our daughter’s a boy and our son, God bless him, a girl.” Yes, it was 1955 and yes, there’s a very real point being made here, but it’s still hard to hear and I winced. Our Mother of the Year, on the other hand, is barely listening. Instead, she broaches the idea of Philip representing her at the Olympics in Australia that November – not with her, but on her behalf. He’s to go and sort himself out and he sees right through it, but Elizabeth doesn’t back down. Apparently, she’s tired of hearing him complain in the middle of everything else.
But what is everything else? Anthony Eden, the new Prime Minister, comes to brief her on his visit to Cairo, which was a disaster, though not through any fault of his according to the show. In a scene I found downright delightful, Nasser showed up to dinner not in a dinner jacket, but in military dress. Eden tries to brush it off to save him blushes, but Nasser is dead set on being mortally offended. My God, men and their fashion, amiright? And then you start comparing war decorations…
Elizabeth, of course, changes the subject. To her sister’s engagement. Eden can’t offer her much help, but he does promise to investigate the matter.
Back in the Castle, Philip and the Queen Mother dance at the Ghillies Ball. He accuses her of helping to send him off, while she shrugs him off and tells him to stop complaining – he has more freedom than any consort in history. To which I say that is really not saying much, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, and you know that.
One last bit here, but the conversation between Philip and Margaret commiserating over Elizabeth? No dice. In real life, Philip was vehemently against the match and he and Margaret never really got on. That tension is vaguely hinted at elsewhere in the series, but in that moment, knowing he wasn’t in their corner, I find it hard to believe Margaret was confiding in him at all, much less after bumping to him in a stairwell.
Then Peter is home and the Windsors are down to the wire. The British press is for Peter and Margaret, while Elizabeth’s government is against it. Eden tells her as much, noting that Lord Salisbury has threatened to resign. The Archbishop of Canterbury lays on the religious threat and her responsibility as the Head of the Church thick. Margaret can marry Peter, Eden tells her, but if she does she will do it as a private citizen, one who receives no allowance and who must live abroad. It is, of course, a mirror of Abdication Day in this episode.
Margaret’s heartbreak is, well, heartbreaking. She sounds just like you do when you’re 25 – old enough to put your back into it, but not quite able to see the forest through the trees. And to be fair, this was handled terribly and all of them, but most especially her own mother, unbeknownst to her, were incredibly cruel to let her wait two years believing a lie.
At least according to the show. The reality was a bit more complicated and the implications of it a bit more opaque. I would reference this for the real rundown of these few months, which are worth considering against the backdrop of the series, especially as we gear up for Season 2. According to the trailer, we’re in for a bit of “Margaret Gone Wild.” The one deviation that truly bothered me was having Peter read that statement, when in fact Margaret’s statement, which Peter helped write, was one of the most significant moments of her life. Why him and not her? The reality was much more dramatic.
And last but not least, Philip is leaving for five months after their staff decided to tack on a tour to the visit in Australia. He and Elizabeth aren’t in a good place and Elizabeth, who has spent the last 10 episodes cutting him slack and trying to protect him, isn’t her for it. She’s finally stepped into her role – or at least the role as outlined for her by Queen Mary, Churchill and Tommy Lascelles. By the looks of her in the final scene, the separation of Elizabeth Windsor from Elizabeth Regina is no longer difficult. She’s become a natural.
With that, we are done with the season. The second is due to debut on December 8 and, yes, we’ll cover that here throughout the month. I’ll post final thoughts on an issue I think deserves lengthier consideration on the day of the premier and that is criticism this show has received for focusing too much on the men in Elizabeth’s life, particularly Churchill and Philip, and let them eclipse her own character development. I have mixed feelings on the topic, but I’m going to save them for then.