And so we have our first real Margaret-focused episode of the season, however the real focus is not yet on her marriage (though we are given a bigger glimpse), but on her relationship with Elizabeth. The inherent inequality of their stations is a theme the show has covered since its first season. Indeed, this particular situation – Elizabeth looking on jealously while Margaret shines – isn’t anything new; an earlier iteration of it exists via the episode, “Pride & Joy.”
This is the more grown-up version, but also a blunter one. The entire episode felt a bit over-the-top to me. Seething sibling resentment being what it is, I think a lot more of this dynamic would have been left unsaid, and indeed could have been depicted as such without losing its point. But before we get there, let’s start at the beginning. The episode opens with a flashback to 1943 when Elizabeth transitions from Heir Presumptive to Heir Apparent, the possibility that her mother might yet give birth to a son, displacing her in the succession, put to bed. Both sisters agree that Margaret is better-suited to the position.
We cut to the autumn of 1965, a year after the first episode took place. Elizabeth is waving off Margaret and Tony for a tour of the United States, which the real couple did in fact make. We are shown a montage of Margaret offering reporters coy answers, accepting cheering crowds, and even a glimpse of that iconic bathtub photo – a real thing that exists. In reality, it was taken by Tony in 1962, but it’s a famous enough that the show had to nod to it in some fashion.
The tour comes to a head at a reception in LA where Margaret ignores a signal from Tony that he wants to leave and they have an argument, during which he complains about having to play second fiddle. She responds that he’s a jealous narcissist, that he’s in no position to lecture her of all people about playing runner-up, and that no one even recognizes him when they attend events. Interestingly enough, while the show is very sympathetic to Margaret when it comes to Elizabeth, this particular scene sets her up as the by far crueler one in her marriage. It’s not only that she wants to enjoy the attention, it’s that she specifically likes hoarding it at the expense of someone else.
They conclude by striking a deal that allows her to have her fun in California, but that she’ll defer to him for his book release when they reach New York. Except….back in London, the Prime Minister is freaked out because President Johnson won’t return his phone calls. And Johnson is shown pissed off that Wilson left him high and dry on Vietnam. The nuance of that isn’t depicted, so let’s keep moving. Wilson asks Elizabeth to pull out all the stops for a state visit; specifically, that whatever is offered to Johnson must be better than that which was offered to the Kennedys. They land on an invitation to join the Royal Family for a shooting weekend at Balmoral, the most intimate of invitations. Johnson recognizes its significance, but remains unmoved. They return the volley by issuing an invitation that Margaret and Tony come to the White House instead.
So, Elizabeth rings up her sister and asks her to go to Washington, but Margaret – knowing this will mean depriving her husband of his moment in New York – refuses. Elizabeth then commands her as queen, and so it’s off to the White House the Snowdons go. We are shown the dinner in flashbacks inter-cut with Wilson telling Elizabeth the story of it all went down. The goal of all of this, I should mention, is that the UK needs a financial bailout, hence the urgency with which Wilson is trying to get Johnson on the phone. The task of him convincing him is thus delegated to Margaret, who engages the American president in a drinking competition and a dirty lymric-off. It goes without saying, I hope, that this did not in fact happen, though the Snowdons did visit the Johnson at the White House during this tour.
In the episode, however, Margaret wins the day, and returns to England to ask Elizabeth to share more of her duties with her. Her unhappiness, she says, is because she’s bored and under-utilized. Perhaps, but as Philip points out Elizabeth, they don’t get to change the rules, nor would doing so benefit any of them. He shares with her an analogy that Tommy Lascelles told him years ago that boils down to, for every good, dutiful monarch, there is another relation who sparks more attention, but also more danger. For Queen Victoria, there was Edward VII (her son). For George V, there was Prince Eddy (his brother, Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence). For George VI, there was Edward VIII (the Duke of Windsor). And finally, for Elizabeth, there is Margaret.
Honestly, we could take that a step further, and I think the show means us too, to say that for every Charles there is an Andrew, and for every William there is a Harry. A complicated metaphor if ever there was one. And a blunt instrument, too, but that’s what this episode is.
It concludes with Margaret’s disappointment in 1965 that Elizabeth won’t broaden her role, cut between her disappointment in 1943 when Lascelles gives her a dressing-down for daring to think she could take her sister’s place in the succession. It’s effective, if unsubtle.
I understand including this tour in the season, and I even understand the fictional – or at least exaggerated – link between Anglo-American relations, but at this point in the season and the show, I think time would have been better-served exploring Margaret’s marriage. This ground with Elizabeth has been well-tread, though I’m open to being convinced otherwise by the end of the season. With that, I’ll get a recap of episode 3 up tomorrow, before we take a quick break with the real world to cover William and Kate at the Royal Variety Show.