Some of the most compelling episodes of The Crown simply dramatize a historical event that feel almost too implausible to be true—like a bizarre fog that turns London into a real-life horror movie. This time around it’s an everyday man who breaks into the Queen’s bedroom not once but twice. That Michael Fagan (Tom Brooke) has a last name that sounds just like one of Charles Dickens’ most famous fictional criminals really makes this seem like the sort of story that could only have come from a screenwriter’s pen. But it really did happen, and is still considered one of the worst royal security breaches in modern history.
The thesis of “Fagan” can be summed up in the juxtaposition of two lines of people: A giddy, well-dressed royal receiving line eager to meet the Queen and a lengthy unemployment line full of disgruntled everyday folks. Thatcher’s Britain is in crisis, and though Elizabeth has been citing facts and figures about unemployment and inflation for a while now, this is the first episode of the season that really makes us feel that crisis in a palpable way. As the pomp and circumstance of palace life continues as usual, the world of Michael Fagan’s 1980s council estate is filled with loneliness, isolation, and mind-numbing bureaucracy. Faced with a crumbling personal life, a dismissive MP, and a deep hatred of Margaret Thatcher, the unemployed painter/decorator decides his next best recourse is a private chat with the Queen.
Co-writers Jonathon D. Wilson and Peter Morgan make the clever decision to open “Fagan” with a flashfoward featuring news stories about the break-in, which allows the rest of the episode to coast along on the twin engines of anticipation and absurdity. Given that Buckingham Palace is usually a world where a single misplaced curtsey is considered a calamity, it’s truly wild to watch Fagan casually wander the halls and plop himself down in the Queen’s throne. If this were a fictional story, I’d almost certainly quibble over how unlikely it is that failures of palace security would allow this to happen not once but twice. But sometimes life truly is stranger than fiction. And for those who don’t know the history, Fagan’s first break-in provides a fun fake-out that only ups the anticipation for his eventual tête-à-tête with the Queen.
The climactic bedroom conversation delivers a pitch-perfect blend of tension and comedy. Colman and Brooke find all sorts of subtle power shifts as Elizabeth moves from fear to polite caution to genuine sympathy and Fagan grows calmer the more he feels like he’s actually being heard. As compellingly brought to life by Brooke, Fagan has a certain prickly, punk-rock quality that’s not always entirely sympathetic but still fundamentally likable. Elizabeth later describes him as a fool in the Shakespearean sense—someone whose seeming absurdity reveals true wisdom. He recognizes that whatever temporary joy the country is feeling over the victory in the Falklands is just papering over much deeper problems. The post-war ethos that led to the creation of institutions like the NHS is crumbling. Britain is losing its communal safety net, and he fears things are only going to get worse if Thatcher continues unchecked.
At the start of the season, it was an open question as to how much The Crown would be willing to critique Margaret Thatcher. “Fagan” is an impressively damning indictment—not just in Fagan’s words but in Thatcher’s as well. During their weekly meeting, Thatcher happily tells Elizabeth that she think the only way to truly motivate people is to let them live in constant fear of ruin. “If we are to turn this country around, we really must abandon outdated and misguided notions of collective duty,” she proclaims. Making people’s lives harder isn’t the subtext of her administration’s policies, but the defining ethos behind them.
“Fagan” raises questions about the purpose of monarchy during the modern era, but it also raises questions about the purpose of any government that isn’t actually helping its citizens. Fagan calls Britain’s current system a “mirage of democracy,” which is a phrase that certainly still resonates today. And watching Thatcher throw a victory parade with herself at the center gives Elizabeth pause about the balance of power in her country. Elizabeth initially handwaved away Fagan’s suggestion that Thatcher wants to establish a UK presidency and end the monarchy. (“She’s got her eye on your job too, let me tell you. You’ll be out of work soon.”) Suddenly that claim seems a lot less ridiculous.
Big themes aside, the most compelling sequence in “Fagan” is a simple exchange between a Queen and her subject. Towards the end of their conversation, Fagan resigns himself to the fact that he’s about to be arrested and thanks Elizabeth for her time as if they’re casually wrapping up an official meeting. Her calm, “Well, goodbye,” followed by their handshake is a perfect funny/poignant capstone to the surreal encounter. And the way Elizabeth only lets herself feel her emotions after Fagan has been escorted out of the room is one of Colman’s most compelling acting moments in the series. “Fagan” takes full advantage of The Crown’s episodic structure to shake things up in an enjoyably unnerving way. And it puts an unexpected human face on the themes of the season.
- The higher Anderson’s hair gets, the more I like her performance. I thought her voice sounded closest to the real Thatcher’s in the TV interview where she compares her economic policy to tough-love nursing.
- Elizabeth gives a little shout-out to Lord Altrincham, the journalist from the second season episode “Marionettes” whose critical essay helped convince her to televise her Royal Christmas Message and open up her court a bit.
- Philip and Elizabeth are so much more interesting when they’re getting along than when they’re fighting.
- There are some terrible fake punches in Fagan’s playground fight with his ex-wife’s new boyfriend.
- The song that plays over the credits is The Beat’s 1980 single, “Stand Down Margaret.” An anti-Tory jam for the ages: