The Crown/Netflix

After taking a deep dive into Elizabeth’s relationship with education in “Scientia Potentia Est,” “Pride & Joy” expands The Crown’s world once again. I’m finding that the more focused episodes like “Scientia” and “Act Of God” tend to be a little stronger than the broader ones. But if “Pride & Joy” doesn’t quite hang together as well as it could, there’s still plenty to enjoy. The episode divides its time between Elizabeth, Margaret, and their mother—the three women George VI left behind when he died. And while some of the beats the episode drills home about duty feel a tad repetitive, at least it presents them with style.

“Pride & Joy” feels like the kind of episode you’d expect from a show called The Crown, which I mean more as a compliment than a criticism. There are fashion shows, parades, independently minded royals giving sassy speeches, sisters sniping at each other while holding swords, and emotional breaking points that are both overt and repressed. I don’t mean to keep comparing this show to Downton Abbey because they’re clearly very different series, but there’s a reason that show’s stylish, soapy take on British aristocracy caught on so strongly in the U.S. The Crown has frequently offered a relatively somber take on its royal subjects, but it’s fun to watch the series present something a little more glamorous too.

What impressed me most about “Pride & Joy” is its ability to entirely recontextualize the Queen Mother (Victoria Hamilton), a character I’d written off as relatively unimportant and vaguely unlikable. The choice to hold off on deepening her character until so late in the series nicely mirrors the way children think about their parents: You assume everything in their lives revolves around you, until one day you realize they’re people in their own right too. As she escapes to Scotland for a vacation, we’re finally asked to consider the older Elizabeth as a human being rather than just a mother.

Her teary-eyed dinner table speech is another reminder of just how insane monarchy is as a system of government. She served alongside her husband as Queen for 16 years, gaining all sorts of experience and perspective as a kind of co-leader. But rather than put all that experience to good use upon his death, the crown passes to her young, inexperienced daughter. Medieval history is filled with competent queens who were unfairly tossed aside when their husbands died, but it never occurred to me to count the Queen Mother among them. Couple that with the fact that her grown-up daughters don’t really need her anymore, and the Queen Mother is transformed from one of the show’s more unlikable characters to one of its most sympathetic.

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Realizing she’ll never be able to return to her old life, the Queen Mother tries to cut her losses and retreat to a simpler one on the Scottish coast. She even finds a fixer-upper castle and its charming owner to distract her. But she’s not fully able to disappear into a retirement either. When Churchill calls, she’s still expected to answer. And Hamilton is utterly heartbreaking in the scene on the beach as her friend learns her real identity and the simplicity of their relationship is shattered. She can’t really use her title anymore but she can’t give it up either, so she’s stuck in a weird kind of half-life.

Margaret, meanwhile, is living life to the fullest. Or at least she is once she’s put in charge of ceremonial royal duties while her mother and sister are away. I don’t think I’ve praised her in these reviews yet, but Vanessa Kirby is really fantastic on this show. By virtue of being the only Windsor who actually enjoys the life of luxury to which she’s been born, Margaret is a lot of fun to watch. But her childish petulance also makes her kind of insufferable. Kirby captures both sides of Margaret beautifully, providing an appropriately Lady Mary-esque figure for The Crown.

Like Elizabeth before her, she’s given a stern talking to about the perilous dangers of monarchs expressing even an ounce of individuality. But unlike Elizabeth, she dismisses those concerns as a bunch of bullshit. After all, the people love when she turns a royal dinner party into a standup comedy act and when she expresses her real opinion on what it’s like to visit a coalmine. And it’s easy to see why. Margaret’s cheeky dinner party speech (coupled with Martin’s aghast reactions) is one of the most fun scenes The Crown has produced. And she makes a strong argument that there’s value in having a monarch people can relate to, rather than a personality-free figurehead.

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History, I think, is on Margaret’s side. People love William, Harry, and Kate Middleton because of their personalities, not despite of them. But for now Margaret is put in her place. Churchill recalls the Queen Mother to take over for her and Margaret also gets admonished by her sister when she returns from her trip. The Queen Mother suggests that Margaret needs room to shine, but it turns out Elizabeth really doesn’t like the idea of being outshone.

Elizabeth’s story is the least successful part of this episode, although not entirely so. She and Philip set off on a grueling 23-week tour of the British Empire, making stops in Bermuda, Jamaica, Fiji, Malta, Gibraltar, and Australia (where they visit 57 cities in 58 days). So far this is our most overt exploration of some of the major historical themes of post-World War II Britain, including the independence movements of the 1960s and the decline of the British Empire. But that proves to be too broad a topic for The Crown to tackle in any sort of meaningful way. Much is made of the potential dangers of visiting Gibraltar, where revolutionary fervor is reaching a peak, but we don’t even get to see any of the trip once the queen decides to go anyway.

Thankfully, the royal tour storyline is better in its exploration of Elizabeth as a character than as a political figurehead. It turns out there’s no end to her dedication to her job. She refuses to miss even a single stop on her trip, going so far as to receive muscle relaxant injections in her face to ensure she can keep smiling throughout. Philip caustically suggests that she sets insane standards for herself in a futile attempt to make her dead father love her more than Margaret. And Elizabeth snaps like we’ve never seen her snap before, throwing glasses and badminton rackets as she literally chases Philip out of their house.

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Yet even at the height of their frustrations with one another, Philip and Elizabeth both realize their positions are more important than their feud. When they notice a camera crew has inadvertently caught their spat on film, they immediately collect themselves and head back inside. It’s the best scene of the episode, and it perfectly captures the bizarre fishbowl Elizabeth and Philip live in. This time around the journalists are kind enough to destroy the footage, but Elizabeth’s biggest fear is that one day they won’t.

Though Elizabeth and Philip don’t resolve their fight, she continues it with Margaret once she returns home. The episode’s final showdown pits George’s pride (Elizabeth) against his joy (Margaret), as the two sisters hash out long held resentments. The idea that Elizabeth and Margaret have had a lifelong competition for their father’s affections hasn’t really been brought up in the series before, so it’s slightly odd to find it so central here. But the scene works as the climax to this particular episodic story. Both women feel they’ve gotten the fuzzy end of the lollipop when it comes to their respective lots in life. Yet it’s also probably those respective lots that shaped them into the women they are today.

As they so often do, the Windsor sisters once again mix professional critiques with personal gripes. Elizabeth criticizes Margaret for bungling her royal duties, but she’s also clearly criticizing her sister for stealing her spotlight too. To her credit, Margaret at least tries to get at the real heart of their tense relationship. But Elizabeth maintains an air of cold, queenly detachment.

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And here’s where The Crown differs the most from Downton Abbey: It’s duty far more than luxury that defines the royal family. And that’s doomed all three Windsor women to lives with which they’re never fully satisfied. Sure attending private fashion shows, buying castles, and borrowing tiaras is fun, but there’s a steep personal cost attached to that pricey, glamorous lifestyle.

Stray observations

  • There’s been a lot of really great discussion in the comment section about whether or not the Windsors are subjects worth sympathizing with, given how rich, privileged, and, to some extent, pointless their lives are. Here are my two cents: I agree that as a rule our entertainment is overly saturated with stories about rich white people dealing with relatively self-centered problems. But I don’t find this particular series any guiltier of that than say, The Catcher In The Rye, Mad Men, The Great Gatsby, or Birdman. And like Pride & Prejudice or Anna Karenina before it, just by virtue of having a female lead, The Crown is bringing a slightly new perspective to the subject matter.
  • Elizabeth comes this close to coining the term “resting bitch face.”
  • I really wasn’t into that slow-motion shot of Philip and Elizabeth in the car.
  • Elizabeth’s royal wardrobe for the trip includes 100 dresses, 36 hats, and 50 pairs of shoes. To be fair, however, she’s going to be gone for about 160 days.
  • “Elizabeth is my pride, but Margaret is my joy.” Way harsh, Tai.

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