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The Crown’s new Margaret is utterly fab but her story is a little familiar

Photo: Sophie Mutevelian (The Crown)
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Princess Margaret-centric episodes tend to bring out the best and worst of what The Crown can do. They’re fun, glamorous, melodramatic, and wryly self-aware. Yet they also tend to be just a bit one-note. “Margaretology” retells the exact same Margaret/Elizabeth story this show has been telling since the very beginning. Elizabeth is dull, responsible, and burdened by power. Margaret is confident, vivacious, and burdened by a lack of purpose. Each is jealous of what the other has, and that will always be the fundamental sticking point in their sisterly relationship. Given that it’s been a full two years since The Crown released any new episodes, I’ll give it a slight pass for returning to the same themes it’s already explored in episodes like “Pride & Joy.” But it’s definitely in “watch yourself, counselor” territory.

“Margaretology” at least switches up its locale as Margaret and Tony jet off on an American tour that’s part private holiday, part official royal visit, and part work trip for Tony’s book launch. All of that winds up getting pushed to the side when Margaret becomes a crucial player in the increasingly strained relationship between Prime Minister Harold Wilson and still relatively new President Lyndon B. Johnson (Clancy Brown). Johnson hopes that bringing in the resident party princess will be enough to get Buckingham Palace off his back. Elizabeth and Wilson, meanwhile, hope that Margaret can pull off a desperate Hail Mary pass and convince Johnson to provide the bailout needed to save Britain from total financial ruin.

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While Britain was once the dominate world power and the United States a scrappy little upstart, that relationship has now been drastically reversed. And this episode is all about relationships in which one party plays second fiddle to another. Margaret chaffs at playing number two to her older sister while Tony chaffs at playing number two to his wife. President Johnson, meanwhile, dislikes the way the British government and monarchy can tag-team their political roles to give the nation an extra boost of leverage he doesn’t have. And Margaret correctly intuits that Johnson is still struggling to come to terms with the three years he spent playing number two to a wildly beloved and now fully sanctified president.

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After earning Johnson’s confidence by taking a public swipe at Kennedy, Margaret offers this quieter exchange: “I think I can understand better than most, the frustrations and resentments that can build up from a life as a number two. The support act. Even of someone you adore.” It’s that last sentiment that interests me most. The idea that Elizabeth and Margaret genuinely love each other makes their sibling rivalry so much more complex than it otherwise might be. But The Crown keeps making the mistake of focusing too much on the tension and not enough on the love.

We see it in little moments, like the sweet way the sisters greet each other on the phone (“Hello you”) or the fact that Elizabeth genuinely considers Margaret’s request to take on a more active role in the royal family. (Listening remains one of Elizabeth’s greatest skills as a leader.) But the vast majority of “Margaretology” is stuff we’ve seen over and over again on this series: Margaret shines, Elizabeth simmers with jealously. Elizabeth asserts her power, Margaret sulks. Mixing up the dynamic would allow the sister relationship to take on more depth and nuance, but The Crown seems almost pathologically obsessed with keeping these characters in their preordained tracks and repeating the same stories over and over again, rather than expanding out and trying something new.

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Photo: Sophie Mutevelian (Netflix)

In the end, the episode settles on the idea that the Windsor line is cursed so that unto each generation is born a dull royal and a dazzling one. Of course, there’s a lot to be said about how the burden of monarchy itself shapes that dull/dazzling duality. We see that in the opening flashback to 1943, where a stern Tommy Lascelles (hello Pip Torrens!) informs young Elizabeth that she’s being upgraded from “heir presumptive” to “heir apparent,” all while Margaret is largely left on her own. Yet the episode also seems to imply that nature is even more important than nurture.

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In fact, all of the other Windsor pairings that Philip mentions—Queen Victoria and her playboy eldest son Edward VII; George V and his older brother Prince Eddy; George VI and his abdicating Nazi older brother Edward VIII—are much more interesting examples of a potential Windsor curse because they upend traditional family dynamics. In contrast, Elizabeth and Margaret are pretty much exactly what you’d expect from a dynamic where one child was raised to be a serious-minded leader and the other wasn’t. They even fit into the classic responsible older child/wild younger sibling dynamic that’s pretty common for a whole lot of families, royal or not. So juxtaposing their personalities isn’t nearly as revelatory as The Crown thinks it is.

Without much new to say, the joys of “Margaretology” are in its production values and performances. And it’s there that the episode absolutely shines. The swinging ’60s suit Margaret and they suit Helena Bonham Carter too, who gets to rock a dazzling array of jewel-toned dresses while drunkenly belting out Irving Berlin songs. She’s an absolutely pitch-perfect Margaret, building on the work that Vanessa Kirby did in the first two seasons while also bringing an old soul mournfulness and uncouth bawdiness to the role. In recent years, Bonham Carter has become so associated with her heightened goth fantasy roles that it’s easy to forget she’s a phenomenal actress. It’s great to see The Crown give her the showcase she deserves.

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Photo: Des Willie (Netflix)

It’s also fun to watch The Crown lean into the glamorous celebrity of royalty, even if it doesn’t quite have the budget for realistic airplane CGI or White House exteriors. As when Michael C. Hall played John F. Kennedy last season, The Crown continues its run of casting actual Americans to play American presidents but then somehow getting them to deliver outlandish performances that feel like a British exaggeration of what Americans are like. On the other hand, there’s also a pretty astounding recording of the real-life President Johnson ordering pants that suggests maybe Clancy Brown actually doesn’t go far enough with his over-the-top performance. Regardless, Johnson never really rises above caricature here.

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Yet for an episode this glamorous but also this surface, I’m not entirely sure he needs to. “Margaretology” is The Crown on glitzy, melodramatic autopilot. There’s nothing here we haven’t seen before, although there is something undeniably fun about seeing it done by a new cast. While Elizabeth and Margaret may be trapped in the cycle of their perpetual sibling rivalry, here’s hoping The Crown doesn’t stay stuck there as well.


Stray observations

  • Reading it back, I realize this review is pretty negative for the grade I gave the episode. I just thought it would be more interesting to discuss my big structural concerns rather than list off all the incredible aesthetic choices and acting moments. It really is a fun episode!
  • There’s delicious dramatic irony to be mined from Philip dismissing Margaret’s request for a more high-profile role when he himself spent the past two seasons repeatedly throwing hissy fits until he got more power than any other royal consort in British history. Alas, The Crown seems uninterested in drawing that parallel.
  • The only major cast member who isn’t working for me yet is Ben Daniels as Tony. He doesn’t quite have the same magnetism Matthew Goode brought to the role.
  • Wilson reciting Johnson and Margaret’s dirty limericks to Elizabeth felt like a bit much.
  • Not that it really matters, but Helena Bonham Carter is playing Olivia Colman’s little sister despite being 8 years older than her.
  • The little girl they cast as young Princess Margaret really looks like she could grow up to be Vanessa Kirby. Good job, casting department!
  • I loved Elizabeth’s jolly, “Is everyone panicking?” after learning the Americans had blown off the palace’s invite to go shooting at Balmoral.
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About the author

Caroline Siede

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. Her interests include superhero movies, feminist theory, and Jane Austen novels.