About two-thirds of the way through “Imbroglio,” there’s a scene where Anne drives along singing to David Bowie’s “Starman” only to exit her car and enter a candlelit palace. While this episode uses the 1972 Miners’ Strike to draw a parallel between the plight of the miners and the plight of Charles, the government’s power cuts have the added bonus of making everything look decidedly old fashion. It may be the 1970s, but inside Buckingham Palace it feels more like the 18th century, what with the Queen Mother calling in two sets of parents and pressuring them to set up an arranged marriage for their children. It’s preposterous that it’s happening in the era of indoor plumping, let alone the era of Ziggy Stardust. The candles only help heighten the surreality of the whole thing.
Back in my review of “Margaretology” I critiqued The Crown for falling back on a familiar Elizabeth/Margaret dynamic without adding anything new to the mix. “Imbroglio” is a much better example of how this show can emphasize the repetitive cycles of monarchical life while still exploring fresh character dynamics. This is an episode all about how the royal family dashed Charles’ dreams of marrying Camilla, but it uses that story to switch up the dynamics at Buckingham Palace. While “Tywysog Cymru” explored the harsher side of Elizabeth as a parent, “Imbroglio” proves she also has some warm maternal instincts and a willingness to learn from the mistakes of the past, like what happened with Margaret and Peter Townsend.
It’s Uncle Dickie and the Queen Mother—the last survivors of the previous generation of royals—who are most worried about Charles and Camilla’s relationship. They think she’s not the right type of woman for him to marry (the Queen Mother calls her a “dangerous element”), and begin to make moves to separate the two as soon as Charles tells Dickie he thinks Camilla is the one. When Elizabeth finds out what’s going on, she’s initially on her son’s side. She was allowed to marry her choice of spouse, why shouldn’t he? (Elizabeth and Philip have never been happier as they prepare to celebrate their 25th anniversary.) In one of the episode’s sweetest moments, Elizabeth observes that Camilla gives her son “confidence, comfort, and self-belief,” which is the most important thing one could want in a partner, especially the partner of a future king.
It’s a rare and welcome moment of Elizabeth prioritizing her son’s well being over the appearance of the crown. So Dickie and the Queen Mother realize the better tactic is to appeal to her motherly concerns, not her queenly position. That’s when they enlist Anne to spill the beans on the Camilla/Andrew drama. Elizabeth’s shock at discovering her daughter has an active, unapologetic sex life is hilarious, but her concern for Charles speaks well of her. You can tell she’s genuinely upset by the suggestion that Camilla might not be fully devoted to her son. (“Stupid, naive, Charles,” she sighs.) And that convinces her to go along with Dickie and the Queen Mother’s plan, even as she’s frustrated by the whole, well, imbroglio.
Complicating things even further is the fact that Camilla actually is conflicted about how she feels about Charles. She admits that she first started seeing him just to make Andrew jealous, only to be surprised when she actually started to fall for him. What these twenty-somethings need more than anything is some time to date without the weight of an entire nation of their backs. But that’s not really a luxury you have when you’re the heir apparent. So Camilla is strong-armed into taking the path of least resistance in much the same way Elizabeth is.
One of the biggest ironies of this episode is that Uncle Dickie gets to come out of all of this as a good guy in Charles’ eyes, even though he kickstarted the whole breakup process in the first place. The Queen Mother suggests Elizabeth deliver the breakup news to clear the air between mother and son, which I’m not actually sure it would have. (Elizabeth is generally better at expressing softness towards Charles when he isn’t in the room than when he is.) But in sending Uncle Dickie to ostensibly clean up his own mess, Elizabeth gives him the chance to position himself as Charles’ ally and cast the blame on her. We don’t hear the conversation that unfolds between the two, but their body language says a whole lot about the affection Charles clearly still feels for his uncle.
“Imbroglio” isn’t the finest example of parenting (particularly not the whole “force your son’s girlfriend to marry someone else” part), but it at least allows us to understand where Elizabeth is coming from. Listening is one of her greatest skills as a leader, but it can also be her downfall when she listens to the wrong people. Yet while history will prove that separating Charles and Camilla was ultimately a mistake, I don’t think Philip is entirely off the mark to assume time will heal Charles’ first big heartbreak. After all, that’s a much more common scenario than that of Prime Minister Edward Heath, who—at least according to The Crown—remained perpetually single after failing to marry his first and only love.
The Heath throughline is the weakest part of this episode. He never rises above one-dimensionality and his melodramatic piano playing is a strange motif that doesn’t add up to much. The Crown is thunderously unsubtle about the parallels it draws between the royal family and Heath’s Conservative government, both of which bullishly dig in when they should be more flexible. In the same way that Heath underestimates the conviction of the National Union of Mineworkers, the royal family underestimates Charles’ love for Camilla. Elizabeth, however, is coming from a less overtly hostile place than Heath, and that makes her mistake far more interesting.
On the whole, “Imbroglio” isn’t one of the strongest episodes of the season. It repeats a lot of the same beats from “Tywysog Cymru” and “Dangling Man,” and it never fully marries the Charles plot and the Miners’ Strike as neatly as it wants to. Plus all the stuff with David’s funeral at the beginning just feels like filler. Still, after a season that’s done far too little with Elizabeth, I’ll take what I can get from an episode that doesn’t entirely center on her, but at least brings out some new shades of her personality.
- It’s interesting to see how much Elizabeth’s time with Harold Wilson has changed her. She defends the miners to Heath, who’s having none of it.
- You have to image David would’ve absolutely hated how small his funeral was. If anyone ever wanted a big state funeral, it was him.
- David’s full name is Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David. That’s quite the mouthful!
- I love dad joke Philip: “Just remember, ‘acting lieutenant’ doesn’t mean you’re in a bloody play.”
- Speaking of which, Charles actually manages to do okay for himself at the Royal Naval College Dartmouth. We also see just how much power Uncle Dickie still wields in his ability to get the Navy to break protocol and assign Charles an eight-month posting in the Caribbean.