Photo: The Crown (Netflix)

England doesn’t have a written constitution, but if it did somewhere in there would be this: Matthew Goode must appear in all period pieces. The Crown fulfills that obligation by casting Goode (who you might know from such period pieces as Brideshead Revisited, The Imitation Game, Death Comes To Pemberley, and Downton Abbey) as Margaret’s sexy paramour Antony “Tony” Armstrong-Jones. After the mixed bag of the season’s first three more serialized episodes, The Crown finally gets back to the episodic storytelling at which it excels. Most importantly, it switches its focus from Elizabeth and Philip to everyone’s favorite glamorously sullen little sister, Princess Margaret. And that shift breathes some new, sexy life into The Crown.

Whereas “Lisbon” felt like a bunch of random, vaguely thematically linked events thrown together into one episode, “Beryl” tells a cohesive, self-contained story that still resonates with season two’s larger marriage theme. The episode showcases relationships in three different stages. Margaret is caught up in the difficulties of being single and the whirlwind of a new courtship; Elizabeth and Philip are looking for a fresh start having survived the “overture” of their first 10 years together; and decades into their own marriage, Harold Macmillan and his wife Lady Dorothy are working through the complications of her longstanding affair with Robert Boothby.

The three relationships speak to one another in fascinating ways. At the height of her unhappiness, the stability of Elizabeth and Philip’s partnership is all Margaret yearns for—even though she knows better than anyone that their marriage is filled with problems. Yet after her flirty night with Tony, Margaret’s vibrant jubilance is contrasted with the dullness of Elizabeth and Philip’s nighttime routine. Suddenly their happy stability looks a lot more like boredom. And if Margaret offers a glimpse of the kind of passion Elizabeth and Philip once had, then Harold and Dorothy offer a potentially frightening glimpse into their future. The Macmillans may have found stability in their marriage, but it’s a kind of stability entirely devoid of happiness.

All that being said, the heart of this episode belongs firmly to Margaret. And what a gorgeous heart it is. Not even 20 minutes into the episode, Margaret has already gotten engaged and broken off the engagement because her future husband got into a literal duel over his unchivalrous behavior. Margaret’s always had a glamorous streak of self-pity and she’s never worn it better than she does in this post-Peter Townsend era. She looks like an Elizabeth Taylor character (or maybe just Elizabeth Taylor herself) as she drunkenly wanders her bedroom at night destroying everything in sight. And she makes posing for a photo in a glamorous ball gown seem like the most tragic fate imaginable.

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Photo: The Crown (Netflix)

Photography is another major through-line of the episode and Tony’s style of catching his subjects off guard is the opposite of the stuffy, posed life Margaret has been living. True, there’s not much subtly to the metaphor, but it works because “Beryl” has a more heightened tone than the past three episodes. It feels less like a story about the 1950s than it does a story that could’ve been made in the 1950s. Apart from a few overt sexual references, “Beryl” is basically a Douglas Sirk film, especially once Matthew Goode sidles up to Margaret to talk her through the bohemian guest list at the first non-royal party she’s ever attended.

Tony’s contempt for the monarchy is the biggest turn on for Margaret, who has spent her life being universally but superficially adored. Margaret is worldly enough to see Tony’s seduction tactics as tactics, but that doesn’t stop her from being won over by them anyway. And it’s not hard to see why. Goode finds the perfect balance between Tony’s pretension and his charm. His method of throwing Margaret off her guard by making her wait in his empty studio while he bangs around upstairs is incredibly silly. Yet he also knows how to more subtly disarm her by asking about Peter Townsend just before snapping the shot he wants.

Margaret and Tony don’t even do so much as kiss in this episode yet their scenes in Tony’s studio are just as hot (if not hotter) than any explicit sex scene. There’s a palpable connection between them—the kind Margaret doesn’t have with most people because her royal status sets her apart. Margaret signs a secret name on Tony’s mirror of signatures (Beryl, which is where this episode gets its title). Tony slides down the sleeves of Margaret’s dress while posing her for his shot. They stand close together in the red light of his darkroom as he exposes the photo they just took. The Crown transforms relatively minor moments into hugely charged ones that palpably capture the feeling of an early flirtation.

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None of this would work without Vanessa Kirby’s fantastic central performance to ground the episode. Kirby excels at adding a level of self-awareness to Margaret’s unhappiness, which prevents the character from becoming too one note. Kirby’s Margaret really does feel like the kind of person who would pause in the middle of a crying fit to contemplate how beautiful she looks with tears streaming down her face. She’s performative even when she’s alone because being performative is her way of maintaining control. But Tony’s own overly performative nature throws her off her game in a way that’s both frightening and enjoyable for her. The moment Margaret sees Tony’s photograph for the first time is a stunning bit of acting from Kirby because it’s the rare moment Margaret actually lets her mask slip, if only briefly.

Photo: The Crown (Netflix)

Margaret used to resent not being the Queen. But while Elizabeth is entertaining boring foreign leaders and dutifully saying her prayers by her bedside, Margaret is racing through the streets of London on the back of a handsome man’s motorcycle. It turns out being born second has its perks, the biggest of which is freedom. And while Margaret perhaps hasn’t been fully exercising that freedom before (she admits Peter Townsend was an “old fashioned” romantic choice), it looks like she definitely will be from now on.

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Stray observations

  • This is the first episode of The Crown that isn’t solely written by Peter Morgan. Amy Jenkins has a co-writing credit.
  • I quite enjoyed the scene of Elizabeth failing to get a word in edgewise as Harold Macmillan rants about Sputnik and America and England’s special relationship. “They say that listening is important in any marriage,” she finally notes.
  • Victoria Hamilton is killing it with the Queen Mother’s sass this season. Her “do sit down” to Margaret’s lady in waiting was fantastic.
  • We get out first Edward and Wallis Simpson sighting of the season as they gawk over Margaret’s provocative photo.
  • If I’d heard Tony suggest that nickname, I definitely would’ve spelled it “barrel” not “beryl.” I guess Margaret and Tony really are on the same page.
  • The 1950s needle drops in this episode are especially great. I think my favorite is the opening sequence set to Tommy Steel’s “Princess.”
  • Margaret on her friend’s wedding: “It somehow managed to lift the spirits and make one want to kill oneself in equal measure.” God, I love Margaret.

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