[Editor’s note: The A.V. Club will publish episode recaps of The Crown’s fifth season every weekday at 1 a.m. Eastern through November 22. The following details episode four.]
Okay, I’m running out of patience here. You’d think an episode called “Annus Horribilis,” after the queen’s own admission in a 1992 speech that she’d had a horrible year, would get into the good stuff. But instead, we’re treated to another hour diving into the past–except this time, it’s material we’ve already spent a lot of time on. Did we need to rehash the Peter Townsend stuff? Again?
We begin with Elizabeth’s (Imelda Staunton) famous speech in November of 1992–in voiceover, commentary tells us she’s made a “stark admission of failure after a horrible year for the royal family”–before jumping back to earlier in the year and detailing how she got to that point. Is the focus of this episode Elizabeth? Or any of her three children who would see their marriages finally fall apart in ’92? Nope, it’s Princess Margaret!
The Crown has established again and again that Margaret (Lesley Manville) feels purposeless, always wanting more responsibility or attention in her role. “Annus Horribilis” is more of the same. We see her lengthy, indulgent morning routine cut with a radio interview in which she explains songs she’s chosen to be played over the air. This interview is a mix of bullshit (“Faith has always informed every decision I’ve ever made”), wistfulness (“One always has one’s memories”), and bitterness (“My sister has lessons in constitutional history, and I had piano”). The conversation turns to first loves, and of course, listening in is one Peter Townsend (Timothy Dalton), Margaret’s first love.
Though they haven’t seen each other since 1955, he writes her a letter requesting to see her at an upcoming reception for the crew who served on HMS Vanguard. She shares this development with Elizabeth, and there’s a bit of tension as Elizabeth emphasizes his marital status both then and now. Margaret pushes back and says she’ll take him up on his offer. “Why, what’s it to you?”
Throughout the episode, we are treated to conversations between Elizabeth and each of her divorced or separated children. First up: Prince Andrew (James Murray), who, after separating from his wife Sarah earlier in the year, is here to tell his mother that a tabloid is about to publish pictures of her having her toes sucked by another man. Watching Elizabeth’s face as she processes this news is worth the price of admission for the entire episode.
Andrew broaches the subject of divorce–not what Elizabeth wants to hear–and the conversation turns to whose fault the whole thing is. Andrew blames the family, always loving the idea of outsiders (“They’ll be our salvation. Our secret weapon. Make us look more modern, normal”) before crushing them into conformity. In 2022, it’s hard not to read this as meta commentary that applies to Meghan Markle, but The Crown has done a good job establishing this history. As Margaret said in season four’s “Fairy Tale”: “How many times can this family make the same mistake?”
Margaret herself attends the HMS Vanguard reception and sees the freshly divorced Anne (Claudia Harrison) dancing happily with her new beau. After giving her niece some advice to pursue her happiness, Margaret stands to exit early, but Peter is there to convince her to stay for a bit. They have a good time, and as he walks her out, he tells her he kept all her letters, and as he’s getting older, he wants to return them (“not as a rejection”) so they don’t fall into the wrong hands once he’s gone. Margaret is touched by this, and the two make plans to see each other the next time he’s in London.
Next in line for a hard conversation with the queen: Anne, taking Margaret’s advice and asking for permission to marry Tim Laurence (the man she asked her mother about back in the season premiere), whom she’s been with for three years, even though she just divorced her husband a few months earlier. Aside from the fact that “the ink is barely dry on [her] divorce from Mark,” the queen points out that in the Church of England, remarriage is forbidden when the first husband is alive. (Seems arbitrary when you’ve already gotten a divorce, but okay!) Anne complains about how much she gives for the family (five engagements a day, 300 days a year–I’m not a royalist, but yeah, that does sound exhausting), and says she will marry Tim before storming out. Elizabeth is batting zero for two.
We’re treated to a scene of Margaret rereading her old letters from Peter and cut to some flashbacks from season one’s affair between the two, ending in Margaret’s total devastation. If you forgot about all that, now you’re caught up, but this is a literal replay. The Crown is using Margaret’s tragic romantic history to provide context for the currently failing marriages, but it feels like a missed opportunity to spend more time exploring the relationships of Andrew, Anne, or Charles (Dominic West) rather than retell an old story.
But here comes Charles to beg for his own divorce in the wake of Diana’s (Elizabeth Debicki) book. He’s bent out of shape that they’re calling him “Prince Harming” in the press, but Elizabeth is unmoved. Charles will be king, entrusted to maintain the laws of God, and God’s law is that marriage is for life. Charles counters that she’s supposed to protect the crown, and Diana “won’t rest until she’s blown the whole thing up.” He points out that the monarchy should become more modern, but it’s only doing so by becoming a broken family, and gets in a nasty dig about Elizabeth’s parenting before leaving.
Things don’t get better from there. To round out the awful year, there’s a massive fire at Windsor Castle, where Elizabeth and Margaret grew up. Elizabeth is devastated by the loss and feeling like a failure as a parent, and Margaret–fresh off Peter kissing her and asking if their love was a lasting one–comes in to kick her while she’s down. Margaret is outraged that Anne is being allowed to marry Tim, who bears many similarities to Peter (an equerry marrying above his station). “After 40 years, you cannot bring yourself to acknowledge what happened to me and the part you played in it!” she yells at Elizabeth, and I indeed feel like I’ve been hearing this story for 40 years.
It’s in this headspace that Elizabeth finds herself before giving the famous speech that bookends the episode. Her mother (Marcia Warren) tries to bully her out of the vulnerability, but Elizabeth needs a release and Philip (Jonathan Pryce) backs her up.
If The Crown is trying to inspire empathy by making us feel like the royals, mission accomplished. I’m exhausted.
- Lesley Manville does not have the same vibe as Helena Bonham Carter, who played Margaret with more rogue cheekiness, but she does have the same icy disdain and elegance as Vanessa Kirby, who we see in the flashbacks to season one.
- As she does battle with her children, we get lots of shots of Elizabeth with her dogs and horses, her more uncomplicated babies. And it’s truly amazing that she and Margaret have dogs named Rum, Brandy, and Sherry.
- Margaret usually gets some of the funniest lines in The Crown: “The great metaphor. I mean, fire.”
- The Queen Mother’s three questions to ask before you say something: “Does it need saying? Does it need saying now? Does it need saying by me?” A lot of the internet could take that lesson to heart.
- After Elizabeth and Margaret say they love each other: “God, that was middle class. Promise me we’ll never do that again.”