Photo: The Crown (Netflix)

Heading into The Crown’s second season, I was most excited to see the series explore Elizabeth’s two royal pregnancies. After all, in the entirety of British history, Elizabeth is one of just three people who has had the experience of being pregnant while being the reigning monarch (the others are Queen Anne and Queen Victoria). If Hollywood can make an entire movie out of a king’s stutter, surely there’s plenty of story to be mined from a queenly pregnancy. Especially because we don’t have a lot of art about women dealing with pregnancies in professional environments. Is Elizabeth treated differently because of her pregnancy? How does she feels about that? Does being pregnant have an impact on her leadership style, her worldview, or her sense of self? The Crown is interested in exactly zero of those questions. It makes time for one quick scene that hits the standard pregnancy beats (Elizabeth can’t see her feet and her boobs are huge), and then it’s in a rush to get the whole pregnancy subplot over and done with as quickly as possible. After all, there’s Tony’s sex life to depict in nipple-filled detail!

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To be clear, I’m not critiquing the moments in “Matrimonium” that intentionally depict the more detached parenting ethos of the 1950s. The delivery montage in which Elizabeth is put into twilight sleep while Philip is off playing squash is meant to drive home how different the philosophy around childbirth used to be, as is the fact that Margaret and Elizabeth are both relatively distant from Prince Andrew once he’s born. Those are intentional storytelling choices related to Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Elsewhere, however, “Matrimonium” treats Elizabeth’s pregnancy—and in many ways Elizabeth herself—as an afterthought.

Which is fine, The Crown doesn’t have to depict the parts of history I’m specifically interested in. I would argue the show misses an opportunity to explore a truly unique aspect of history, politics, and the female experience, but what matters more is where the episode chooses to put its focus instead. If “Matrimonium” had told a compelling story, I wouldn’t have minded so much that it largely ignores Elizabeth’s first royal pregnancy. But all-in-all I found the episode too scattered for its own good. Rather than feeling like a cohesive story, “Matrimonium” feels like an episode that can’t find its center.

The theme of the episode is at least clear: Marriage. And specifically, the marriage between Margaret and Tony, who get engaged partially out of love for one another and partially out of a desire to spite the people in their lives. The royal marriage will give Tony a higher title than any of his half-siblings, something that matters deeply to his cold, class-conscious mother (an always welcome Anna Chancellor). Margaret, meanwhile, will be able to prove to a newly engaged Peter Townsend that she’s also doing fine thank you very much. And she’ll be able to show up Elizabeth with an even more over-the-top royal wedding.

Set from August 1959 to May 1960, this is an episode all about the old mixing with the new. As Margaret explains to Elizabeth, her relationship with Tony has given her a new purpose as a woman for the modern age. While Elizabeth is stuck in the stuffy past, Margaret has embraced the impending swinging 1960s. Only as Elizabeth rightly points out, that isn’t quite true. Margaret has always been less progressive than she pretends to be. Of everyone in the royal family, she might just be the one who enjoys the pomp and circumstance of it all the most. She presents it as an ironic joke that she wants to get married at Westminster Abbey. But it’s also clear that she really wants to get married at Westminster Abbey. In this as in all things, Margaret wants to have her cake and eat it too.

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The Elizabeth/Margaret bedroom confrontation returns to a major theme of The Crown’s first season: Elizabeth and Margaret are ill-suited for their respective lots in life. Margaret should’ve been the glamorous Queen and Elizabeth should’ve been the anonymous, family-focused princess. In a vacuum, it’s a compelling, well-acted scene, and yet as someone who’s hyper-aware of issues of female representation, there’s also something that doesn’t quite sit right with me about Elizabeth and Margaret’s dynamic on this show. As I’ve mentioned in these reviews before, The Crown fudges history when it comes to Margaret and Peter’s breakup. In real life, Elizabeth and Anthony Eden came up with a plan that would’ve allowed Margaret to marry without giving up her title. It was Margaret and/or Peter who broke off their engagement on their own accord.

What bothers me about the change isn’t that it’s historically inaccurate. It’s that it’s historically inaccurate in a way that reinforces stereotypes about women (and particularly sisters) constantly being in competition with one another. I’m so much more interested in the moments of warmth between Elizabeth and Margaret than their moments of catty rivalry. And yet The Crown can’t seem to conceive of a relationship between its two central female characters that isn’t in someway marked by cattiness, so much so that it needs to literally change history to justify that cattiness. While Philip and Mike’s complicated friendship got an uncomplicated celebration in “Lisbon,” The Crown can’t fathom doing the same for Elizabeth and Margaret. Taken in isolation, any individual Elizabeth/Margaret scene is compelling to watch. But taken as a whole, I’m disappointed in The Crown’s willingness to lean into stereotype.

Which isn’t to say there aren’t things to like about “Matrimonium.” In fact, I would say my frustrations stem from how much potential there was in this episode and how little screen time those interesting moments got. For one thing, Claire Foy, Vanessa Kirby, and Matthew Goode are so insanely talented that they can convey entire emotional arcs with a single glance. And some of the most compelling moments in “Matrimonium” are silent ones: The slight look of dread that crosses Tony’s face when his mother passive aggressively notes that she hopes he didn’t marry a princess just for her; the vulnerability on Margaret’s face when she realizes Tony is proposing; the doubt Elizabeth clearly feels over whether to tell Margaret everything she’s learned about her fiancé’s philandering ways.

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But the episode can’t quite decide if it wants to focus on Margaret, Tony, or Elizabeth, so it hops between the three of them in a way that feels scattered rather than purposeful. There’s so much time to cover, so many major events to depict, and so many complex relationships to convey, that everyone winds up feeling like they get the short-end of the stick. It doesn’t help that Tony’s sexual escapades aren’t nearly as revealing as The Crown thinks they are (at least from a character point of view, they do significantly up The Crown’s nudity quotient), and Margaret and especially Elizabeth both suffer from having to take a backseat to Mr. Armstrong-Jones. Of course, even a subpar episode of The Crown is better than 90 percent of other TV shows, so I don’t want to come down too harshly on “Matrimonium.” But it’s always disappointing to watch an episode with a lot of potential bite off more than it can chew—even if we do get both a royal baby and a royal wedding out of the deal.


Stray observations

  • Another aspect of this episode’s female representation that pissed me off: Anna Chancellor is only 13 years older than Matthew Goode and she’s playing his mother. (In real life, Lady Rosse was 28 when she had Tony.)
  • The Crown intentionally invokes some Lady Di imagery in the scene where Margaret flees Tony’s gallery opening while the paparazzi follow.
  • I quite enjoyed the image of the Queen Mother leading a conga line.
  • I also love that Michael continues to bring in Tommy whenever he has bad news he can’t quite bear to break to the Queen himself. (In this case, Tony’s extra-marital affairs, Christian and otherwise.)
  • Elizabeth half-heartedly indulging Philip’s beer maid fantasy really made me laugh.
  • Since this episode critiques 45-year-old Peter Townsend for marrying a 19-year-old, let me take another moment to remind you that when Peter first met Margaret he was a 30-year-old married man and she was 14. (They reportedly fell in love eight years later when she was 22 and he was 38, but I’m still raising a critical eyebrow in Townsend’s direction.)
  • As in the first season, The Crown’s famously high budget still isn’t high enough to depict the full grandeur of a royal wedding.

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