“Dear Mrs. Kennedy” sees a major historical figure makes his much-anticipated debut on The Crown’s second season: That’s right everybody, Porchey is back! Oh and the Kennedys stop by Buckingham Palace for an episode all about the ways the personal and the political intersect. Once a season The Crown seems to offer up an episode that feels like the complex, Elizabeth-centric series I want this show to be all the time. Last season it was “Scientia Potentia Est” and this season it’s “Dear Mrs. Kennedy,” which is easily my favorite episode of The Crown to date. Because in addition to examining the intersection of the personal and political in a more generalized sense, “Dear Mrs. Kennedy” specifically examines that theme through the lens of female relationships.
As you can probably tell from these reviews (and from some of my other writing on The A.V. Club), I’m very sensitive to issues of female representation. One of my biggest frustrations is media that propagates the idea that all women are inherently in competition with one another because that’s just the catty way women are. Not only is it lazy storytelling, it’s a trope that has a concrete impact on how real-life women see one another. I’ve been keeping a close eye on how The Crown handles the Elizabeth/Margaret relationship as I think the show has a tendency to veer into slightly problematic territory with the two of them. So heading into an episode like “Dear Mrs. Kennedy,” which is explicitly about female rivalry, I was hyper-aware of the myriad of missteps this episode could make.
But I’m happy to report that “Dear Mrs. Kennedy” actually and successfully digs into the nature of female competition, rather than depicting it uncritically or pretending it doesn’t exist. Jackie and Elizabeth aren’t innocent victims caught up in a world of misogyny but nor are they cruel mean girls throwing petty swipes at one another. They’re flawed human beings whose compassion, kindness, and intelligence is tempered by vanity, jealousy, and pride. More often than not, they’re aware of the missteps they’re making even as they can’t quite stop themselves from making them. In other words, they’re three dimensional people who are allowed to have a three dimensional relationship with one another, which is far from a given when it comes to female characters. In fact, I’m kind of shocked that Peter Morgan penned both “Dear Mrs. Kennedy” and “Matrimonium” as this episode has all the nuance I thought that one was missing.
Which isn’t to say my experience with “Dear Mrs. Kennedy” was entirely smooth sailing. When the episode opened on Elizabeth sadly declaring herself middle aged while starring forlornly at footage of the ever-glamorous Jackie, I was worried we were in for something far more simplistic. And, indeed, this episode offers so many twists and turns in Elizabeth and Jackie’s relationship, that I was on the edge of my seat waiting to see what note “Dear Mrs. Kennedy” would eventually end on. The episode easily could’ve left things at the first “twist,” which is that despite their initial friction Elizabeth and Jackie actually have quite a bit to bond over during their private tour of Buckingham Palace (including their mutual dislike of the spotlight and their mutual love of corgi puppies). It could’ve left things at the second “twist,” which is that Jackie goes on to badmouth Elizabeth at a subsequent dinner party. It could’ve ended on the idea of Elizabeth using her jealousy to fuel some political game play in Ghana. Or it could’ve ended on Jackie’s genuine apology at Windsor Castle. Any one of those endings would’ve left “Dear Mrs. Kennedy” as a good-but-not-great installment of The Crown. But the episode continues to dig deeper and deeper into Jackie and Elizabeth’s dynamic, producing richer results every time until finally ending on a note that’s as simple as it is complex. We don’t know what Elizabeth writes in the letter that gives this episode its title. But we do know just how long a journey it was to get her to a place where she could write it.
It’s always a joy to watch an episode that really and truly puts Elizabeth front and center. And it’s remarkable to see how much she’s grown into her role since her early days as Queen. She once questioned whether she should say something about the smog that was literally killing her citizens in front of her eyes. Now she goes against all official recommendations to play a personal role in keeping Ghana away from a partnership with the Soviet Union. Yes, she’s motivated by jealously over how deftly and glamorously Jackie navigates the more personal side of foreign policy. But the trip also speaks to how much Elizabeth has matured as a politician. It’s much easier to bend the rules once you have a firm grasp on what they are.
Elizabeth goes against protocol and actually gets a win for once, which is thrilling to watch. At first it seems like she’s made a huge mistake by playing right into President Kwame Nkrumah’s plans to pit the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union against one another. But after a bit of solo thinking time, she comes up with an unconventional way to restore the balance of power in her favor. She trades a headline-grabbing dance with Nkrumah for his agreement to play nice with the U.S. and Britain. Elizabeth’s role as sovereign may be largely ceremonial, but both she and The Crown realize that small interpersonal negotiations can be as important as major geopolitical ones. Theirs is the foxtrot heard round the world.
Of course, “Dear Mrs. Kennedy” is not without its flaws. For one thing, Michael C. Hall delivers the worst dime store knock-off Kennedy impersonation imaginable. Jodi Balfour is a bit better as Jackie, although not by much. (It doesn’t help that she’s so often paired with Claire Foy, who is doing series-best work in this episode.) Jack and Jackie’s tumultuous relationship also feels far too over-the-top for this restrained series, which I’ve noticed is often a problem when British shows depict Americans. You could also argue that the choice to have Jackie so immediately open up to Elizabeth during both of their private conversations is a touch unrealistic. But on the other hand, I also buy that Jackie would feel an innate kinship to Elizabeth as another relatively young woman and mother thrust into a largely ceremonial leadership role with a huge set of expectations but very little in the way of guidelines.
Though Elizabeth’s lushly recreated Ghana trip is the showiest aspect of this episode, the standout setpiece is Elizabeth and Jackie’s apology tea at Windsor Castle. Foy does some truly stunning acting as Elizabeth tries to acknowledge Jackie’s gossip while also pretending it doesn’t bother her in the slightest (her frantic scone assembly, however, gives her away). And anytime Jackie’s monologue veers towards going too broad, Foy reigns the episode back with her heartbreaking silent acting. To her credit, Jackie’s apology is filled with real emotional vulnerability as she opens up about the unglamorous reality behind her picture-perfect facade. (Side note: How often do you see a scene in which two major female historical figures discuss postnatal depression?) That Elizabeth isn’t able to return that vulnerability is the great tragedy of the episode, a tragedy that’s magnified by how aware Elizabeth is of it.
Elizabeth later tells Philip all the things she wishes she’d been able to say to Jackie—that she often feels insecure and useless in her role too, that she’s not immune to jealously, that Jackie inspires her as much as Elizabeth inspires Jackie. But she isn’t able to say those things because female relationships are complex and colored by a lifetime of internalized misogyny. There are nuances at play between the two women that their husbands are incapable of understanding. Jack dismisses their complex dynamic as a “cat fight” while Philip praises Elizabeth for having ice in her veins. But there’s so much that passes unspoken between the two women—that is until Jack’s death finally inspires Elizabeth to write it all down.
What “Dear Mrs. Kennedy” does well it does so well that I’m perhaps more willing to overlook its flaws than some will be. Because I’ll be the first to admit that in my ideal world, this is the kind of episode The Crown would be producing all the time. I appreciate the breadth of stories The Crown has explored this season, but I’ll always be most grateful for the outings that dig into Elizabeth’s subtle leadership style and tell nuanced stories about women in power.
- I loved Michael and Martin’s abject horror over the Kennedys bungling their introductions to Elizabeth and Philip. “No curtsy.” “No curtsy!”
- In terms of my favorite Elizabeth moments in this episode, I’m torn between her casually referring to Buckingham Palace as her “house” and her exclaiming, “Hello puppies!”
- In a vacuum, it makes perfect sense that The Crown only addresses colonialism through the lens of how it relates to Elizabeth. After all, the series similarly uses the Kennedys solely as a lens through which to explore Elizabeth. The problem is, media doesn’t exist in a vacuum. And while there are dozens of other pieces of mainstream entertainment that depict the Kennedys in all their humanity, there are far fewer ones that dig into Ghanaian politics of the early 1960s.
- Further evidence that Philip is the worst: He’s pissy about Elizabeth’s trip to Ghana even though he’s the one who’s always complaining that the royals don’t have enough real political power. WHAT DO YOU WANT, PHILIP?!?
- Kudos to The Crown for finding a new angle on one of history’s most famous events: I’ve never thought about the Kennedy assassination from the point of view of other heads of state, who must contemplate assassination in a far more visceral way than most people do.
- “That’s the thing about unhappiness. All it takes is for something worse to come along and you realize it was actually happiness after all.”