The Crown: The Hereditary Principle

Princess Margaret: “What grandiosity? I’m so far down the royal pecking order these days, I’m practically an untouchable.”

Grappling with mental health issues, Margaret seeks help and discovers an appalling secret about estranged relatives of the royal family.

This episode focuses on Princess Margaret, which isn’t surprising as the actor, Helena Bonham Carter, is a powerhouse and any series would be foolish not to maximize its use of her. The episode also shows some gray-haired women in an asylum, a home for the mentally deficient. Of course, we wonder what is going on, and eventually we will be told.

Princess Margaret and some guy – Dazzle Jennings – are dancing around a room. Princess Margaret makes it clear she’s ready for more. The fellow declines her offer, and we soon learn the refusal has two bases: he’s a Catholic priest (or at least preparing to become one) and he’s gay, facts that come out when Margaret has a conversation with her sister. Queen Elizabeth remarks on her sister’s persistent cough.

Princess Margaret, who has been smoking 60 ciggies a day, goes into the hospital; unlike her sister’s decision to keep away from the habit that contributed to the death of their father. I like how the information about this is not shown live, but through a television located in the asylum, where several observers are very interested in what is happening. We are not told in the episode, however, what the results of the hospital visit are.

The episode alternates between the celebrations of a birthday in the asylum and Prince Edward’s 21st birthday in a royal setting. The fact that Edward has turned 21 makes a difference to his aunt. According to the rules, only a certain number of people may deputize for the Queen, and as Edward is closer in the succession than Princess Margaret, she suddenly has less to do. Not that Princess Margaret, who is still helping herself to extra oxygen, is ready to do much.

Margaret goes to her friends in the Caribbean in order to recuperate, scenes we saw earlier with her young lover Roddy. Eventually she receives a visit from her nephew. Prince Charles is also depressed – but at least he is young, first in line for the throne (he’s the heir, not an aging spare) and he actually has an interest in something besides the usual royal tasks (organic gardening). Princess Margaret shows little interest in anything of substance, only drinking, smoking, dancing and men and performing rituals. Charles recommends to Margaret that she get therapy, and it is through therapy that Margaret discovers that she has cousins who are much worse off than she. She uses Dazzle in his guise as a Catholic priest to do some sleuthing.

I did a little research, and it’s my understanding the general public was unaware of these cousins (not royals, but nieces of the Queen Mother). However, I don’t know what the Queen or her sister knew. Although Princess Margaret was horrified at their situation, I also don’t think putting Katherine and Nerissa in a home was necessarily cruel. Not all homes are terrible, and not everyone is equipped to take care of people who are physically ill or mentally deficient or both. (I have told my kids if I reach that situation, they may do that to me, as long as it’s a good one.) The royal family might have the wherewithal to take care of her cousins, but most families would not.

Princess Margaret is, however, shocked and has a row with her mother, who explains why the cousins were put in an institution: Aunt Fenella could not cope. Certainly that makes sense. Having one member of a family who is mentally deficient – the girls never learned to speak, which means their ability would be pretty low – would be hard. It would be very difficult for a family to manage to take care of two. That, however, does not explain the secrecy.

The Queen Mother explains that the secrecy was kept because they didn’t want to let people think there might be (more) bad genes in the royal family. That’s when she talks about “The Hereditary Principle,” which refers to the idea that the crown goes from one generation to the next based on the idea that one family has the divine right, or at least a sort of genetic superiority, which allows them to rule over others. As there was already a history of madness in the royal family (King George III had bouts of madness, which may have been due to porphyria) they could not afford to risk more examples. Now, it turns out that the royal family has no genetic link to Aunt Fenella, the Queen Mother's sister-in-law and the source of the bad genes, but either because they didn’t understand genetics at the time – or because they couldn’t trust the public to understand genetics – the cousins were hidden away.

I must say some parts of The Crown this season are difficult to enjoy. The royals, so privileged, keep feeling sorry for themselves. If they are so miserable, why do they stay in their positions? And Princess Margaret's comparison of herself to an untouchable – the lives of untouchables were hellish – is not inspiring.

Princess Margaret decides to end her friendship with Dazzle at the end, because she wants to dedicate herself to her family’s work, even though there’s less work for her to do. She accepts the hereditary principle as applying to her, including her position in it. Basically, the episode ends with a reset button where nothing has changed except we realize she’s depressed and she will not escape from her gilded cage – facts we knew before the episode's start.

Title musings. “The Hereditary Principle” is the title of the episode; its meaning is explained by the Queen Mother. Besides being the title of the episode (and a good one), it is a recurring motif in season four. Why should any family be granted so much power just because they are members of a particular family? It is interesting that both the rulers and the ruled (see Bob Hawke in "Terra Nullius") are asking this question.

Bits and pieces

The Queen’s solution to unhappiness is a good brisk walk. Brisk walks actually have been shown to improve moods, so it’s decent advice.

The phrase “friend of Dorothy” is a euphemism for a gay man, used because of past laws against homosexuality.

It seems strange that Prince Charles would fly out to speak to his Aunt Margaret, instead of one of her own children. Except that Josh O’Connor has been hired as part of The Crown’s cast and the show didn’t bother to cast anyone to play her two children. Furthermore, this allows The Crown to slide in an update on the marriage woes of the Waleses.

Dazzle Jennings was a real friend of Princess Margaret’s; they grew close after she and young Roddy broke up.

Quotes

Dazzle Jennings: I come tonight with a gift. Gossip. (Note: alas, we don’t get to hear what it is)

Prince Phillip: They were conceived in reconciliation and have brought us all great joy. (Note: Reconciliation for what?)

Princess Margaret: Well, I have come to the view that there is no right man for me.
Queen Elizabeth: Don’t say that.
Princess Margaret: Love is a tender kiss for most people. For me she saves her sharpest ax.

Princess Margaret: What your sister needs to stay afloat is a sense of meaning.

Queen Elizabeth: That may be, but we have to play with the rules.

Princess Margaret: Friends! The ones worth knowing, they’re fed up with me.

Princess Margaret: Not everything in this family can be explained away by the abdication.

Overall Rating

Although Helena Bonham Carter is immensely talented, I have mixed feelings about this episode, in which there seemed to be no growth, just a decline in Princess Margaret’s spirits, health and relevance. On the other hand, The Crown has to work with what is available; it can't change the endings just because that would make a more satisfying story. Three out of four heliconias, the flower Prince Charles admired on the island.

Victoria Grossack loves math, Greek mythology, Jane Austen and great storytelling in many forms.

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