It’s the Queen vs. the Iron Lady in a fiery episode of The Crown

Caroline Siede
·6 min read

If you ever wanted to know what it would be like if Aaron Sorkin wrote The Crown, then boy do I have an episode for you! “48:1” may feature only a handful of brief walk-and-talks, but it has a certain bold, brash, blunt approach that feels more in keeping with something like The West Wing (or maybe The Newsroom) than a traditional episode of The Crown. This is an hour about words, politics, and moral values, which are topics that Sorkin tends to care about much more than Peter Morgan. And that makes “48:1” an energetic, if not entirely seamless, change of pace. Let the dramatic montages begin!

The new tone does help underline the unprecedented shift in Elizabeth’s behavior. The famously apolitical figurehead actively enters the political ring to pressure Margaret Thatcher into joining the other 48 countries of the Commonwealth in placing trade sanctions on South Africa’s apartheid government. When Thatcher manages to spin that political compromise into a personal victory, Elizabeth takes the even more unprecedented step of letting the public know just how displeased she is with her Prime Minister. To quote her great-great-grandmother, “We are not amused.”

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While it would be easy to sum up this episode as “woke Queen faces off against racist Prime Minister,” Elizabeth’s motivations are a little more nuanced than that. A delightful surprise appearance from Claire Foy as the 21-year-old princess reinforces just how much Elizabeth truly values the “great imperial family” of the Commonwealth of Nations—the intergovernmental organization that replaced the British Empire. We previously saw her devotion to the Commonwealth back in the second season episode “Dear Mrs. Kennedy,” and Peter Morgan cleverly laid some more recent groundwork in “Fagan,” when Elizabeth offhandedly revealed her detailed knowledge of Guyanese culture. In this episode, Elizabeth takes up the cause of black South Africans not necessarily out of her own internal commitment to racial justice, but because it’s an issue that’s deeply important to so many of her fellow Commonwealth heads of government—the leaders she considers to be her friends and second family.

I actually think this episode misses a beat in not placing at least one of those relationships front and center. Elizabeth specifically mentions President Kaunda of Zambia, for instance, and it would have been interesting to see what her dynamic is like with her fellow Commonwealth leaders—not to mention nice to get an African perspective on South African apartheid. Instead, The Crown returns to more familiar territory with a B-plot centered on Palace press secretary and aspiring writer Michael Shea (Nicholas Farrell). He’s a nobly tragic figure who reluctantly agrees to stir the pot on the Queen’s behalf and then becomes her fall guy when the fallout becomes too much. Shea is the episode’s most overtly Sorkin-y character, and also its most extraneous plot thread too. (I’m not sure we needed quite so many scenes of him and his literary agent.)

The A.V. Club is recapping The Crown

But the real focus here is the slow-burning Thatcher vs. Elizabeth showdown, which provides a welcome opportunity for Gillian Anderson and Olivia Colman to sink their teeth into the sort of icy one-liners and thinly veiled rage that make The Crown such a fun soap opera. “This is the business of the week, maam,” Thatcher asserts when Elizabeth tries to change the subject during their climatic final meeting. When Thatcher suggests they discuss their rift “woman to woman” and then pointedly notes that she’s six months older, Elizabeth can barely contain herself before rolling her eyes.

Elizabeth and Thatcher may be two women of the same generation, but their outlooks couldn’t be more different. At her best, Elizabeth’s privileged birthright has made her thoughtful, dutiful, and considerate towards her people. (Foy’s appearance provides a reminder of just how much Elizabeth has grown in confidence since her early days as Queen.) On the other hand, Thatcher’s lifelong battle against sexism and classism has only hardened her heart. If she had to overcome the odds via hard work and exceptionalism, why should the path be made easier for anyone else?

While “48:1” is sometimes a bit too blunt for its own good (at one point it genuinely seems like two political camps are about to get into a West Side Story rumble at a newsstand), it’s more subtle in highlighting the strange and often disturbing hypocrisies of Thatcher’s worldview. She hates the idea of ever showing “womanly” weakness, but also insists on personally cooking and serving dinner to her cabinet members. She rails against the developing world while preparing the classic Anglo-Indian dish kedgeree. And, mostly damningly, it turns out her hardline stance against sanctions ultimately boils down to not wanting to hurt her son’s South African business ventures. Talk about the ultimate government handout.

Though the monarchy hasn’t come across particularly great this season, it’s clear that Thatcher is the even bigger villain here. Whatever potential validity there might have been in her concern about working with “unstable despotisms with appalling human rights records” is quickly revealed to be a smokescreen for pure, unadulterated racism. And she comes *this* close to going full MAGA (well, MBGA) in her yacht meeting with Elizabeth: “There are ways of Britain being great again. And that is through a revitalized economy, not through association with unreliable tribal leaders in eccentric costumes.”

Yet despite how much “48:1” hoists Thatcher with her own verbal petard, there’s still a somber quality to its ending. The episode leaves it as an open question whether Elizabeth’s precedent-breaking critique was the right thing to do. Elizabeth watches Michael Shea dejectedly leave the palace and then stares pensively at a picture of her father (hello Jared Harris!). The press seem to think the Queen stirred up an unnecessary constitutional crisis and then bungled the response. But on moral terms alone, it’s hard not to think of this as a win for our Lilibet—even if she can’t admit it ever happened.

Stray observations

  • This episode has some truly hilarious comic relief courtesy of the Mountbatten-Windsor children. Andrew decides to use his wedding to Sarah “Fergie” Ferguson (Jessica Aquilina) as a chance to screw over Charles, and then throws a hilarious hissy fit when his mom’s news story overshadows his big day. Then when Charles dismisses Andrew as a “fringe” royal, Edward gets to deliver the outstanding line, “That was impressively cunty.” Gold all around.

  • It’s a nice little piece of continuity to see Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke at the Commonwealth meeting.

  • I love that Helena Bonham Carter clearly just spent a day filming shots of Princess Margaret reacting to things in bed.

  • For those wondering about the timeline, South Africa left the Commonwealth in 1961 over the country’s refusal to accept the organization’s tenant of racial equality. It was re-admitted in 1994 following the end of apartheid.

  • It’s a nice little detail that Elizabeth still flips over the papers in her red box, just like her father taught her to do.