I’ve never known a Brit without an opinion on the Duke of Windsor, also known as the “abdicated king.” And I cannot guess what the writer thinks of him, either, since he makes him in turns, dreadful and pitiable. “David” enters an England glad to see him (if you ask the wrong people), and loathe to see him (if you happen ask the right people, being Bertie’s wife and children and his own mother, who greets him by lamenting that Bertie was the “perfect son”).
This episode paints the royals as “ordinary people,” with their in-family bickering, the blame passed around (“He as good as killed your father,” the queen mother tells her daughters, her eyes ablaze at the thought of her brother-in-law), and the lament from David as he leaves their presence: “This family, you never are entirely certain when you’re ‘in,’ but when you’re ‘out,’ you know you’re out.”
I’ve read numerous books on David and Wallis Simpson, some written by ‘ice-veined’ royalists who paint Wallis as a schemer and harpy, and David as a mean-tongued, vindictive cad prepared to cast aside his throne for a raven-eyed beauty; and some as apologists, who defend Wallis as the victim in a king’s determination to abdicate, forever ‘stuck’ by his side. There is no neutral ground among their biographers and as such, I doubt I shall ever find an impartial opinion. Their cinematic representations are not often sympathetic. David did have ‘nasty little nicknames’ for everyone in his family, but if they treated him with as much icy indifference as on screen, I can see why.
Considering he and Wallis had Nazis among their friends, it is better for history’s sake that he abdicated and left Bertie to handle the war. But, naturally, none of the royal family quite see it that way, and he is left to an icy reception at Buckingham Palace, and a considerably warmer one at Downing Street, where Churchill agrees to fight in Cabinet for his extended income but not for a title for Wallis.
Whether by accident or design, David seems to be a premonition of later events with Princess Diana, as a disgraced member of the royal family loved by a devoted section of the public, in defiance of the ‘stoic’ royals. David, like Diana, caught the public’s attention due to his refusal to back down to his family and toe the official line; instead of caving in to their demands and overthrowing the American divorcee, Wallis Simpson, he abdicated to marry her, and thus passed the throne on to his hapless niece, Elizabeth. “You know, you never apologized,” she tells him over a casual lunch. “Not to me.” The implication is clear: it’s my life you ruined.
The endless momentum of life goes on, even as the royal family buries its most significant member. The day after the funeral, “Uncle Dickie” raises a toast at his dinner table to the “Mountbatton throne.” Tongues wag quick as you like in London, and Philip’s determination for his children and wife to carry his name (and stay at their little house) is thwarted by Winston Churchill, who reminds the queen that one cannot simply shake up ‘the way of doing things’ on a whim, that the crown must be preserved at all costs. And, as her grandmother sneers in a later episodes, the Mountbattons are no ones, “their throne is what, ninety years old? What do they know of Alfred the Great?”
Thick as my blood is with double doses of English stoicism, the American in me bristles at this classism, as well as the subsequent undermining of Elizabeth each time she tries to administer change in her government. She is coming to realize that despite her considerable reputation, and the enormous staff, she has almost no license to live the life she wants, to fight for any of her husband’s rights, and to inflict any kind of change. In the last episode, we saw the first signs of submission, when she gave up too soon in demanding her own secretary, and Anthony Eden did not put his foot down when the Cabinet nudged him into Churchill’s seat.
Though Elizabeth states that she intends to set a president, “that I shall start as I intend to go on,” she proves a total failure not through her own determination, but because precedent, rules, and seniority thwart her at every turn. As the viewer sees her marriage crack at the seams, it’s left to wonder: maybe David had the right idea after all.