Some have called Elizabeth Debicki’s turn as Princess Diana downright smashing. What, too soon? Tell that to The Crown. When the Netflix series returns with the first half of Season 6 on Nov. 16, it wastes no time setting up and exploiting the royal’s death.
The season opens in 1997 Paris with the car crash that claimed the lives of the Princess of Wales and her romantic partner, Dodi Fayed. It’s a short scene that spares gory details but sets an ominous tone for the four-episode run. (The final six installments drop Dec. 14.)
From there, the series backtracks eight weeks, to Diana and Prince William (Rufus Kampa) ironically rocking out to Chumbawamba’s Tubthumping. The lyrics to the upbeat 1997 anthem are in direct opposition to Diana’s unwinnable struggle with royal life, launching a season in which Di’s character wears the crown.
Sure, there are token scenes in the first three episodes involving other royals, namely Prince Charles (Dominic West) and his struggle to get The Queen (Imelda Staunton) to accept Camilla Parker Bowles (Olivia Williams) into the family. But this is Diana’s season, and it proves that, in the wake of her death, we’ve learned nothing about glamourizing famous people.
Previous seasons of The Crown have explored how world events affected The Firm and the internal struggle to maintain tradition while winning the people’s favour. This turn moves further away from Buckingham Palace and out into the world, in salacious pursuit of Diana. She is the historic event, and showrunner Peter Morgan seems to delight in building up the moments leading to her traumatic demise for maximum drama.
By characterizing Diana and playing her accident for entertainment with a three-episode buildup, though, the show feels just as gross as the paparazzi who chased her into that Parisian tunnel 26 years ago. This is a highly glamourized and overly personal look at the life of a woman whose privacy was never respected, and the camera lights are brighter than ever as The Crown selectively chooses which parts of her history to recreate and dramatize.
There’s a difference between entertaining and upsetting, just as there’s disparity between photographing a willing celebrity and chasing their car with flashbulbs.
Historically, Diana led a big life in the months leading up to her end. The royal sparked rumours of a romance with heart surgeon Hasnat Khan. Mother Teresa blessed her. She met with Hillary Clinton in the White House, graced the cover of Vogue and raised thousands of dollars for the English National Ballet.
By picking up in July 1997, The Crown misses those historic moments and fast-forwards to the Dodi of it all. Much of the season plays like a romance, minimizing Diana’s meaningful contributions that made her so beloved. For example, it fails to dig into the royal’s humanitarian spirit and glosses over her historic work with land mines that summer. When the show does recreate Diana’s walk through a HALO minefield in Episode 2, it’s juxtaposed with an event that set off a media explosion: printed photos of Diana and Dodi kissing.
Through it all, Dodi and his father, Mohamed Al-Fayed, are painted as villains. According to this narrative, the former only pursued Diana because his father insisted he should. At the same time, the latter pushed his son into royalty in his bid to become a bona fide British citizen.
The series also alleges that Al-Fayed called in the photographer who captured Diana and Dodi on a private yacht in Italy that summer. The photographs fetched thousands of pounds and were considered the catalyst for the ensuing paparazzi chases. (In real life, Al-Fayed successfully sued the photographer for a breach of privacy following his son’s passing.)
The Crown also alleges the pair conspired to keep Diana in France when she wanted to return home, framing them as the sole reason she was in Paris that fateful night.
It’s a heavy watch, with each scene unfolding another layer of grief, especially in the scenes with her kids. There’s the final phone call, in which Diana had limited time to chat with her sons. Or the scene where Diana wraps a birthday present for Prince Harry (Fflyn Edwards). Then there’s the most brutal scene of all, when a nanny asks Prince Harry if he’s excited to see his mum the next day. Of course, he never saw her again.
By the time the fourth episode rolls around, it’s as though we haven’t just stopped to watch the train wreck, but we’ve parked, exited the car and strolled around each carriage to see the damage up close. Then, the series sits with that pain with an overly sympathetic turn from Prince Charles and a Queen fighting to shield two grief-stricken boys from the mourning public.
If only the series treated Diana and Dodi as sympathetically.
This December, when The Crown returns with the back half of Season 6, it’s with one final time jump meant to wrap this story before it enters modern territory. Yet with the fractured relationship between the princes, the Queen’s death and King Charles sitting on the throne with Camilla by his side, Diana’s ghost feels as modern as it gets.
And yes, Diana’s ghost does make an appearance.
It all adds up to the overwhelming feeling that The Crown should have stuck the landing with the previously planned fifth and final season, rather than using an international moment of pain for another binge watch.