People want to be loved.
If there is one constant in this world, it is this, and in a world so often rendered caustic and cold, real love can provide that sense of belonging. It can provide an anchor to stabilize you. It can provide you with the ability to see the qualities in you that perhaps, from trauma and a lack of self-worth, you don’t see within yourself.
There is a significance in being a person who can, seemingly with no effort, provide someone with that love, that space to be themselves, to make them feel as if they’re the person who matters the most to you. But in that extraordinary gift there is the risk that you lose sight of yourself, that people don’t give you the space you so generously share with them. You can love so much but you need to be loved in turn, too.
I didn’t know Diana personally nor was I really around during her time, but growing up I often heard of her as a loving and caring person who fell into a cold, heartless family. It was no surprise a lot of the immigrant women I spent my childhood around (classic gay boy behavior) cared so much for her. They saw themselves in her, often surrounded by uncaring husbands and cruel in-laws, trying to make it through each day, trying to claw back her agency from a world that actively denies it.
The more I learned about her, the more I related to her (for different reasons, of course). A woman who was often wildly split between her performance of self-assuredness and laughter while on the inside searching desperately for an anchor to cling to. A woman who was deeply unwell but those closest to her couldn’t understand why. A slightly petty person who will wear an incredible black dress to undercut her ex’s primetime interview.
There is a danger in lionizing Diana as people so often have. It removes her humanity and lord knows she had enough of that removed during her life. It makes her genuine ability to care and love people seem out of reach for “regular” human beings when that ability is arguably something we all should strive for. It lends itself to this view that she was not, in many ways, like her subjects when that was very much one of the main reasons people connected with her. In his speech at her funeral, her brother Charles said as much:
“There is a temptation to rush, to canonize your memory.
There is no need to do so.
You stand tall enough as a human being of unique qualities, not need to be seen as a saint.
Indeed, to sanctify your memory would be to miss out on the very core of your being,
Your wonderfully mischievous sense of humor, with a laugh that bent you double,
Joy for life, transmitted wherever you took your smile, and the spark in those unforgettable eyes,
Your boundless energy you could barely contain.”
So The Crown attempts to paint a more nuanced portrayal of Diana—her strengths and flaws and all. But it doesn’t really understand her—as a person or as a character. For the drama is not driven by her and her choices. It’s driven instead by the question “when will she die?” It’s ghastly, this framing device, and an utterly cheap one that feels wildly disrespectful to the memory of a woman who was tortured by the media for large chunks of her life. We all know that she’s going to die at a tragically young age, and so opening the season with the car crash that took her life is less of a sound structural choice than a desperate attempt to provide the listless story any semblance of structure at all.
That insulting narrative device, which is also an insult to the audience’s intelligence, is only exacerbated by the absurdity of the dialogue. There are so many conversations that are clobbering the audience with “she’s going to die” foreshadowing that the entire enterprise would lose any semblance of emotional heft if it wasn’t for the real life tragedy and Elizabeth Debicki’s magnificent performance. It’s true that Diana was paranoid after her divorce, as anyone in her situation would be. But it defies basic common sense to insinuate that a multitude of her conversations in the two months before her death were along the lines of “oh my god, I just feel like I’m going to DIE / it’s like I’m the prey, being HUNTED / it’s as if everything is coming to an END.”
Arguably the primary weakness in Peter Morgan’s scripting, beyond his obsessed loyalty to the royal family, is the inability to tell history (even dramatized) from the moment where it happened/would have happened. It’s dialogue that is written almost entirely from the benefit of hindsight—after we’ve had multiple decades to comb through this period of history and the tragedy of Diana. The characters feel less like people in a story and more like aliens that somehow have the benefit of being so perceptive it’s as if they went decades into the future and then came back to their present. So, characters who already don’t feel like real people are further rendered inert and inorganic, vessels for inelegant drivel.
We’ve seen glimpses of her activism in previous seasons. And we see a bit more of it here, when she goes on a trip to Bosnia for the purpose of raising awareness around landmines. And it’s hard, in these scenes, to not see what the show might have been if it had treated its characters like characters. If it had prioritized Diana as a person, her activism, her understanding of her role as a public figure over her death. It makes a significant difference, that prioritization of her death that, as a result, the writing and camerawork feel voyeuristic in a tabloid way. We all know when Diana dies, where she dies, how she dies. But how many people know about her work with AIDS patients? How her embrace of a man dying of the disease shattered the mythology that AIDS patients were too dangerous to even touch?
Showcasing her work on landmines in Bosnia was one of this season’s few good creative choices and so was its contrast with what the tabloids would rather talk about. But it’s not enough and it’s not as if there wasn’t enough space to spend more time not just with Diana, but in exploring why people loved her so much. A focus on that would allow for her death to sneak up on the audience and sweep the carpet from beneath her feet. But the show’s decision to centre her tragic death (thankfully filmed from a distance) more often than not feels like a cheap gimmick.
I cried quite a bit after that scene. It was hard not to. To see someone who gave so much life to others lose her own. To observe a father sob over the body of his adult son. To see children sit in the absence of their mother’s presence.
But I can’t say it was because of something new Peter Morgan offered the story, a unique insight into one of history’s most known tragedies. In what I’ve seen of The Crown, it has never provided a lot of insight or depth. It has largely been content to glow in the bask of its jewels, the kind that glow from afar but when you look up close, they’re plastic, hiding the mediocrity beneath them.
It makes all the sense in the world that Diana’s story has such lasting power. She was beautiful, white—a princess who loved people and whom the people loved. She had everything so many of us believed in our naive days we would all want. Yet she proved that all the gold in the world couldn’t make up for someone genuinely loving you the way you want them to.
If you don’t have anything new to say, let her story go, let her rest. She deserves that much.
- None of this review is a knock on Elizabeth Debicki’s performance. She’s pitch perfect in the role and always elevates and humanizes the writing given to her.
- I will never forgive this show for its erasure of Diana’s relationship with the LGBTQIA+ community and how her voice stood so sharply in contrast to a government that was more than happy to let its queer people suffer and die during the AIDS crisis. The single mention of her work with us in episode four is not nearly enough.
- I think this might be the end of The Crown for me—it was Diana in whom I was invested and I can’t say that I particularly care for anyone else on the show
- There are some “ghost” sequences in the fourth episode that might be the most maudlin choice this show has ever made, which is saying something.
- No more “final season: part one” / “final season: part two” nonsense, please.
- Peter Morgan is bending over backwards to create a deeply sympathetic and aware Charles and it’s so baffling to reinvent him in this fashion. He’s a complicated person so show that complexity. Instead, you can basically see Morgan’s pen straining to make him as likeable as possible and it just doesn’t work.
- There’s an absolutely criminal lack of screen time for Lesley Manville as Princess Margaret.
The first four episodes of The Crown‘s final season are now streaming on Netflix. The final six episodes land on December 14.