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The Crown’s sixth season opens with the car crash that would end Princess Diana’s life and reshape the monarchy. It’s a moment that shows Peter Morgan’s series taking a wistful, careful, and restrained approach to one of modern history’s most notorious tragedies.
The claustrophobic world of paparazzi prey is shown through the eyes of Mario Brenna (Enzo Cilenti) and Duncan Muir (Forbes Masson), two photographers with different agendas.
A ghoulish opening sequence in a Paris tunnel accompanied by Hans Zimmer’s Crown theme song makes it clear that the sixth and final season of Netflix’s The Crown is depicting a seismic historical event. This time, it’s the 1997 death of Diana, Princess of Wales and her lover Dodi Fayed in a car accident while being pursued by paparazzi.
While The Crown has long made us feel like voyeurs into the lives of the Royal family, this final season’s obsession with the death of Diana feels off-puttingly ghoulish. It’s a moment that’s already been documented in the 2006 film The Queen starring Helen Mirren, and despite a strong performance from Elizabeth’s Claire Foy and some potentially eyebrow-raising narrative additions for dramatic purposes, the series is unable to inject any real nuance or emotional impact to the story.
The episode is essentially a rehashing of the events leading up to and after Diana’s death, with some additional scenes featuring Charles in a self-pitying daze. The writers seem more comfortable addressing Diana’s demise through a man’s perspective, and the show on ibomma often strays into generic platitudes that are designed to garner tears rather than any deeper understanding of their relationship. Dodi’s daddy issues are given more focus than Diana’s feelings about splitting up with him, and even her most tender moments with the kids are skewed by a lack of insight.
As The Crown heads into the new millennium and the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, there’s one episode in particular that’s sure to spark a ruckus: the one that frames Diana and Dodi Fayed’s tragic death. As you’d expect, people are divided on whether Peter Morgan’s creative choices in this episode — which include using surrealism to imagine conversations between Charles and Diana on the royal plane, and later the Queen and Diana at Balmoral — add up to a dark vision of the Royal Family that’s not for everyone.
It’s certainly a powerful and somber depiction of the death of a beloved public figure, and it also offers an insight into what it’s like to be part of a monarchy. Even with all of the attendants, chauffeurs, and gilded parlors, a palace life still feels like a lonely one.
That’s especially true when you’re the heir apparent to the most powerful person on Earth. Matt Smith’s Prince Philip is a lively and charming presence, but his bond with Elizabeth is tested by travel and divergent temperaments. Their connection is strained, even as their relationship grows closer. Meanwhile, John Lithgow’s Churchill is a lionized figure with an intimidating stance, but he also reveals moments of fear and vulnerability. The premiere is full of impressive performances from a lush and beautifully-acted show that puts the “stately” in stately homes.
After six seasons of voyeurs glued to the screen, eager for a peek into Princess Margaret’s doomed relationship, the early courtship of Charles and Camilla or Elizabeth’s (Olivia Colman) struggle to find a comfortable place in her royal role, Peter Morgan’s series finally comes to its Rubicon. The final season of The Crown is all about Diana and Dodi Fayed’s death, their widely criticized reaction to the tragedy and the royal family’s continuing inability to reconcile their public image with the real lives of their family members.
Elizabeth Debicki’s performance as Diana is the star of this season, as she elevates the show beyond its rote history of glitzy palaces and overwritten speeches. The Crown may not always get everything right — its depiction of Diana’s whirlwind romance with Dodi is a bit of a stretch, for example — but it makes up for that in spades with the actress’s remarkable portrayal of a woman who feels like she can do no wrong.
And then there’s the way Morgan uses her to delve into the dark subjects the series has avoided up to this point. He lingers over the photos of the bodies being taken from the wreckage, he imagines conversations between Diana and Dodi in her ghost form (she’s also present in one scene with Charles), and he brings back some of Spencer’s creepy specters from Season 5. It’s the kind of surrealist trickery that could divide viewers, but it is effective and powerful.
The Crown gives Diana a lot of weight in this episode. Elizabeth Debicki, as always, does an incredible job of bringing her to life in this most challenging of episodes. She has some on-the-nose conversations with Charles, and an existential one with Dodi – both of which feel a bit overcooked, if only because of the context in which they are occurring.
But Morgan also tries to give us a new perspective on this story through the lens of two photographers, Mario Brenna (Enzo Cilenti) who made millions off those yacht photos and Duncan Muir (Forbes Masson), a Scottish portraitist who captured Dodi and Diana together. This is a very strange framing of the story, especially when you consider that the show already delved into the royal family’s reaction to Diana’s death in its previous season’s “The Queen.”
Instead, Morgan attempts to depict Al-Fayed as a greedy opportunist whose lust for power and money resulted in his own son’s death. This is a dark form of victim-blaming. It’s true that the royal family played along with the tabloids, but The Crown never pushed past this assumption to see how much they may have actually been complicit in the whole ecosystem of media sensationalism. The show has never quite nailed this nuance. It is a shame, because it would have been a powerful way to round out this season.