Nobody would have blamed Peter Morgan if the sixth season of Netflix‘s The Crown had addressed the death of Diana and its impact on the royal family in only a roundabout way.
OK, some people absolutely would have. But I personally wouldn’t have blamed Peter Morgan if he’d decided that, with 2006’s The Queen, he’d already made his two-hour episode of The Crown dealing with the impact of Diana’s death on Queen Elizabeth and the precarious position of the monarchy. Surely, Morgan had nothing to gain from rehashing the same beats of royal mourning, along with musing on the causes behind Elizabeth’s slow initial response and the circumstances behind her eventually well-received address to the grieving nation.
The Bottom Line A frustrating beginning of the end.
Airdate: Thursday, November 16 (Netflix)
Cast: Elizabeth Debicki, Dominic West, Khalid Abdalla, Salim Daw, Imelda Staunton, Jonathan Pryce
Creator: Peter Morgan
At the very least, I hoped that Morgan would find an unexpected angle: the perspective of a palace guard spending the days after Diana’s death watching over the impromptu public memorials, or a mouse at Balmoral as the news circulated from room to room. Anything, honestly, other than a television rehash of The Queen, sticking poor Imelda Staunton with the responsibility of mimicking not only the actual Queen Elizabeth but also Helen Mirren’s Oscar-winning performance.
Unfortunately, a few formal flourishes aside, that’s pretty much what Morgan does in the first part of the deservedly acclaimed drama‘s concluding season. Netflix decided to split the season into an initial four-part chunk, launching this week, followed by the closing episodes in December. The split was initially confusing, but having seen these four (and nothing after), I get it.
For better or worse, people are going to have a lot to say about these four episodes. They aren’t awful — if nothing else, Elizabeth Debicki‘s take on Diana is so excellent it’s a pleasure to see her get such a full, and tall, spotlight — but the third and fourth episodes especially represented my least favorite stretch of The Crown to date. Airing this arc now gives the British press and various royalist fact-checkers a month to rend garments and gnash teeth — it’s the Al-Fayed estate that should be planning the actual offense-taking — before seeing how Morgan decides to wrap this decade-hopping experiment up.
It’s actually a pretty tidy four-episode mini-season tracing the two-month origins, rise and heartbreaking fall of the Diana-Dodi romance. These episodes are so fully focused that there’s almost no room for anything else, especially Staunton’s Elizabeth, who has maybe five minutes of total screen time in the first three episodes combined and does almost nothing. Jonathan Pryce’s Philip is similarly wasted, though he actually has the best line of the season thus far: a single beat during the fourth hour that I found shockingly effective in an episode that I generally otherwise found anything but.
The first two episodes laying the groundwork for what unfolded with Diana and Dodi (Khalid Abdalla) are quite good. The first has a very welcome lightness to it, especially knowing where things are heading, likably showcasing William (Ed McVey) and Harry (Luther Ford), finding sympathy with the Charles (Dominic West) and Camilla (Olivia Williams) pairing and even finding a way to work in some vintage late-’90s British musical curios from Chumbawamba to Kula Shaker.
So much of Debicki’s Emmy-nominated performance from last season concentrated on the misery of the dissolving Charles/Diana marriage, and she was so heartbreaking at that, but it’s equally pleasant to see her play a version of the character with an individual identity — righteously heroic one moment and cleverly flirtatious the next. She’s great as this woman who came to recognize the confines of her luxury prison cell only after it was too late and, as the wonderful “Couple 31” episode last season taught us, she and West are very good together.
The new season’s second episode, “Two Photographs,” is a fine example of what I’ve always liked best about The Crown — namely, Morgan’s ability to take a familiar story and approach it from new and unexpected angles.
There isn’t enough of that in the second half of this arc. The third episode, especially, becomes a rather brutal hatchet job on Dodi, presented as a spineless man-child, and father Mohamed Al-Fayed (Salim Daw), who becomes a scheming Machiavellian stereotype that has no resemblance to the sympathetic and nuanced version of the character we met in season five.
It’s been 20 years since anybody bought into the “This was Diana’s second fairy tale romance!” narrative that some people pushed after her death, but Morgan’s decision to treat the brief coupling as just an ill-fated facilitator in Diana’s life — the moment she realized she needed to focus on herself and not on being a wife or girlfriend — is uninterestingly utilitarian. More than anything, the third episode violates the contract that Morgan has had with the audience from the very beginning of the series, wherein we know that nearly every conversation we’re witnessing is the product of a writer’s imagination — something we happily accept if those conversations are smartly constructed and thoughtfully written. There’s hardly an exchange in the third episode that isn’t sodden with a “These people are going to DIE!” foreshadowing that renders it all wholly unconvincing.
There’s improvement in the fourth hour, in part because of the performances by the ensemble, but it’s strange how little Morgan has adjusted his take on Elizabeth over these six seasons compared to the insight offered within the far more limited scope of The Queen. The series has offered several variations on that detached version of Elizabeth who isn’t always comfortable in her role as national matron, especially in Season 3’s “Aberfan,” one of the show’s best episodes. So why does the Elizabeth in “Aftermath” barely feel any more developed? Ideally, given everything that came before, the insights in this episode should be either completely different or more thoroughly fleshed-out than they were in The Queen. Instead, they just feel repetitive.
A title card reading “Just go watch the movie!” would have been more efficient and opened the door for Morgan to spend more time breathing life into the series’ homestretch.
I’ll certainly be curious how the rest of the season plays out, because not only is this mini-chapter a bit of a miss, but Charles has a monologue in the fourth episode that’s as clear a concluding articulation of the show’s thesis — about the responsibilities and challenges of existing simultaneously as a human and as the embodiment of an ideal — as Morgan could possibly devise. After repeating The Queen wholesale, is he really going to spend six more episodes repeating that monologue? Check back in December!