Watching “The Crown” isn’t really about what happened but rather how the show addresses what happened. After all, the historical events covered by the show are often a quick Google search away. What’s more exciting is how the series interprets them.
Over its six seasons, the Netflix historical drama, created and written by Peter Morgan, has featured a new set of actors as time in the series progresses, giving viewers multiple interpretations of its main characters: Queen Elizabeth II and the British royal family. The show has also become known for its artistic re-enactments of events involving the royals, attempting to conjure up what they might have thought or said behind closed doors. (It’s an approach that some opponents of the show, including people close to the royals, have criticized for potentially misleading viewers. But the series has always billed itself as a dramatization, not a documentary.)
This distinction has become even more crucial in recent seasons as “The Crown” has increasingly moved into events that many of us around the world remember watching unfold on television. Nowhere is that tension more present than in Part 1 of the final season, premiering Thursday on Netflix, which covers the death of Princess Diana (played for the past two seasons by Elizabeth Debicki) in the summer of 1997. Of each event covered on ” The Crown” so far, we’ve now reached the part of the show that many viewers probably know the most about and have waited a long time for. It’s a challenge that the show’s usual techniques can’t quite solve in this four-episode set , resulting in its most subdued and underwhelming chapter yet.
The episodes, which premiere on Thursday, take place primarily in the eight weeks leading up to Diana’s death on August 31, 1997. She and her ex-husband Prince Charles (Dominic West) are on friendlier terms as they are parents to William and Harry . Meanwhile, she works on her various humanitarian causes, such as advocating for a global ban on landmines. But it is overshadowed by the relentless tabloid coverage of her romance with business stalker Dodi Fayed (Khalid Abdalla). As the show depicts, paparazzi frantically document their every move everywhere they go, heralding the paparazzi chase in Paris that led to their fatal car crash.
It is meant to create a sense of foreboding. But it’s hard to feel any kind of dramatic effort when we know exactly how it ends. Therefore, these episodes, more than in previous seasons, begin to become a case of “big dresses, beautiful dresses.” We are left with an empty spectacle, like the gilded cages where the royals live.
The Queen (Imelda Staunton) spends most of these episodes at her summer home, Balmoral Castle in Scotland, where in the days after Diana’s death she passively watches television coverage of people around the world mourning the loss of an icon. In one scene, Charles walks in on her watching TV. He goes on to criticize his mother and the family’s inner circle for dramatically underestimating the public reaction to Diana’s death. The Queen, who has not yet said anything publicly about Diana’s death, insists it is a private matter. Their argument is a continuation of an existential struggle that began last season, when Charles was portrayed as trying to bring the royal family kicking and screaming into modern times while dealing with the breakup of his marriage to Diana, who symbolized it. modern era and was largely pushed out of the family because of it.
Finally, almost a week after Diana’s death, the Queen returns to Buckingham Palace and gives a televised address to the nation, which “The Crown” pretty much recreates verbatim. In these four episodes, the show continues its re-creations of big media moments and famous fashion. But they are in short supply as we only see less than half of the season.
Like the queen who watched TV in her gilded cage, separated from what the rest of the world felt, the more interesting story of this period on “The Crown” is the one that happens outside the world of the show. Diana’s effect on people around the world and their outpouring of grief after her death was unparalleled. And three decades later, her life and legacy continue to reverberate, including in the ways the royal family similarly mistreated her daughter-in-law, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex. But all of that has been documented countless times and in countless ways, and is beyond the scope of “The Crown,” which tends to focus on the private rather than the public.
It will be more interesting to watch part 2 of the final season which arrives on December 14. Will the show pick up right where Thursday’s episode leaves off, or will it jump ahead a few years? And how recent will it go? Based on casting announcements and previously released images, we know some of what to expect as it will follow Prince William and Kate Middleton’s courtship. However, unlike in Part 1, it is less obvious what the focus of these episodes will be. That’s always been a key part of the appeal of “The Crown”: the mystery of what it might be trying to say about these events and how it’s going to do it.
At least Part 2 won’t have to wrestle with the intractable challenge of Part 1. In many ways, “The Crown” would never be able to adequately recreate the drama of the sudden death of a global icon. It was already dramatic enough in real life.