DISCLAIMER: This review of Netflix’s The Crown Season 6 Part 1 contains spoilers.
If you were alive for it and of a certain age, chances are you remember Diana, Princess of Wales’s death. I was a kid in 1997, but I recall my mother having the news on all day. She also bought all the tabloid magazines with Diana’s face splashed across their covers. I even had the Princess Di beanie baby that my dad insisted would be worth more if I kept the tag on it (news flash: I didn’t).
The final season of Peter Morgan‘s The Crown has finally arrived with the tragic death of the people’s princess. This first half, consisting of four episodes (with the remaining six premiering in December), is very Diana-heavy. Is that a good thing? Well, yes, and no. Admittedly, this installment is the series’ weakest despite incredible performances from the cast.
Of course, the show has always played fast and loose with actual events. You should approach a season of The Crown with the understanding that it’s primarily a drama. Take the dramatized bits with a grain of salt. However, I had hoped the royal family would shoulder some blame for Diana’s demise. Alas, that’s not the case: Morgan endeavors to humanize them, notably Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles.
Instead, the series makes Mohamed Al-Fayed, a Muslim man, the scapegoat. The reason? If he hadn’t pushed his son Dodi to wed Diana and insisted that Dodi and Diana make a pit stop in Paris, they’d still be alive. That’s not to say Mohamed didn’t have ulterior motives in real life. It’s known that he sought British citizenship, as the royals mention during a meeting in episode one.
Perhaps this is Morgan’s angle — to unveil the inherent racism, bigotry and xenophobia baked into the colonialist monarchy. We even hear the racist remarks hurled at Dodi and his father. But it feels more like a creative decision on the writers’ part than the characters within the show.
From the get-go, it’s evident the royal family’s mistreatment of Diana in life played a role in her death. And, sure, Charles expresses remorse for his share of it. However, it would’ve been more impactful to veer away from the mawkishness displayed by Charles because, let’s face it, in the end, he married the woman he loved and became king.
That said, one can’t deny the dynamic performances put forth by Elizabeth Debicki, Dominic West, Khalid Abdalla and Salim Daw. West navigates Charles’ earth-shattering grief after Diana’s death with surprising depth and immense emotion. His compelling performance makes the aforementioned mawkishness more bearable, to be sure.
Daw churns out enthralling work as a man who emotionally manipulates his son, only to pivot in the aftermath and deliver a heartbreaking turn. It’s a portrait of the five stages of grief, particularly when Mohamed asks the ghost of Dodi if he was too hard on the latter. He begs for Dodi not to go. Daw holds your attention in those scenes of searing vulnerability and doesn’t let go.
Meanwhile, Abdalla makes Dodi a sympathetic, if conflicted, figure. His scene with Debicki in Paris after Dodi proposes to Diana is the best in Season 6 thus far. Abdalla brings a real groundedness and believability to his performance, amplified when acting opposite the enchanting Debicki. Their scenes are an indisputable highlight.
However, the MVP of this season is, without question, Elizabeth Debicki. She stole the show for me in Season 5, and the first half of Season 6 is no exception. Much like Diana in real life, Debicki is a star. She does the late princess justice. Her physicality, down to the last detail, is on point. She even nails Diana’s head tilts and eye movements. Despite the height difference, I’d argue she looks the most like Princess Di compared to previous performers.
Debicki taps into Diana’s wellspring of complexities, from her feelings of isolation and depression to her playfulness and unadulterated charm. Her performance is a tour de force. If she’s not nominated for an Emmy, there is no justice in the entertainment world.
As for the inevitable crash scene, The Crown handles it well. It’s done tastefully. Of course, it’s difficult not to feel the specter of death hanging over every moment in episode three. Even though I knew the outcome, part of me foolishly hoped Diana and Dodi would make it out alive. The creative team deftly ramps up the tension in the scenes leading to their deaths. Everything from the growing throng of people to the clamorous, brash paparazzi and their chorus of camera shutters put me on edge. It’s a testament to brilliantly understated suspense.
That final shot of their clasped hands is also beautifully shot. We didn’t need to see the crash. Thankfully, we also don’t see Diana’s body. Some of the choices after her death, namely in episode four, are befuddling. For example, having the Diana ghost appear to the queen. Diana tells Elizabeth that she taught the masses how to be British. It’s cringe-worthy. While the queen initially blames Ghost Diana for tearing the royal family apart, she appears to have a change of heart. I’m not sure that kind of “redemption” is necessary.
I didn’t get the royal family lambasting I wanted, but The Crown does shine a positive light on Diana, who, even in death, extends forgiveness to Charles (as a ghost) and the queen. Fortunately, she’s not painted as a villain. The paparazzi, on the other hand, are rightfully (and blisteringly) admonished. Tabloid paps are given the scathing takedown they deserve. That’s the real crux of this season: our poisonous, collective obsession with celebrities and the lengths we’ll go to bask in their limelight. What’s unfortunate is that not much has changed in that regard since Diana’s death.
With Diana’s death in the rearview mirror, one has to wonder how the final six episodes will close this chapter in Queen Elizabeth II’s life. Hopefully, the presentation will improve from here.
The Crown stars Imelda Staunton, Jonathan Pryce, Dominic West, Lesley Manville, Elizabeth Debicki, Khalid Abdalla and Salim Daw. You can stream the first four episodes of Season 6 on Netflix and watch the remainder of the final season on Thursday, December 14, 2023.
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