Like the monarchy, Netflix’s hit show “The Crown” has struggled with a rapid decline in public perception. It was initially lauded as a beautifully rendered, intricate character drama depicting some of the highs and lows of 20th-century British history through the eyes of the institutions most directly responsible for responding to (or creating) them. But in the wobbly Season Five and now this, it feels like “The Crown”’s muddy approach to QE2 and the dealings of the modern queendom is running out of steam—just in time, it seems, for the show to reach a graceful end.
The opening minutes of this final season cement the tragic direction it will explore, at least in its first half: A man walking his dog on the quiet streets of Paris at night. A car speeds past into the Pont de l’Alma tunnel. A crash. A phalanx of motorcycles follows. As the man hurriedly calls emergency services, the muzzle flash of a dozen cameras strobes out of the dark tunnel entrance. Diana has died, and the world’s mourning will turn into its own kind of spectacle.
This most recent era of the show has been building towards this ever since Emma Corrin stepped into the role in Season Four. Where the first three seasons kept up with Queen Elizabeth’s early days, and the gradual realization that her wants and needs must be sacrificed for the titular crown, the latter half of the show’s life has turned its eye towards another young woman rattled by the expectations of monarchy and its increasing dissonance with modern life. But this time, our protagonist escapes the noose of royalism just in time to meet a far more ignominious fate—paradoxically, sealing her beauty and grace forever in the eyes of a mourning public.
This final season, split in awkward twain by Netflix in an attempt to prolong the show’s eventual end, spends its focus on the final days of Diana’s life. For these four episodes (the last six will drop the following month), writer/showrunner Peter Morgan spins delicious melodrama from one of modernity’s most harrowing moments. Flashing back to eight weeks prior, we see Diana (Elizabeth Debicki, continuing her astonishing capture of the Princess of Wales’ beguiling beauty, a smile peeking out from her tilted head) striving to carve a future for herself in a post-royalty landscape. In the process, she and Charles (Dominic West, still oddly cast) stake out different roles in the public eye: she the humanitarian and tabloid superstar, he the devoted monarchist desperate to bring Camilla Parker-Bowles (an unrecognizable Olivia Williams) into the royal good graces.
All the while, Diana’s budding relationship with film producer Dodi al-Fayed (Khalid Abdalla) begins to take shape—partly the product of their chemistry, but largely engineered, so claims the show, by Dodi’s father, Mohammad al-Fayed (Salim Daw), in his latest gambit to engineer the monarchy’s favor. Daw is deliciously manipulative here, a father who can’t help but use his boy as a tool to achieve his own goals; he’s got more in common with the Windsors than Elizabeth may want to admit. But Abdalla is heartbreaking as an older Dodi, whose dilemma is a fascinating parallel to Diana: They’re both trapped in various prisons of familial obligation, and Dodi is desperate to borrow Diana’s strength to break free like she did.
A feeling of impending doom looms over these first three episodes, each glimmer of a brighter, more independent future for Diana and Dodi interrupted by the flash of paparazzi cameras or another overbearing phone call from Mou Mou. The second episode, “Two Photographs,” frames the Diana-Charles dichotomy as a public-relations battle between “scandal” and “dignity,” as filtered through the lenses of the two photographers who took famous pics of both days before Diana’s death: Italian paparazzo Mario Brenna, depicted here as an opportunistic sleaze, and stalwart royal photographer Duncan Muir. It’s a highlight of the season, a stark framework with which to explore the show’s thematic battle between reality and perception: Charles keeping up a happy family and the traditions of the state, while Diana dangles from the edge of Dodi’s yacht, a woman on the precipice.
Granted, with only half the season to work with, Season Six of “The Crown” is more assured than the season prior, if only by fits and starts. It helps that this first stretch holds a singular focus on Diana in her last days, a woman scrambling to secure her future and escape the yoke of the very fame that keeps her safe, successful, and influential. However, that comes at the cost of the rest of the cast, with even Charles’ subplots coming across as immaterial in the wake of Diana’s immense gravity. When Diana is on screen, so the “Simpsons” gag goes, we’re left asking, “Where’s Diana?” It’s a flaw the royal family suffered in real life, so it tracks that the show dramatizing their rapid slide into irrelevance would also turn its focus away from them this drastically.
And what of the one who wears the titular crown? As with Season Five, Elizabeth gets placed on the back burner, a woman whose character journey is complete and, therefore, gets little to do but ruminate and lecture. Imelda Staunton remains the least compelling of the Lizzes that came before, but that’s hardly her fault: “The Crown” has been so focused on Diana of late, just like in real life, that Elizabeth’s complexities are overshadowed. Far from the morally fraught beings they were in their earlier seasons, Elizabeth and Philip (a surprisingly gentle Jonathan Pryce) are fixed points; there’s little new to explore about them. As such, they feel like supporting characters in their own series.
Inevitably, we return to that car crash in Paris, and a fourth episode finally brings us back to the rest of the royals, who must reckon with their grief against the wishes of decorum and the people. But sprinkled among riveting scenes like Liz and Philip debating whether to give her a royal funeral on the streets of London or permit her children the privacy of a funeral is the ever-so-creaky trope of characters engaging in imaginary conversations with a dead Diana. There, they can absolve themselves of their grief, tell themselves what they want to hear, and lend some closure to an event signified by its lack thereof. It feels like a misstep in what is otherwise a sensitive portrayal of Diana’s final stretch on this earth, a way out for the class of people who, however indirectly, engineered the circumstances that put Diana in that car that night.
As “The Crown” reserves its final episodes for later this year, one wonders how the shadow of Diana, Princess of Wales, will loom over them. Not just as a historical event but as the highest—and lowest—moments of the show’s run.
The first four episodes were screened for review. “The Crown” Season Six is currently streaming on Netflix.