As a rule of thumb, it’s not a great sign when something is embargoed close to its release date. The closer the embargo lift is to the release of the film/episode(s), the more suspicious I get that what I am about to see is bad, and so it is that I tell you that the embargo for the first four episodes of The Crown’s sixth season just lifted this morning, the same day the episodes are hitting Netflix.
The Crown’s sixth season/part one is not good. Since its debut, The Crown has been uneven across seasons. Season one is fantastic, a glitzy soap opera full of drama and gowns and tiaras and a dash of historicity. But the second and third seasons provided diminishing returns, until season four and the arrival of Josh O’Connor as young Prince Charles and Emma Corrin as young Lady Diana Spencer arrive to give the series a shot in the arm. But season five wasn’t as good, and season six is, sadly, worse (so far).
It still looks incredibly expensive, though the deeper into the 1990s we go, the worse the aesthetics get. That was just not a great era, the colorful Eighties hangover ending and interior design in the Nineties was bloody awful, so everything is tacky this time around. The Crown has always been good for visuals, even in the not good seasons, but there’s not much to cotton onto in season six. Elizabeth Debicki is fabulously tall as newly divorced Diana, Princess of Wales, and, um….Paris always looks pretty at night? I’m just saying, the awful Nineties aesthetics aren’t helping what is already a troubled season.
These four episodes form “part one” of the season and cover the period of time from Diana’s divorce from Prince Charles (Dominic West) to her death in a car crash alongside Dodi Fayed (Khalid Abdalla), and their driver, Henri Paul (Yoann Blanc), and the immediate aftermath in which Queen Elizabeth II (Imelda Staunton) remains holed up at Balmoral as the UK falls into a state of public grief. This is ground previously trod by Peter Morgan’s film The Queen, and it is a HUGE problem for these episodes that he has nothing to new to add to the conversation about Diana’s death and Queen Elizabeth’s response, except for a sprinkle of racism.
The single biggest issue with these episodes is how the series, with all episodes written by Peter Morgan, treats Dodi Fayed and his father, Mohamed (Salim Daw). The father and son’s portrayal in the previous season was shaky, but this season plays directly into the xenophobic, Islamophobic, racist idea that “Diana would never marry a brown person”. It is true that we don’t really know the state of things between Dodi and Diana, and the series goes with the narratives that Mohamed engineered the relationship and that Dodi juggled his fiancé, Kelly Fisher, and Diana before obeying his father’s wishes to pursue Diana full-time. Fine, the whole point of The Crown is to imagine what goes on in between the royals’ public lives, in those closed-door moments we don’t have access to.
But there’s something about the way this narrative is presented in this context that grates. Maybe it’s about the way Diana reacts to the Fayeds, taking advantage of the retreat offered by Mohamed’s yacht and Mediterranean home, but fleeing his son and their family drama as fast as she can. It’s unflattering bordering on mean without saying anything about the royal machine that cast Diana out with little resources and deliberately blocked her attempts to build a post-royal life. It’s just presented as Mohamed’s grasping social climbing, Dodi being a weak-willed son incapable of escaping his powerful parent’s shadow—while offering nothing about how this echoes Prince Charles—and Diana clinging to whatever fame she can after the divorce. You don’t want to portray these people as innocent martyrs, fine, but like…they’re still people? They’re not stereotypes. And The Crown, disappointingly, does not look beyond the stereotypes.
It gets worse once Dodi and Diana die, somehow. They both appear as ghosts, Dodi to chastise his father about chasing clout with white Brits, which I HOPE is inadvertently and not intentionally casting aspersion on Mohamed, as if to suggest his social climbing killed his son, and Diana to reminisce with a grief-stricken Charles. It’s tacky as hell, going beyond the “closed door” moments and literally putting words in dead people’s mouths meant to soothe the royal family. Not even Mohamed! He gets no compassion, only chastisement, but Charles gets so much grace as he immediately flips to grieving Diana and recognizing her positive impact on the world (which we’ve already seen in The Queen).
The first and fourth season of The Crown feel like they have something to say about the royal family and how their romances and contretemps reflect aspects of the world. But this season, especially, feels like Peter Morgan trying to get back into the royals’ good graces (they reportedly hate the very existence of the show). The portrayal of Diana’s final days, of the Fayed family in general, and the emerging individuality of young princes William and Harry play directly into the ugliest popular assumptions about these events and people.
There is no meaningful contextualization, or, hell, even dramatic purpose in rehashing this story without anything new to say that The Queen didn’t already say—and better—except to portray Diana’s death as a moment of great leadership from Prince Charles. That’s all these episodes amount to, a paean to Prince Charles’ being basically decent when his ex-wife tragically passed. The Crown started out positing that no matter how glamorous the royals’ lives look to us, monarchy is a trap that ruins everyone caught in it, and now it’s about how Charles is a great and compassionate leader. What a gift to Charles!
The Crown season 6, part 1 is streaming exclusively on Netflix from November 16, 2023.