‘The Crown’ Has Become Lame Royalist Propaganda

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TheCrown_S06_Image_CamillaBirthday_6 - Credit: Keith Bernstein/Netflix
TheCrown_S06_Image_CamillaBirthday_6 - Credit: Keith Bernstein/Netflix

The Crown is back. The sixth and final season of Netflix’s royal drama begins with some Big D Energy: It’s all about Diana and Dodi, the young lovers whose whirlwind romance ended tragically in the Paris car crash that became the “Where were you?” moment for a generation.

The first part of the sixth season, which dropped on Netflix this week, focuses on the princess as she navigates life outside the royal family. What is her purpose? Who is she without the HRH title? Diana and Charles are locked in competition-via-headline as he desperately tries to convince the public to embrace his paramour Camilla Parker Bowles. (Spoiler alert: She’s Queen now). The princess’s relationship with Dodi Fayed — an endearing but unfulfilled heir — flourishes on a Below Deck-style superyacht in the south of France.

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Is there a villain in Act Six of this melodrama? The first batch of episodes features various antagonists. Mohamed Al-Fayed, the controlling and angry father of Dodi, is portrayed as practically forcing his son to pursue a romance with Diana — one that we now know led to his death. But the main villain is clear: The media. From the paparazzi who stalked Diana’s every move — speeding after her into the Paris tunnel that night — to the newspaper editors who paid big money for the pictures or her, and even spin-doctors employed to secure the royals favorable coverage, it’s disturbing to watch the Diana content factory in action. There is a particularly ridiculous moment when the princess’s trip to Bosnia as part of a global landmine campaign is overshadowed by pictures of her kissing Fayed. These images were published as part of an 11-page spread and syndicated for millions around the world, breaking all kinds of records.

The media is, in many ways, an appropriate choice of villain. It’s hard not to conclude that if these men (they were all men) had acted differently, Diana might still be alive today. The behavior of the tabloids is also reminiscent of how famous women like Britney Spears and Meghan Markle have been hounded by the press. If Prince Harry’s record-breaking memoir, Spare, is to be believed, the royals are still cozy with the same tabloids that engaged in this behavior. It’s a relevant issue.

The Crown villainizing the media also feels strategic. Convenient, even. They are a nebulous and unspecific target. Crucially, they are outside the royal fold. The closer The Crown has gotten to the present-day, the show has become more hesitant about assigning blame to specific people — particularly its royal leads.

When Netflix launched The Crown in 2016, the show started in the 1950s. In Season One, the late Queen Elizabeth II became the reigning Monarch at an unexpectedly young age. Throughout the earlier seasons, controversial allusions to extramarital affairs and various scandals were protected by the fact that the culprits were either deceased, or that these tales were considered ancient history. Bad decisions on the Queen’s part were often blamed on her mother, or people like Alan “Tommy” Lascelles — the Queen’s private secretary who was characterized as a snake pulling the strings behind the scenes. In this era, the reception of the show was overwhelmingly positive. Some royals, including princesses Anne and Eugenie, even said they watched it.

As The Crown has inched closer to the current time, the conversation surrounding the show has become more intense and less glowing. It seems to be almost impossible to portray the complicated web of political and personal circumstances the royals find themselves in without someone getting upset. This is because some royals, like the late Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip — who both passed away shortly before Season Five aired in 2022 — were beloved and in positions of power. Other characters, like the U.K.’s first female prime minister Margaret Thatcher, had legacies which were contested — hero or villain, depending who you ask. The show’s creator, Peter Morgan, recently said it was difficult to have a sensible conversation about The Crown in the U.K. “Everyone in Britain, whether they acknowledge it or not, has that level of sensitivity and attachment to this family, which is why it is an absolute minefield for dramatists to explore,” he said.

What changed? Thatcher’s appearance in Season Three was an important moment, given how she was such a divisive figure whose controversial decisions continue to impact people today. But it was Season Four of the show, which depicted a young Princess Diana feeling isolated and alone in her marriage, as Charles embarked on an affair with Camilla, that was a watershed moment.

It could be coincidence, but it seemed as though the show’s writers saw this backlash and overcorrected themselves.

Diana (played by Emma Corrin) was seen as an isolated figure, cut off from any support system. The season also chronicled her struggle with bulimia. Anxious and lonely, Diana snuck downstairs to the kitchen in the middle of the night and started grabbing desserts one by one. The camera then cut to the princess in the bathroom, retching. In the early days of her marriage, it often seemed like nothing was good enough. Every public appearance she made — including her embrace of AIDS patients — was derided. Charles accused her of “showing off,” while he and the other royals resented her popularity. The worst came when she was pregnant with Prince William, with the show portraying Diana as suicidal — according to her own testimony, she threw herself down the stairs — while her husband and his mistress continued their infidelity. There was no doubt about it: Charles and Camilla were the villains of this chapter.

Politicians in the U.K. — mostly on the political right — fumed at this portrayal. The demand that Netflix add a disclaimer to the show, reminding viewers that it is fictional, became a key “culture war” talking point. Prominent figures, like former prime minister John Major, publicly disavowed the show, calling it “malicious nonsense.” It could be coincidence, but it seemed as though the show’s writers saw this backlash and overcorrected themselves. Not only was a disclaimer added to Season Five, but it was also much more positive about Charles in particular (who is now played by Dominic West, in truly the glow-up of all glow-ups). There was even an entire episode that focused on his charity, The Prince’s Trust, which felt borderline sycophantic. Not uncoincidentally, Season Five was also the first season to thoroughly underwhelm critics. “Multiple episodes could have been binned entirely. The royal drama has never been less relevant,” read The Guardian’s two-star review, while the BBC called Season Five a “badly-told soap.”

Harry, Diana, and William in 'The Crown.'
Harry, Diana, and William in ‘The Crown.’

Apart from a couple of truly atrocious scenes featuring a ghost Diana speaking wisdom to various royals, the show seems to have found a middle ground between adoration and exploration. Charles is no angel in the first part of Season Six, where he seems more preoccupied with organizing parties for Camilla and rehabilitating her image than being a father. He is also portrayed as calling a truce with Diana, then continuing to maneuver against her in the press. There is a particularly excruciating scene where he and his spin doctor stage a photoshoot with the young princes in Balmoral to make him look like a doting dad while the media attacks her.

As a whole, from a PR standpoint, the royals should still feel happy with how the final season has portrayed them so far. The fourth episode focuses on the devastating aftermath of Diana’s death. This is the same week we saw dramatized in The Queen, the 2006 film starring Helen Mirren that was also written by Peter Morgan. I was struck by how, in comparison, The Crown largely glossed over the ferocious public backlash the royals — particularly Queen Elizabeth II — received during that time, when they were branded cold and heartless. This time around, Morgan portrayed Charles — not prime minister Tony Blair — as the dominant force who heroically pulled the family back toward humility and public displays of emotion. We’ll never know how much truth is in any of these dramatizations. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence, or that Morgan wanted to avoid repeating his previous material, but there is a noticeable difference between these portrayals now that Charles is King. It feels telling.

The Crown has always been a form of royalist PR. Let’s face it: Even subconsciously, this is a show that humanizes obscenely wealthy and powerful people who were literally born to rule over and colonize others. Portraying them as flawed is a key part of that, but toward the end, its criticisms of the royal institution and those who navigate it have felt more cautious. The Crown has become too simpering, and has suffered for that reverence.

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