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Though the season 6 episodes feel painfully well-intentioned, Elizabeth Debicki is phenomenal as the doomed Princess of Wales
The Crown is back for its final season.
The Abdication Crisis of 1936, which saw dunderhead King Edward VIII getting himself demoted to Duke of Windsor for the sake of the woman he loved, has haunted The Crown and shaped the psychology and actions of its royal protagonists since season 1.
Returning with the first four episodes of its concluding, sixth season, the show could provoke a different abdication crisis. You may want to abandon it.
You won’t, of course, not with just six more episodes scheduled to launch Dec. 14. The first five seasons, after all, were extraordinarily good television, always riveting, often deeply touching and just as often wryly funny — not to mention flawlessly acted.
This first chunk of season 6, though, could be considered The Crown's version of jumping the shark (or, given the show's impeccable British pedigree, maybe the snark). And this is exactly the wrong moment for that to happen: We’ve reached the point at which the series confronts the fateful, fatal romance of Diana (Elizabeth Debicki) and Dodi Al-Fayed (Khalid Abdalla). At the end of the fourth hour, the two will drive off into that tunnel in Paris and on to eternity.
The problem with these crucial episodes, oddly enough, is that The Crown is going out of its way to be nice. The show this time around feels painfully well-intentioned, determined to spin the traumatic story as gently as possible.
This may be a response to complaints from the likes of Dame Judi Dench that season 5 took too many liberties with history. And, besides, the circumstances of Diana’s death, and her own emotional state as she and Dodi flirted on his family's yacht in the summer of 1997, were always going to be a formidable dramatic challenge (or obstacle), requiring tremendous sensitivity.
Then, too, there’s so much more historical perspective now to be sensitive about. Elizabeth II — who has been played in turn by Claire Foy, Olivia Colman and Imelda Staunton — died at the age of 96 in September 2022.
And so the show walks on tiptoe, like a Lady in Waiting reluctant to wake up her sovereign. Better to let sleeping lions lie.
It’s hard to imagine the real Charles, who in previous seasons sighed that he wished Mummy could die in a helicopter accident, being unhappy with his latest iteration, played by Dominic West. This Charles is weepy and thoughtful and howls to the skies in grief. He's not a man who, as King, would get bent out of shape over a leaky pen.
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Episode 3, which deals with Diana’s very last day alive in Paris, is where things start to go seriously wrong — especially when we’re presented with her final, intimate conversation with Dodi up in the Ritz hotel.
The scene isn’t necessarily implausible, given what’s in the public record. Even if Dodi didn’t propose that very night (as he does here), there’s evidence that he may very well have been intending to. And it’s not out of the question that Diana would have decided that same night to end their heady, two-month romance (as she does here), with the intention of returning to a more stable role as a humanitarian and the mother of a future king. Who knows? Why not?
But, after having let Dodi down as kindly as possible, would Diana then try to rally him — man him up, more or less — to defy his powerful, bullying father, the Egyptian billionaire Mohamed Al-Fayed (Salim Daw)? For that matter, would Dodi then fake a phone call to Mohamed, who's hellbent on allying his family with the Windsors, to tell him the romance is kaput? Well, maybe. Like virtually all the exchanges of private dialogue on The Crown, this falls within the realm of dramatic license.
The problem is that the encounter all feels so snug, inoffensive and sentimental — trite. It plays like a lost royal chapter from Love Actually.
Then off they go into the night and into the tunnel, poor Diana and poor Dodi, with no suggestion offered by an otherwise highly speculative script as to why Diana, shown wearing a seatbelt in previous scenes, now chooses not to buckle up.
This leads us to episode 4, where the season breaks off and the show breaks down. Diana, it turns out, has decided to stick around, at least briefly, after her death. She returns for several scenes as a ghost, come to haunt — with sad, self-deprecating humor and wisdom — both Charles and the Queen. (Dodi also makes a spectral appearance to his father.)
These scenes are done with delicacy and tasteful restraint. It's not as if Theresa Caputo, the Long Island Medium, was summoned to the palace. You could argue, as well, that all the The Crown has done is create a metaphor for Diana’s inextinguishable spirit and importance. Or you could also point out that royal ghosts have a distinguished literary antecedent in the works of Shakespeare.
But Shakespeare wasn’t the head writer for a Netflix hit — Peter Morgan is. Diana’s ghost is a ridiculous device, and far more insulting to Elizabeth than anything else The Crown might have thrown or will throw at her.
In the 2006 film The Queen, which not coincidentally was written by Morgan, Helen Mirren's Elizabeth is reluctant to make any demonstration of grief in memory of Diana. Her change of mind, and presumably of heart, is the result of pressure from Prime Minister Tony Blair and her own wincing dismay at how the Windsors are coming across in the media.
Here, instead, she’s swayed by a dead Diana softly squeezing her hand and kindly hinting — the dead Diana is an ace at tactful circumlocution — that now is the time to show a mourning nation some emotion. This implies that Elizabeth, for all her intelligence and sense of duty, was as much a moral nitwit as the Duke of Windsor. (Diana was the one who consulted psychics, by the way.) She’s less compelling, dramatically, than Mohamed Al-Fayed with a powerful, tragic sense of rasping, grasping pride and folly.
Perhaps Morgan just couldn’t resist milking Debicki’s uncanny re-creation of the Princess for a few more minutes. She’s more like Diana than Diana ever was.
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Part 1 of The Crown season 6 is now streaming on Netflix. Part 2 will conclude the series with six episodes that drop on Dec. 14.
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