Watching “The Crown” isn’t really about what happened but rather how the show takes on what happened. After all, the historical events covered in the show are often a quick Google search away. What’s more intriguing is how the series interprets them.
Over its six seasons, the Netflix historical drama, created and written by Peter Morgan, has featured a new set of actors as time within the show moves forward, giving viewers multiple interpretations of its main characters: Queen Elizabeth II and the British royal family. The show has also become known for its artistic reimaginings of events involving the royals, trying to conjure what they might have thought or said behind closed doors. (It’s an approach some detractors of the show, including people close to the royals, have criticized for potentially misleading viewers. But the series has always billed itself as a dramatization, not a documentary.)
That distinction has become even more crucial in recent seasons as “The Crown” increasingly has moved into events that many of us around the world remember watching unfold on television. Nowhere is that tension more present than in Part 1 of the final season, premiering Thursday on Netflix, which covers the death of Princess Diana (played in the last two seasons by Elizabeth Debicki) in the summer of 1997. Of every event covered on “The Crown” thus far, we’ve now reached the part of the show that many viewers probably know the most about and have been anticipating for a long time. It’s a challenge that the show’s usual techniques can’t quite resolve in this set of four episodes, resulting in its most muted and underwhelming chapter yet.
The episodes premiering Thursday primarily take place in the eight weeks leading up to Diana’s death on Aug. 31, 1997. She and her ex-husband, Prince Charles (Dominic West), are on more amicable terms as they co-parent William and Harry. Meanwhile, she’s working on her various humanitarian causes, such as advocating for a global ban on landmines. But that’s eclipsed by the relentless tabloid coverage of her romance with business scion Dodi Fayed (Khalid Abdalla). As the show depicts, everywhere they go, paparazzi feverishly document their every move, presaging the paparazzi chase in Paris that led to their fatal car crash.
It’s supposed to create a sense of foreboding. But it’s hard to feel any sort of dramatic stakes when we know exactly how this ends. Therefore, these episodes, more so than in previous seasons, start to become a case of “great gowns, beautiful gowns.” We’re left with an empty spectacle, like the gilded cages where the royals live.
The queen (Imelda Staunton) spends most of these episodes at her summer home, Balmoral Castle in Scotland, where in the days after Diana’s death, she passively watches TV coverage of people all over the world mourning the loss of an icon. In one scene, Charles walks in on her watching TV. He proceeds to criticize his mother and the family’s inner circle for dramatically underestimating the public response to Diana’s death. The queen, who at this point has not said anything publicly about Diana’s death, insists it’s a private matter. Their argument is a continuation of an existential battle that began in the last season, when Charles was portrayed as someone trying to bring the royal family, kicking and screaming, into modern times while dealing with the dissolution of his marriage to Diana, who symbolized that modern era and was pushed out of the family in large part because of that.
Finally, nearly a week after Diana’s death, the queen returns to Buckingham Palace and gives a televised speech to the nation, which “The Crown” re-creates largely verbatim. In these four episodes, the show continues its re-creations of major media moments and famous fashion. But they’re in shorter supply, given that we’re only seeing less than half of the season.
Like the queen watching TV in her gilded cage, detached from what the rest of the world was feeling, the more interesting story of this period on “The Crown” is the one happening outside the world of the show. Diana’s effect on people around the world and their outpouring of grief following her death were unparalleled. And three decades later, her life and legacy continue to reverberate, including in the ways the royal family similarly mistreated her daughter-in-law, Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex. But all of that has been documented countless times and in countless ways, and is beyond the scope of “The Crown,” which tends to focus on the private rather than the public.
It’ll be more interesting to see Part 2 of the final season, which arrives on Dec. 14. Will the show pick up immediately where Thursday’s episodes leave off, or will it skip ahead a few years? And how recent will it go? Based on casting announcements and previously released photos, we know some of what to expect, like that it’ll follow the courtship of Prince William and Kate Middleton. But unlike in Part 1, it’s less obvious what the focus of these episodes will be. That has always been an important part of the appeal of “The Crown”: the mystery of what it might try to say about these events and how it will do it.
At least Part 2 won’t have to contend with the unresolvable challenge of Part 1. In many ways, “The Crown” was never going to be able to adequately re-create the drama of the sudden death of a global icon. It was already dramatic enough in real life.