For seven years and six seasons, Netflix’s The Crown has been haunted by the blonde, slim specter of a missing princess. At first, she was just a distant shimmer on the horizon of the narrative as it weaved its way through the royal tumult of the fifties and sixties. Then came Season 4, when we spotted her hiding behind a tree, hoping to catch a glimpse of the prince she was destined—or doomed—to marry.
Her presence was as uncomfortable as her fate was inevitable. In a scripted world carefully cribbed from real life, how do you solve a problem like Diana?
This question is finally addressed in the new season of The Crown, the first four episodes of which debuted on Netflix this month. Here at last is the conclusion to Diana’s tragic arc, from fairytale marriage to norm-shattering divorce to an untimely death in a car accident at the age of 36. It’s a pivotal story, and all the more challenging for the fact it played out within relatively recent memory: her death was a formative moment in the celebrity gossip culture of the late 1990s—which has lately been the subject of much critical reexamination.
The responsibility of depicting that death, dramatizing it, was always going to be fraught. Here was a chance to do right at last by the woman who was done so wrong by the royals, and for this reason, it’s hard to blame the show’s writers for their choices, even if those choices have resulted in arguably the least watchable season in the history of The Crown, a series that has won 21 Emmys.
The fact that everyone knows what’s coming is only part of it. The first new episode immediately dispenses with the question of how they’ll handle the death itself, kicking off with the car crash and then rewinding from there. But putting the climax first, Memento-style, doesn’t do anything to subvert the triteness that follows. Imagine Diana as The Crown’s version of the grizzled cop in a police drama who gets shot on a routine burglary call just one week away from retirement. Now, imagine being beaten over the head with this trope for three hours straight.
Diana’s final six months or so are covered in a three-episode arc that was probably meant to humanize her but instead veers toward canonization. Debate has long swirled around the exact circumstances of her death, particularly the question of whether she was engaged to—or even in love with—Dodi Fayed, the Harrods heir who also perished in the crash. The writers have chosen not only to resolve this debate but to do so in a way that turns the doomed princess into the perfect victim.
This made-for-television Diana is less a person than a pile of aspirational stereotypes. She’s the girlboss who selflessly devotes herself to raising awareness about landmines, the doting mother who thinks of nothing but her children. And—when it comes to her relationship with Fayed—she’s less a flesh-and-blood human than a sort of sexless sage. She confidently rejects his proposal before wisely guiding him toward self-actualization, culminating in a truly cringeworthy final scene in which the freshly broken-up couple trades perspectives on each other’s lives.
Her advice to him? He will never be free or happy until he gives up his endless quest to win the approval of his perpetually dissatisfied father.
His advice to her? She is basically too amazing: she needs to slow down and stop being so hard on herself.
And the attention Diana so famously cultivated, from men and the public and the press, is portrayed here as the reluctant winning strategy in a game she never wanted to play. Those famous photos of her posing in a leopard print swimsuit in St. Tropez? They were just a bargaining chip to get the paparazzi to leave her family alone. The ring she picked out with Fayed in Monte Carlo? A throwaway comment—“that’s quite nice”—as she hid inside the store to escape a throng of admirers. She didn’t even want to go to Paris that week; if she’d had her way, she would have flown home on British Airways!
The truth, which the show dodges, is that the relationship between princess and press was very much symbiotic; Diana did not leverage her celebrity status to stay in the spotlight after her divorce from Charles by accident. The writers of The Crown have tried to turn her into a hero, for reasons understandable and even arguably noble. But in doing so, they’ve transformed a flawed and fascinating woman into a mawkish caricature of goodness, one that elides reality.
It’s not that her death was somehow deserved, but wasn’t this what made it so tragic? She did have agency. Things could have been different. It wasn’t just bad luck but her own choices that placed her in that car, in that tunnel, on that terrible night.
As for her death, it happens off-screen. The irony is that this brings us to this season’s only truly affecting scenes: not the accident but its wordless, wrenching aftermath. We watch the grief ripple out, echoing, multiplying. We see anguish crumple the features of the people who loved her, most of whom never knew her at all. The French medical staff gathered outside the operating room where she drew her last breath; the onlookers who weep on balconies and crowd the streets in an impromptu funeral procession as her body makes its way out of Paris; the throngs gathered outside Buckingham Palace, offering a cascade of flowers and tears. We see Charles weeping over her body, but we don’t see her body, and this is as it should be: the thing about Diana is not that she’s dead, but gone, and how empty the world feels without her.
Ultimately, The Crown loses its footing by bringing Diana back—not to life, but as a sort of ghost, offering a few final thoughts to the royals on her way off the mortal plane. This, too, was probably well-intended, a chance to give her the last word. But the moment she reappears in these scenes, their emotional impact vanishes. She’s a paradox, our princess: the world is poorer for her loss, but the story is better for her absence.
And if you want more smart commentary on the culture, become a Free Press subscriber today: