The Crown's handling of Diana's death will emotionally floor you
The Crown showrunner Peter Morgan has delivered a sensitive, powerful retelling of Diana's final days in the latest season of the royal drama.
Peter Morgan has had numerous knotty, difficult subjects to navigate in The Crown, but his greatest challenge has undoubtedly arrived in the drama's final season: the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.
The series's creator already had some grounding in the subject, having written The Queen, which stars Helen Mirren as the head of the British monarchy in the days following Diana's death. But the film wasn't concerned with the lead-up to the tragedy.
By contrast, The Crown takes a forensic look at Diana's deteriorating mental health in her final days as the press intrusion in her life became unmanageable, with Elizabeth Debicki featuring in almost every scene, often alongside Khalid Abdalla's Dodi Fayed.
The frenzy surrounding the couple had reached fever pitch following the publication of photographs of them on board Mohamed Al-Fayed's yacht together in July 1997.
"The images have proven lucrative beyond anyone's wildest imaginings," says the Queen's private secretary in the drama, acknowledging the Fleet Street bidding war that erupted when the images became available to purchase. "Interest in the princess's private life is unlikely to die down anytime soon."
Just a few weeks later, while the press pack were once again trailing Diana and Dodi in pursuit of the perfect photo, the couple were killed in a car accident in Paris.
This is the first season of The Crown that has been divided into two parts, and while the cynic in me believes that decision is financially motivated by Netflix, ensuring fans of the show return in both November and December, it also works narratively.
The hyper-focus on Diana, with key players such as the Queen and Charles taking a backseat to her, amplifies the weight of the tragedy, both that which she endured in life and her premature end.
Aside from fleeting moments of joy, such as the occasions she spends with her children, which is the only time Diana appears truly happy and at peace, and the escapism provided by Dodi in the early stages of their romance, we see a desperately unhappy woman who can't quite understand the shape her life has taken. And that is felt throughout, right up until her last breath.
Had Morgan chosen to spend just a couple of episodes on the final weeks of Diana's life and her death, he would have failed to capture the impact of what she represented. And with four weeks until the next chapter arrives, we're left to sit with that, which makes it all the more potent.
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As for the moment of Diana's death itself, we're not taken inside the tunnel where the crash took place, instead observing from a distance as the car she and Dodi were travelling in disappears from sight.
We hear the commotion as the vehicle collides with another car before crashing into a pillar, and we hear the car horn blaring long after the screen has faded to black, but we do not see Diana dying on the backseat of the car as the paparazzi took photographs of her, something Prince Harry spoke about during his interview with Oprah Winfrey in 2021.
Had Morgan charted the same route as those photographers, it would have been wildly distasteful, further feeding into the culture of trauma voyeurism that propelled members of the press to reach for their cameras rather than attempting to help Diana and Dodi in their most vulnerable of moments. And it would have been an affront to both the memory of the victims and their living loved ones.
We also don't see Diana's body after she has been recovered from the wreckage and taken to hospital, where Charles breaks down before her. There is no shot of her being prepared for the funeral, or lying in a casket surrounded by white flowers as she's visited by family.
While other creatives might have chosen to depict that, and it certainly could have been done in a tender, tasteful manner, I'm not sure it would have enhanced the story. The Crown certainly doesn't lose anything by choosing not to do that.
By instead focusing solely on the reactions of Charles, William and Harry, and the nation, the impact is significantly more affecting.
Dodi's body is depicted, however, during an extremely poignant scene when his father Mohamed visits him for the first time following the crash.
For much of The Crown, their relationship is strained, with their conversations almost always descending into disagreements in which Mohamed dictates how his son should live his life, including who he should and should not be romantically involved with. And that continues to intensify in the first part of season 6, with both Dodi and Diana overwhelmed by Mohamed's meddling.
The only moment in which we see any real tenderness between father and son is when Dodi is lying in the morgue, which not only adds to the devastation, but gives the two men a moment of much-needed closure, as does the conversation that takes place between them when Dodi appears to him – and not as a "ghost", as it was initially framed by certain publications, but as a reimagining.
"It's as if only one person has died," says Mohamed, a stark and painful acknowledgement from a man attempting to come to terms with the very worst type of pain, and a moment in which they are able to be candid with one another in a manner they simply weren't able to in life.
There can be no happy ending, but it is the next best option.
A reimagining of Diana also appears to both a teary-eyed Charles as he flies back to the UK from France, and to the Queen. There will be plenty of viewers for whom that decision doesn't work, but I felt the heart-to-heart with Charles in particular to be moving and charming in a way I didn't anticipate.
There's something distinctly camp about it, which feels fitting for Diana, and given that she was larger-than-life in so many ways, a force who brought the nation and many other parts of the world to a standstill both in life and in death, having her reappear taps into the power that she wielded, often unintentionally.
It also humanises Charles, which is the driving purpose behind The Crown, and drama as a whole. For all of the painstaking research that goes into making the show, it is a TV drama, taking strides to balance the truth but also using dramatic license to add colour where needed, to understand the human condition in all its complexity, and capture the spirit of a person if facts are lacking.
While I've always appreciated The Crown's high production values, the high-calibre casting and performances, and the writing, which isn't without its flaws, but has informed and entertained for much of its run, it's never been able to move me in quite this manner.
As someone who is too young to remember Diana, I don't have the emotional muscle memory to draw from - and yet, I was overcome with emotion, which speaks to the power of Morgan's storytelling.
Season 6 will undoubtedly have its critics – there are many who believe it has been far too lax when it comes between differentiating between fact and fiction – but its treatment of Diana's final days and her death is handled with the utmost care.
And by spotlighting the role that the press played in her final days, a conversation that is still sadly all too relevant, the telling of this oft-relayed tragedy wholly justifies its existence.
The Crown season 6 parts 1 and 2 will stream on Netflix on 16th November and 14th December respectively. Seasons 1-5 are available now. Sign up for Netflix from £4.99 a month. Netflix is also available on Sky Glass and Virgin Media Stream.
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