Photo-Illustration: Vulture ; Photos: Netflix
The sixth season of The Crown finally reaches an inevitable point in royal history: the deaths of Princess Diana and her companion, Dodi Fayed, following a car accident in Paris. The way it handles this tragedy, particularly in fourth episode “Aftermath,” is so bizarre that it prompted four of our critics to convene an immediate Emergency Discussion to process it.
Jen Chaney: Against all common and creative sense, episode four of the sixth and final season of The Crown features the ghosts of Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed. Following the tragic 1997 Paris car accident that led to their deaths, the Netflix regal drama posits that the spirit of Dodi appeared before his father, businessman Mohamed al-Fayed, and admonished him for his bad parenting. The Crown also asserts that the ghost of Diana manifested before Prince Charles — to tell him that while he was crying over her corpse he was “raw, broken, and handsome” (!!) — as well as Queen Elizabeth, to reassure her that she “taught us what it means to be British” but also that “maybe it’s time to show that you’re ready to learn, too.” I’m so sorry, am I watching The Crown or some weird, royal version of This Is Us?
Okay, sure, these are less “ghosts” in the traditional sense than manifestations imagined by Mohamed, Charles, and Elizabeth as they wrestle with their grief — and I know this because if the ghost of Princess Diana decided of her own volition to pay Charles a visit, I am positive it would not involve her telling him he was handsome. That doesn’t make the appearances of Ghost Diana and Ghost Dodi any less bizarre. My fellow critics, I open the floor to you: On a scale of 1 to 10, how loudly did your WTF, The Crown?? alarm bells ring during these sequences?
Kathryn VanArendonk: Pretty loud! My alarm bells were pretty, pretty, pretty loud.
I confess that the first alarm bell went off upon discovering that episodes three and four, and four in particular, are such close retreads of the 2006 movie The Queen, which was also written by The Crown creator Peter Morgan. I could not get over the similarities between the two: the stag-hunting scene, the Balmoral-based perspectives on public mourning after Diana’s death, the idea that one man needed to step in and persuade Elizabeth to address the tragedy. My assumption was that after telling that story one way, in a very well-received movie from nearly 20 years ago, Morgan would want to approach this same material from a new vantage point. I suppose not!
To your point, though, Jen, after my initial dismay, I did realize that there are a few notable differences from The Queen. Chief among them: ghosts! Or visions or hallucinations? I know that I strongly dislike them, but I am still wrestling with how exactly we’re supposed to interpret these messages from beyond the grave. Are they ghosts, as in actual extensions of the characters speaking as themselves? Or are they meant to be figments of Charles, Elizabeth, and Mohamed’s respective imaginations?
Jackson McHenry: I lean more toward them being figments of imagination, if only because the ghosts tend to act as expressions of the guilt, anger, and various other repressed emotions the characters all have, rather than distinct characters themselves. Which is an extension of a problem with Morgan’s conception of Diana in general: He’s so invested in QEII and Charles and what it means to have all this royal duty, and while Diana works for him as a symbol of someone rejecting that but still having the love of the people, he never seems to have a good angle on her personality outside of it. The Queen let him write a whole movie about Diana without Diana, and in The Crown he knows he has to deal with her as a character but isn’t sure what to say. I’m not opposed to a break from realism — the show teeters on the edge of magical portent with all those hunting scenes, anyway — but if you’re going to raise the dead like this, fully commit. Those conversations are all so neat, tying little bows on all the themes for this (half) season. Ghosts should be a lot more haunting.
Roxana Hadadi: Well, they’re haunting me, Jackson. Haunting me with the memory of having watched something so grotesque!
Let me unclench my Arthur fist of rage to say this: The Crown has already been subpar when it comes to imagining Diana as someone with any kind of internal sense of self. She’s all pouts and impetuous decisions, shopping trips and puppy eyes at men whom The Crown tells us are unsuitable. She’s never given the same certainty as Charles has for his love of Camilla, or the same maturity as the other royals; this is a well-established issue for this show. So, too, is an innate distrust of anyone who would want to be part of the royal family. The Crown does this self-effacing, humblebrag-y thing where all the royals sort of hate their status, but the idea that anyone else could be part of their world is outlandish. That simply is not the way things are done.
I say all this because I think that combination of forces is what leads to the cartoonishly racist depiction of Mo and Dodi before the ghosts even appear: These two brown men scheming to take over Diana’s life and use her access to power, literally whispering about her sexual activities on the phone while she’s in the next room. It would be really, really funny if it weren’t so insidious, and if it didn’t seem to only exist so that The Crown could then imagine Diana saying of course she would never marry Dodi and of course she would come back home to where she belongs. This version of Diana is born out of The Crown both diminishing and trying to reclaim her as this untouched English rose whose death was not a result of pressure from the royals or the loneliness of them icing her out, but because a guy named Mohamed made his way into her life.
Look, if Ghost Diana did exist, she would absolutely use her phantasm status to see her sons one last time, but at least The Crown knows that would be too galling. She looks very stylish as a ghost, I guess? The only person in the world to pull off a sleeveless turtleneck?
KVA: Excuse you, I own at least two sleeveless turtlenecks.
RH: Well, Diana is a ghost, and I am sure you are making them look very attractive in corporeal form!
JC: To your point, Roxana, Dodi’s ghost seems to exist to solidify the idea that Mohamed was a villain, according to the show, a message that already came across loud and clear during the multiple phone calls he makes to his son from his shadowy office. Whereas Ghost Diana acts as a comfort and a guide to both Charles and Elizabeth, which is something that I simply do not buy. It’s nice to believe that Charles and the queen thought highly enough of Diana to turn to her in their hour of need. But so many other moments in this show — not to mention what actually happened at the time — suggest they did not respect or regard her enough to give her that status, even in the privacy of their mind’s eyes. The Crown, perhaps in the wake of the queen’s death, seems to want to give viewers a security-blanket version of history, and I find it offensive to the memories of both Diana and Dodi.
KVA: That security-blanket viewpoint extends to a wild reframing of Charles, who’s now the king and who I suppose one might want to cast in a flattering light. But it’s fascinating to compare the Charles of these episodes to the Charles of The Queen. He’s essentially taken over the Tony Blair role from the film, becoming a sensitive, wounded, deep-feeling father figure who recognizes that his family is out of touch and is trying to drag them into the current era kicking and screaming. One of the most egregious non-ghost scenes in episode four comes while Charles and Anne are watching TV coverage of the gathered crowds. Charles turns to his sister and offers the most on-the-nose, overt, “here is the thesis statement of this show” dialogue imaginable, noting that his mother is somehow the mother of the entire nation and wondering whether maybe it’s a problem that she’s not particularly maternal?
For Ghost Diana in particular, my problem is less with her than with the show’s depiction of Charles. If these episodes treated him with more skepticism, or even with a little more nuance, I think those ghost scenes could read as an indictment of his limiting idea of who she was as a person. Instead, it’s just Diana, coming back from the dead to call Charles handsome.
JM: I’m not one to not call Dominic West handsome … but also, we have a fundamental over-complimentary casting problem there. I wonder how much the response to the fourth season, where Emma Corrin was so good as Diana and the British royalists seemed to get very antsy about how this show needed to be labeled as fiction, informed the seeming course corrections in the fifth and sixth seasons. The show has never been especially hard on the royals, but it used to have a bit more perspective. (Also, yeah, where is Tony Blair in all this? After all that time spent depicting John Major as sane and reasonable!) Is Peter Morgan worried about other posh Brits not sitting with him at lunch anymore? Or, as you pointed out, Kathryn, maybe Elizabeth’s death and Charles’s coronation are making him that much more shy about critiquing Charles.
Either way, the ghosts of Diana and Dodi showing up for absolution really pulls the mask off this exercise. Nobody can pretend the Crown isn’t comfortably on the royals’ side. That makes me relieved, in a way, that the show will wrap up before Harry and Meghan’s exit from the family. Everything in the writing of this season has proven it’s not a series to take on the perspectives of outsiders, and definitely not one that I’d be interested in hearing more from regarding the British monarchy and race. Case in point: Everything going on with Dodi’s ghost.
RH: On the one hand, at least Khalid Abdalla finally gets a different note to play as the spectral son. When Dodi appears before his grieving father, Abdalla gives the character more confidence, and even a sense of wryness, as he tells Mohamed that his expectations were too high. On the other hand, are the “expectations” Dodi is talking about just Mohamed pressuring him into a relationship with Diana, or the expectations that he could ever be accepted by British society? There’s an exchange in this scene where Mohamed asks Dodi, “Why do they hate me? Is it the fate of Arabs to always be hated by the West?” And Dodi replies, “Don’t take it personally. You shouldn’t look up to the West … Exalted expectations are not fair. They can never be fulfilled.” Not only do I never need The Crown to explain international relations to me, I also don’t need this show basically shrugging away Islamophobia for a “well, the Brits are gonna Brit” explanation of why Dodi’s death was so diminished in the press, and essentially chastising Mohamed for his desire to be successful anywhere but his birth country.
The writing of this scene feels similar to how the show handles Charles’s and the royals’ confusion as to why people care so much about Diana. The Crown makes these sweeping generalizations about what Britishness is and isn’t, and who it allows in and doesn’t, but then refuses to comment on the rightness or wrongness of that behavior. It just is, and that to me is the series taking a stiff-upper-lip posture too seriously in matters where it should be a little more human.
JC: At this stage, The Crown seems more interested in showing humanity to the royals than in considering others, including Diana and the Fayeds, with a similar level of nuance. After Queen Elizabeth died last year, Peter Morgan said that he considers The Crown “a love letter,” which struck me as odd because, especially in its early seasons, the series wasn’t always easy on her. And appropriately so. But now I have to take him at his word. The Crown really does feel more like a love letter not just to Elizabeth personally, but to the monarchy as an institution, whether the ghosts of history agree with that or not.