As Netflix’s The Crown has progressed, its creator and arbiter Peter Morgan has increasingly preferred a humanist touch when it comes to his royal subjects, even if it means overly romanticizing them or politely declining to hold them responsible for their worst moments. That certainly held true for the controversial fifth season of the show, which faced significant backlash from detractors who accused it of irresponsibly mixing fiction and reality, distorting the “true” history of Britain’s royal family.
Season six, which releases in two parts on November 16 and December 13, 2023, enters perhaps the darkest period of that history, as we deal with the death of Princess Diana (Elizabeth Debicki) and her boyfriend Dodi Fayed (Khalid Abdalla). Rather than heeding the critics’ distaste for fiction, Morgan has embraced it, increasingly blurring the lines between reality and fantasy, even inserting scenes where Diana and Dodi’s ghosts try to make gentle, soothing reparations with their regretful survivors. It’s as if he’s smoothly averting the audience’s gaze away from the brutal coldness of their deaths — the two were fleeing paparazzi at high speed down a Paris street in 1997 when their car, whose driver was later found to be intoxicated, crashed.
Inevitably that creative choice makes it necessary to separate the truth from the fantasy. As usual, there are the lavish and lovingly faithful recreations of famous real-life moments, like Diana’s celebrated bright blue swimsuit, or the photo dubbed by the Mirror as “The Kiss” between her and Fayed. But many other moments muddy the lines. For instance, the lavish party that Prince Charles (Dominic West) threw for Camilla Parker Bowles’ (Olivia Williams) 50th birthday was indisputably real. Charles reading an excerpt from Jane Austen’s Persuasion at the event, however, didn’t happen.
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These blurred lines are often a byproduct of the endless conflicting and overlapping rumors that surround the royal family in real life. For instance, the series makes a point of rejecting a famous claim that Queen Elizabeth II thought of Camilla as “that wicked woman,” but there’s no real evidence that either the original comment or the refutation really happened.
But other fictional liberties throughout this season are harder to swallow or to justify as a byproduct of the malleability of the truth. In particular, this season of The Crown goes much further in insinuating that Dodi Fayed’s father, Mohamed Al-Fayed (Salim Daw), was himself culpable for the events leading up to their deaths.
At no other point in this show has the narrative so blatantly depicted someone adjacent to the royal family as deliberately exploiting the monarchy, rather than primarily becoming a victim of it. The Crown has consistently portrayed Al-Fayed as ruthless, determined to buy his way into British society and influence. This is a portrait backed by decades of media sensationalism as well as Al-Fayed’s own part in a 1994 political lobbying scandal. But season six piles on with scenes where Al-Fayed engineers Dodi and Diana meeting up, browbeats Dodi into participating, interrogates the servants to be sure the couple are sleeping together, and forces unwanted itinerary stops on Diana.
These claims seem to come mainly from gossip-loving royal biographer Tina Brown, who wrote in her book The Diana Chronicles that he “pursued his social aspirations with ... transparent manipulation.” The show further implies he did all of this for his own political purposes. Yet Al-Fayed and his family have repeatedly denied all of this.
Worst of all, the show fictionalizes the claim that Al-Fayed hired a photographer to follow the couple, thus orchestrating the infamous “kiss” photo of the two canoodling on a yacht and exacerbating the media machine that ultimately led to the car crash. The show explicitly claims that the paparazzi frenzy around Diana only really ramped up after that photo, implicitly blaming Al-Fayed for starting the whole meltdown. That’s a bold assumption given that the paparazzi had been chasing Diana for fully two decades at that point. Further, there’s no evidence at all that Al-Fayed hired the “kiss” photographer, and even a conflicting version coming from Brown herself.
This narrative comes across as every bit as shallow as the royal-obsessed tabloid frenzies The Crown depicts. In one episode, we’re treated to a close look at two different paparazzi photographers as though they represent the two “sides” of this conflict. Diana’s photographer, the one Al-Fayed hires, is depicted as free-wheeling, sleazy, social-climbing Eurotrash. The Queen’s own photographer is depicted as a sweet, doddering, tweed-wearing British gent, a family man who can’t help but photograph Elizabeth (Imelda Staunton) at all her public events because he just loves her and the monarchy and Britain so much. He inevitably gets deemed to be “trustworthy” enough to help Charles stage a photo op with the young princes William and Harry, contrasting him to Diana as a wholesome, warmly familial embodiment of British tradition.
This manipulative framing underscores the show’s portrayal of the complex relationship between the British media and the royal family, with its constant system of “leaks” and planted articles. This season finally does give some overdue attention to the publicists whose job it is to facilitate this system. Yet The Crown never pushes past the idea that the royal family is doing anything more than playing the media’s game. Diana herself plays along with the media, the show implies, so why shouldn’t they? But we know that historically the royals have always gone a step further than mere compliance. Recall, for instance, that the monarchy’s use of British intelligence to place wiretaps on Diana’s phone, which almost certainly did happen in reality, was never depicted on the show, which instead chose to portray Diana as paranoid for believing the wiretaps were real.
Rather than hold the monarchy’s feet to the fire over its culpability in creating an entire ecosystem of media sensationalism, Morgan instead focuses on portraying Al-Fayed as an opportunist whose greed resulted in his own son’s death. As stories go, this one is a very dark form of victim-blaming. It’s also worth pointing out that the British media may have painted Al-Fayed solely in terms of his relationship to money, power, and British society, but the Crown arguably had a responsibility to dig deeper and view him through a less shamefully Orientalist lens. It failed. Salim Daw turns in the most moving performance of the entire season when his greed ultimately turns to a father’s grief — but combined with a forced scene in which Dodi’s ghost tells him, “You shouldn’t look up to the West,” it comes across as far too little, too late.
The show’s treatment of Dodi Fayed is hardly more flattering: it presents him as weak in the face of his father’s obstinance, drawn to the promise of power, and as a “weird” guy who provokes quiet mockery from Diana and her sons behind his back. The show portrays Diana as having zero interest in marrying Dodi; in actuality, she seems to have given mixed signals to friends and to Dodi himself about the level of her affection for him, leaving the question permanently up for debate.
The shallowness of the narrative surrounding Mohamed Al-Fayed and his son does highlight, however, the sheer absurdity of the one surrounding Elizabeth. The series depicts the late queen as a longsuffering stoic who recoils gravely at any hint of scandal — a prudishness that feels increasingly nonsensical as events lead toward their inevitable conclusion. It’s impossible to really buy the idea The Crown insists upon, that Diana’s wild antics of [checks notes] kissing her boyfriend on a private boat are some kind of inescapable albatross around the monarchy’s neck. “That woman,” the queen intones when she’s informed the couple are dating, which somehow means that the British government might have to grant British citizenship to Dodi’s father (?!?!), which would somehow be a bad thing (?!?!?!), which is somehow (?!?!?!) all Diana’s fault. The queen’s insistence that “Diana’s behavior is becoming more and more erratic” reads as bizarrely out of touch. The fact all of this is played with deep sobriety just adds to its ludicrousness. Depiction isn’t always endorsement, of course — but the show, especially in its latter seasons, tends to tilt toward reverence for the hardships of the monarchy rather than acknowledging that reality bends around the crown in ways that rarely make sense.
The Crown comes frustratingly close to pushing the longstanding media narrative that Diana, lost and vulnerable, wound up a victim to her own “wild” lifestyle. Yet as my colleague Constance Grady has noted, the tragic car crash most likely would not have happened if Buckingham Palace had continued to allow Diana to have the security detail she clearly needed. Instead, she was left to fend for herself with the Fayeds — a theme that would continue to impact the royals decades later when Harry and Meghan left the system and found protection from, of all people, director Tyler Perry; yet another factor the show doesn’t touch. (Critics have read into certain lines and scenes on this season of the show as providing commentary on the Sussexes’ split from the royals; more telling is that, despite Morgan previously claiming that he wouldn’t depict anything more recent than 20 years ago, the second half of this final season will cover the courtship and 2011 marriage of William and Kate — but not that of Harry and Meghan.)
Still, Morgan gives Diana something of the last word, through a (very) fictional conversation between Charles and her ghost, and later, with the queen herself. (Morgan explored this time period more deeply in his Oscar-nominated screenplay for the 2006 film The Queen.) Again, the gravitas, the self-importance of the monarchy (wonderfully conveyed by West and Staunton) becomes almost a character in its own right. When Charles tries to summarize the effect Diana had on the populace, he gets it entirely backward, claiming that her gift was to show people that “great pain and sadness doesn’t discriminate — it comes to those with beauty and privilege, too.” Diana’s popularity was built on her unique ability to elevate every person she encountered to her level, to treat them with dignity and love regardless of their class or social standing. Elizabeth, with one eye always fixed on rules and decorum, never fully admits that truth, because to do so would give the lie to the monarchy itself — to the idea that it’s the royals’ status as part of a hallowed institution that makes them uniquely qualified, out of all the humans in Britain, to address the country’s needs.
Instead, despite centuries of cultivating reverence and love from the public through a rigid system of control, the monarchy was no match for a winsome blonde who performed love in a way that tapped into something universal. It was Diana who captured hearts across the world. Even in her final moments, Morgan depicts Diana’s ghost as offering solace, reassurance, and forgiveness. The Crown still has four remaining episodes to explore the legacy of Diana’s impact. As for whether the show itself has fully internalized what Diana really says about the institution she disrupted — that may be the biggest fantasy of all.