Season 6 of ‘The Crown’ deals with Diana’s death
Season 6 of “The Crown” begins in Paris, the city of Princess Diana’s death. It’s night and the sidewalks are empty, save for a man walking his dog near the Pont de l’Alma tunnel. Suddenly a Mercedes flies by. Several motorbikes follow. A crash can be heard, followed by the distant sound of a car horn blaring, which then blends subtly into the notes of the show’s opening title music. It’s an unexpectedly elegant choice from a show that has, creatively and thematically, preferred the more straightforwardly pedestrian. The first four episodes of the final season, which Netflix is releasing in two parts, focus on the lead-up to that fateful moment in the summer of 1997. The core ensemble from Season 5 returns: Imelda Staunton as Queen Elizabeth, Jonathan Pryce as Prince Philip, Dominic West as Prince Charles, Khalid Abdalla as Dodi Fayed and Elizabeth Debicki as Princess Diana, who would spend much of her final summer on a yacht in the Mediterranean as a guest of Dodi’s father, Mohamed Al-Fayed (Salim Daw). Last season, the show’s creator Peter Morgan laid the groundwork for Mohamed’s grasping aspirations for royal proximity. Now, with Diana divorced from Charles, Mohamed sees an opening — and urges his son to make a move. If Dodi marries Diana, her prestige and influence will elevate the family. Despite Mohamed’s hopes, it’s little more than a summer fling between two wealthy jet-setters. It begins in relative privacy, only for that to be blown apart once the paparazzi get photos of them together. This is where Morgan makes some compellingly messy speculations: What if it was Mohamed who tipped off the paps? Then Morgan takes it even further. What if, once the couple stops in Paris, Mohamed’s continued meddling only worsens the ravenous press pack, leading to their death? Missing are Diana’s concerns that Mohamed was spying on her and had the yacht bugged (a detail to which her sister testified at the inquest). But the father-son dynamic is engrossingly fraught, and Abdalla is especially good as a spineless ne’er-do-well at the mercy of a controlling father. How controlling? We glimpse a portrait that has him painted to look like a pharaoh, perhaps a sly reference by Morgan to the media frequently referring to Al-Fayed as a “phony pharaoh.” Dodi is the perpetual disappointment who has been coasting off his father’s money, and Diana makes her position clear when they dine privately at the Ritz in Paris just hours before the crash. For a show that spends a strange amount of time reducing its narrative to phone calls, finally here’s a scene that’s allowed to breathe. It’s a complicated dance between these two, and Morgan envisions Diana handling it with real skill and empathy. Morgan has finally caught up to the events already depicted in his 2006 film “The Queen,” which focused on the immediate aftermath of Diana’s death, when an oblivious-to-the-moment Queen Elizabeth (Helen Mirren) had to be coaxed into a public display of mourning. If you’re wondering if he found a way around repeating himself, Morgan more or less shrugs and replays much of it. But he’s no longer interested in the Tony Blair of it all. In the film, Blair provided a necessary counterweight — his continued bafflement in the face of the family’s baroque dysfunction is a commentary all its own. Which maybe explains why the show has always felt so narratively slack and self-serious by comparison. The show tends to view the royals as if they’re trapped in a gilded cage, rather than deeply weird people who can and should be held accountable for their choices. They all suffer from arrested development, their trauma swaddled in Bubble Wrap. But “The Crown” has nothing to say about the corruption from which they all benefit — and is maintained by the monarchy itself. Like “Succession,” it is critical of individuals, but not the systems those individuals enforce and exploit. The movie’s subtext is that a royal family existing in conjunction with an elected government is a farce. The TV series has been an exercise in walking much of that back. The movie got its jabs in. Morgan doesn’t seem up for that anymore. The remaining episodes premiere next month and follow the British royals through 2005, including the wedding of Charles and Camilla (the next step in Charles’ obsessive focus on “Camilla’s campaign for legitimacy,” as he calls it) as well as the early days of the relationship between Prince William and future wife, Kate Middleton. Morgan spends an inordinate amount of time contemplating Mohamed Al-Fayed’s marriage plotting. It’s fair to wonder if he sees Kate’s mother, Carole Middleton, in a similar light. As parents, they are mirror images of one another. That irony is tantalizing enough to finally give the series something meaty in which to sink its teeth. Will Morgan go there? Only time will tell.