‘The Crown’ Season 6 Turns Princess Diana’s Final Days Into a Haunting Melodrama

Netflix’s “The Crown” is a historical drama whose tone has shifted in accordance with the eras its seasons have covered. Now in its sixth and final season, the lavish production no longer has the air of depth, nostalgia and modern myth that characterized those first, acclaimed seasons. Nearing the 21st century, it leans more into its own melodrama, which in many ways is fitting, as what has defined the British monarchy in the 21st century more than celebrity and gossip? When Elizabeth II (first played by Claire Foy) ascended to the throne in 1952 the sun was setting on the British Empire and the Cold War defined global politics. Part one of season six begins in the 1990s, with tabloids devouring anything they can on the misfit Princess Diana (Elizabeth Debicki) as she reaches a tragic end.

The season starts off precisely with a glimpse of that terrible night in 1997, when Diana’s car sped into a Paris tunnel after evading the paparazzi, sealing her fate and that of companion Dodi al-Fayed (Khalid Abdalla). We then go back to eight weeks prior to the harrowing event. Diana is now divorced from Prince Charles (Dominic West) and is building what is at first a casual friendship with film producer Dodi, son of billionaire Mohammad al-Fayed (Salim Daw). She’s also the most photographed woman in the world with paparazzi going to any length to snap images the newspapers are paying immense sums for. Meanwhile within the royal family Charles is struggling with legitimizing his relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles (Olivia Williams). It’s tough and his mum the queen (Imelda Staunton) won’t even make an appearance at Camilla’s 50th birthday bash. Everyone is suffocated by the systems that own them. Dodi is even feeling crushing pressure from Mohammad to eventually marry Diana, in order to cement their family’s status and power.

Critics have bemoaned how “The Crown” has supposedly taken on more of a melodramatic air since last season, when the series truly entered the Diana era. It is true that showrunner Peter Morgan has skirting around shakier ground because of what this period in time offers. Even new Prime Minister Tony Blair (Bertie Carvel) seems so stale in comparison to his predecessors, which was the case in real life. In this series’ roster no one can follow Gillian Anderson’s Margaret Thatcher from season four. Elizabeth isn’t the focus either, or family such as Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (Jonathan Pryce). The biting Princess Margaret (Lesley Manville) doesn’t even speak in these four episodes (the second half is set to be released in December). They have faded into the background because now the monarchy will be defined by Charles and Diana’s own actions. The writing still packs enough of a sense of grand tragedy and psychological complexity to keep it addictively watchable, not to mention the show’s signature elegant visual style. In some ways, the times define these figures.

The core of this first half is the chaotic, complex situation Diana finds herself in by becoming so close to Dodi. She has essentially stepped into a different version of the same trap she found with the Windsors. Elizabeth Debicki is again beguiling as Diana, who feels the enclosure of so much global obsession around her every move, yet sometimes flaunts in front of the camera while vacationing in Saint-Tropez. Maybe it’s just to get the photographers to be satiated and go away, but the glow of being so famous can also become irresistible. But like the monarchy, there are expectations imposed by someone like Mohammad, who sees Diana as the ultimate ticket to solidifying his place in the British aristocracy. He emotionally batters Dodi as well, jabbing at his inferiority complexes and claiming marriage to Diana will finally make them equals. Dodi’s Hollywood actor girlfriend is quickly dumped. Per the take of this series, what truly brought Diana and Dodi together was precisely the feeling of lacking freedom. A major problem is that Mohammad doesn’t comprehend that what truly matters to Diana are her sons, William and Harry. When Diana famously campaigns for landmine victims in war zones, she’s sincere but is also attempting to fill an inner void. Being a mother is the only time she’s truly happy. Back at Buckingham Palace, the queen and her inner circle are not enthusiastic about al-Fayed parachuting into royalty. 

How Morgan and team handle Diana’s final moments is an example of tact and dramatic creativity. Diana and Dodi’s final conversation together is a sharply-written, rather moving take on the need to find the courage to take control of your life. Though she’s been having fun, Diana is sober enough to know she’s not ready for another marriage and the conversation turns into a mature take on what friendship truly means. Some of the famous details of that fateful Paris night are here, from the ravenous photographers to the driver who was drinking before getting behind the wheel. But it all comes together as grand tragedy, like a cage that had been closing in for months as each encounter with the paparazzi became more intense. The price for Diana’s fame was that she couldn’t even get off Dodi’s yacht in Monte Carlo for ice cream, lest a crowd chase them into a jewelry store. By the time they speed into one of the decade’s most famous deaths, it seems so inevitable. The aftermath frames the final episode of the first half where sorrow and self-reflection impact everyone. Mohammad weeps over Dodi’s body in a morgue, his great dreams shattered.

It is hard for a series that has been as good as “The Crown” to continue producing episodes that match the achievements of its first seasons. Yet, this has never been a weak series. It’s preparing now to exit, while still boasting a fantastic cast and eloquent writing. Even when tempers fly and marriage proposals are said in lavish apartments, the appeal of this series is that it humanizes famous, at times scandalous, personalities. Everyone from Elizabeth to Diana have been swept up by the historical forces fate destined them to be born into. Vacationing with his sons for Charles means a photo opportunity to counter Diana’s dominance of the headlines. In private, it’s obvious he truly cares for her despite how everything turned out. There’s a wonderfully quick moment where he picks up the boys and exchanges genuinely bittersweet words with Diana, never to see her again. Many lives have such moments. They just don’t take place under the glare of the entire world’s lens.

The Crown” season 6, part 1 begins streaming Nov. 16 on Netflix.