When Netflix began its humble journey into the world of original programming over a decade ago, the streamer’s future held uncertainty as a new age of digital consumption was ushered in. It was an immediate race between streamers, including Hulu and Prime Video, to satiate audiences by providing original dramas that allowed a binge watch. Netflix already had a head start with House of Cards and Orange is the New Black taking off,, but found their gem with 2016’s premiere of The Crown. The historical drama has garnered much attention since its first season as it traces the life of Queen Elizabeth II before and after her ascension to the throne following her father’s death in early 1952. The series looks towards the closure of the Elizabethan era by beginning its final season with one of the most memorably heart-breaking tragedies in royal family’s history: the death of “The People’s Princess,” Diana, Princess of Wales.
Fifty episodes have passed of The Crown centering on the Queen’s (Oscar nominee Imelda Staunton) life before the sixth and final season begins, making a notable pass off to Diana’s (Emmy nominee Elizabeth Debicki) story, an understandable repositioning towards historical significance. The season is divided into two parts, the first part being four episodes following the happenings of the family and, more specifically, Diana’s journey towards a perceived happier life away from them. These four episodes hold a suffocating amount of tension within the confines of their runtimes, a continual dread permeating every frame until the inevitable occurs. While the infamous crash occurs out of frame, it’s the hopeful before and crushing after that contextualizes the tragedy felt by the loss of Diana, a haunting presence to the Royal family’s institution of stoicism. A microscope is placed over her relationship with her friend, Dodi Al-Fayed (Khalid Abdalla), who died with her in Paris that night in August 1997, as the world attempts to piece together how her untimely death could have occurred.
The series has always found strength in its ability to form an objective panorama of Elizabeth’s inner circle, but its focus on Diana in Part 1 paints a lucid portrait of loneliness. Diana’s sons, Princes William (Rufus Kampa) and Harry (Fflyn Edwards), have slightly more upgraded roles this season now that their mother is the main focus. The other members of the family are, of course, all incorporated, but mostly in tandem with Diana’s narrative. Prince Charles (Dominic West) only speaks to Diana about their sons, but wants a better relationship with her for the boys’ sake. Shifting focal points to Diana is an effective strategy that almost brings novelty to the series, but wouldn’t have been as successful if left in anyone other than Elizabeth Debicki’s capable hands. She’s empathetic and soft spoken with a sense of urgency behind every thought-out sentence. Her performance is beyond superlatives, surpassing last season’s and cementing her as a continual force of her generation. Debicki’s embodiment of the role allows the four episodes to feel more personal, mirroring the intense relationship the princess had with the public, one of great admiration and love towards her.
Princess Margaret (Oscar nominee Lesley Manville) and Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (Oscar nominee Jonathan Pryce) mostly enter the story for speculative purposes, initiating conversations around family matters and making observations in ways only they can. A scene where Princess Margaret watches Charles while he exclaims a desire for sympathy towards his situation with Camilla (Olivia Williams) exemplifies her understanding of it, perhaps reminiscent of a past love she had with Peter Townsend. A known romantic, Margaret presumably wants better for Charles, but mostly keeps to herself about it. While the entire royal family is important to the series, there was no greater turmoil for them in that decade than Diana’s death, so mostly pulling focus towards her is a rewarding decision. Outside of the royal family is Mohamed al-Fayed (Salem Dew), Dodi’s father, constantly pressuring his son to reach with him in mind. Between Mohamed and the royal family, all eyes are on Dodi and Diana as, after multiple boat outings, they make a quick stop in Paris.
Creator and showrunner Peter Morgan has proven his mastery of historical empathy, but the first part of The Crown’s final outing reminds audiences that, while someone adept in drama might know how to create an atmosphere of tension, it’s in their ability to create pockets of release and allow catharsis that characterize their ability to engage an audience. Even juxtapositions between two photographs and their means of being taken are compelling as clear understandings come into focus. Watching this family has always been a bittersweet melodramatic treat, but these four episodes are foreboding and potent. There’s a dark undercurrent that can be felt from the opening moments of the season. It’s engaging while remaining objective, a precisely consistent diagram of a family whose understanding of tragedy might feel different than an average citizen, a tale of a woman who found herself amongst the wolves and, when attempting to break free, lost everything.
The four episodes of Part 1 are understandably tragic, but alleviated by time spent with Elizabeth Debicki’s Princess Diana. The story of Queen Elizabeth is coming to a close, and the quality of the season suggests Peter Morgan has prepared for this set of episodes since the beginning. Moving into center focus, Debicki shines in softness and creates a moving portrayal of the late princess. With its release of the first four episodes of its final season, The Crown secures its place in the pantheon of television history.
The four-episode first part of the 6th and final season of The Crown will begin streaming on Netflix on November 16.
Photo: Daniel Escale/Netflix