Well, here we are, at the beginning of the end. When we all started watching Peter Morgan’s The Crown in 2016, wasn’t the anticipation of this moment in the back of our minds? The tragic death of Princess Diana? If you’re a viewer over 30, Diana is likely the royal who has loomed largest in your conscious, in life and in death.
The Crown knows this. In real life, Diana sucked up all the oxygen in the royal room, and on the show, she has taken more and more of the focus since she first appeared onscreen in season three (first played by Emma Corrin, now Elizabeth Debicki). Unfortunately, that’s been to the show’s detriment.
The back half of season five depicted Charles (Dominic West) and Diana’s divorce drama ad nauseam. There were poignant moments, but at a certain point, you’re beating a dead horse. By the time the finale rolled around, it felt clear that the show no longer knew what to do with Diana. This was a time when she was dazzling the world with her charm, but all you ever saw on The Crown was her being chased by paparazzi and moping around her flat.
Alas, the first four episodes of season six (dropping on Netflix November 16, with the six episodes in part two premiering December 14) do not improve on this trend. Taking place over the last eight weeks of her life and a few days after her death, The Crown cannot bear to look away from Diana. Diana on yachts, Diana on planes, Diana getting photographed, Diana being a warm and involved mother, and … Diana entering a tepid relationship with Dodi Fayed (Khalid Abdalla). Debicki is, once again, a total marvel. Every gesture, every glance is an embodiment of Princess Di. You could watch her stare longingly into space for hours, and that’s what The Crown is counting on.
What has long separated the Netflix drama from every other TV movie depicting the royals—aside from stunning performances and production value—was a keen sense of storytelling and willingness to veer into unexpected territory. It has built out a robust world by bringing background characters into the spotlight and drawing connections between the royal drama and everyday people and world events alike. Those interesting choices are almost completely absent in the first part of season six, with the exception of two different photographers serving as a framing device for episode two (not coincidentally the standout).
In the brief moments that attention isn’t on Diana, we’re rehashing the same old stuff: Charles petulantly demanding legitimacy for Camilla (Olivia Williams); Elizabeth (Imelda Staunton) sighing about Charles and Diana’s antics; Margaret (Lesley Manville) raising her eyebrows knowingly. If you thought Diana and Dodi’s courtship was going to be “a love for the ages,” as Dodi’s father Mohamed (Salim Daw) calls it, the level to which you’ll be underwhelmed is deliberately shocking. Though West still doesn’t capture the pathetic presence of Charles, he can range from infuriating temper tantrums (“This is war! Only total victory will do!”) to immediate grief at Diana’s death quite well. There’s also more of a focus on William (Rufus Kampa) and Harry (Fflyn Edwards), who will no doubt have bigger roles to play in part two, but come across as mere props here.
There is dramatic irony, of course, across the slow march to Diana’s death. The season actually opens on the crash before flashing back to eight weeks earlier, in case there was one person in the world who didn’t know where this was headed. With every tense paparazzi chase or declaration from Diana that she’s about to make changes in her life (she has an on-the-nose phone conversation with a therapist about working to wean herself from her addiction to drama), we can feel how we’re drawing closer to the inevitable conclusion. Perhaps The Crown means for it to feel like a noose tightening, but it watches like a very pretty bore.
It seems likely that the second half of the season will be more interesting. If Diana was the center of gravity, where will everyone fall in her absence? The Crown is ultimately an Elizabethan drama, dedicated to telling a story about sacrifice of self in the face of duty, a feat Diana was unwilling and unable to accomplish. After her death, will the show be able stick the landing by refocusing its lens on what made it interesting to begin with?
The Crown season 6, part 1 premieres November 16 on Netflix