It is the beginning of the end, as “The Crown” creator Peter Morgan brings his massive reimagining of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign to a close. After a stilted fifth season, which lacked the focus and majesty of its predecessors, Season 6 opens in Paris amid the glittering lights of the Eiffel Tower and the gut-wrenching sounds of a crash. It is an eerie way to open, casting a somber tone over the four episodes encompassing this first half. (Part 2, which is six episodes, will drop on Dec. 14.)
Dialing back in time some eight weeks, to late June 1997, Morgan drops his audience in on Princess Diana (a majestic Elizabeth Debicki). One year after her official divorce from Prince Charles (Dominic West), she is a much more vibrant woman than the one viewers last saw. Though haunted by her decade-and-a-half-long bid in the royal family, the Princess of Wales is coming into herself. Often clad in bold swimsuits or comfy sweatshirts, she has shed the restrictive formality of the monarchy. Needing a break from London, she takes businessman Mohamed “Mou Mou” Al-Fayed (a striking Salim Daw) up on his offer for her and her sons, Prince William (Rufus Kampa) and Prince Harry (Fflyn Edwards), to join his family for a 10-day vacation in St. Tropez.
Debicki’s embodiment of Diana’s grace is effervescent. Not only is Morgan careful to highlight her commitment to her charity work, but it’s clear she’s finding her voice despite the people around her who are intent on making her a pawn in their schemes. As much as Season 6 is a goodbye to a pillar of the institution, it also highlights a woman on the verge of something revelatory.
Highly focused, the season moves swiftly through the summer days of 1997 with a pace that forces viewers, despite knowing what’s coming, to hold their breath. The thunderous series presents two differing portraits. One is a depiction of Diana attempting to cultivate a life of freedom while being entirely fishbowled and relentlessly hounded by the press. The other is a tapestry of Mou Mou, a man consumed by his desire to be accepted as legitimate by the aristocracy, even at the peril of the true wishes of his first-born son, Dodi Al-Fayed (Khalid Abdalla). The contrast between one person’s yearning to escape and another’s desperation to be included creates the tension and vibrancy needed to reorient the grandeur of the series.
Though Diana is at the center, Queen Elizabeth II (Imelda Staunton), Prince Charles and Prince Philip (Jonathan Pryce) are all puttering about in the background. In the initial three episodes, the royals mostly huff over their “Diana” problem, with Charles obsessively focused on his campaign to publicly rehabilitate Camilla Parker Bowles (Olivia Williams). But the royals mostly remain off to the side, coming into focus again in the final episode of Part I, “The Aftermath,” where the entire family, save the queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, feel just a bit more human.
Generations of people know that Princess Diana and her friend, Dodi Al-Fayed, were killed in a car crash in the early morning hours of Aug. 31, 1997. It is what occurred in the weeks prior that has remained hazy. Morgan doesn’t offer a whirlwind romance but a depiction of a comforting friendship that had only started to blossom and was exacerbated by public perception and familial obligation. In humanizing the two in life and in death (there are no “ghosts” here), juxtaposed against the reigning monarch’s stoicism and commitment to grating tradition, the show invites the audience to consider the choices made by the British royal family, which have contributed to its relic-like state. With this devastating first section of its final chapter, Netflix’s crown jewel bids farewell to an icon, and retakes its throne.
“The Crown” Season 6 Part 1 premieres on Netflix Nov. 16. Part 2 will premiere Dec. 14.