The Crown: Season 6 Part 1 REVIEW – A Long-Expected Tragedy

A tightly structured, yet narrowly focused return for Netflix's hit show makes for an uneven climax.

The Crown Season 6 Part 1
The Crown Season 6 Part 1

The latest season of Netflix’s The Crown opens on a scene we will all immediately recognise, and indeed, which we’ve all been expecting, for at least the past season’s worth of build up. From the second we see the Eiffel Tower looming above the streets of Paris, as one anonymous figure roams through the night while walking his dog, it’s at once clear not only where, but when we are. A car hurtles past at lightning speeds, flanked by a squadron of motorcyclists all with flashing cameras, and a cacophony of noise. There’s a tunnel, a screech, a boom, and we’re told there’s been an accident.

It’s natural that this scene, depicting the untimely death of Princess Diana, should be our cold open, since, although the narrative then shifts back in time by eight weeks, it’s this tragedy that sets the entire focus for these first four episodes, released this week on Netflix one month prior to the final few coming out in December. Indeed, it is what the show has been building up towards pretty much ever since Diana was initially introduced, back in Season 4.

For every appearance of the character, this knowledge of where she ends up has lurked there in the background, adding a sense of tragedy even to scenes where otherwise it would seem unwarranted. Indeed, it had seemed likely that it would in fact come at the end of the last season, as a natural finale to the show moving in to the nineties. This is likely a key reason why this season of The Crown has been split in half in this way, as well as a reflection of it being the show’s final season.

It’s inevitable, therefore, this should be the event that dominates this half of the season, even if it comes at the expense of overshadowing much else. Having been born in ‘95, I am just about too young to remember any of the fallout from Diana’s death, but practically everyone is aware of just how huge the reaction was – from the level of grief displayed around the world, to the differing reactions from the Royal Family and from the Prime Minister, and even the conspiracy theories and the controversies that surrounded the immediate aftermath.

Even without the cold open at the start of episode one, practically every scene plays up our foreknowledge of what’s coming, giving extra meaning to every exchange that we get in the first three episodes – from the touching scenes between Diana and her children, or Charles, to the claustrophobic, nail biting moments in which she’s continually hounded by journalists and photographers, as well as members of the public, to ever greater and more disturbing degrees.

The scenes throughout episode three, in which Dodi Al-Fayed tries to seal the deal with Diana by practically conning her into coming to Paris, for the purposes of proposing, might as well have the words ‘WARNING: TUNNEL AHEAD’ emblazoned over them for the amount of tension and sense of foreboding that it amps up. Like the first time you watch Titanic, it’s pretty much what everyone is waiting for till the moment it finally comes.

Clearly, the creators of The Crown have been very much fixated on handling this as delicately as possible. The crash itself is never depicted, we only hear the impact and see its aftermath. Whereas previous seasons of The Crown were rightly praised for their warts-and-all depictions of some of the shadier chapters of Royal History, often courting controversy for how few punches it pulled, here there very much seems to be a desire to avoid offending anybody involved.

After all the fighting and drama seen between the two prior, Charles and Diana are given just about as sweet a farewell as could be imagined, and actor Dominic West’s reaction as Charles to her death is incredibly powerful. Elizabeth Debicki as Diana is very much the star of the show, with almost every scene of note revolving around her here. We see her tension and exhaustion as she’s chased around by paparazzi, and tries to balance the tensions of her new relationship with Dodi.

From the start, Debicki’s performance has been outstanding, and it doesn’t hurt that the actress herself is a dead ringer for Diana. The scenes in the hotel in episode 3, between her and Dodi, prior to the accident, help to give her character as much closure as possible, and to seal the popular image of the character that we have. At the same time, in between this and the funeral procession for herself, The Crown is careful to take the time also to pay tribute to the loss of Dodi Al-Fayed, through sombre depictions of his own funeral, and the Islamic prayers accompanying this. The only character really who comes off all that badly here is his father Mohamed Al-Fayed, played brilliantly by Salim Daw, who the show very much portrays as an increasingly controlling and oppressive figure, one who only helps to ratchet up the tension even further.

Obviously, we cannot ever truly know the actual reactions of the different members of the Royal Family to this tragedy, or the various roles and motivations of the figures involved. Where The Crown has always excelled in previous seasons is in how it has placed the viewer inside rooms they’ve never seen, as witnesses to the conversations we could never hear – be that the private audiences the Queen has held with each of her Prime Ministers, or the interactions and arguments between the Royals themselves.

But inevitably, as we get closer to the modern day, these depictions will perhaps inevitably become more uneasy, more linked to the present, and more affected by viewers’ own preconceptions about them, and less willing to risk offence. Indeed, this is perhaps the key reason the second half of the season is apparently not dealing with the death of the Queen herself, though how far forwards it goes remains to be seen.

The final episode, detailing the aftermath of Diana’s death, is dealt with for the most part with accuracy and sensitivity, but some moments are perhaps a little over the top in how they are handled. Already much comment has been made around Debicki’s appearances as Diana’s ‘ghost/vision’, and while it perhaps wasn’t a terrible idea on paper, it does seem jarring after the raw, unflinching depictions of grief that we see, for example, from Charles, on seeing her body, or from the fallout for their children.

The writing for some of these exchanges does seem questionable, and almost at pains to be complimentary towards those other characters left in the picture. Some of the comments made by Diana here, such as her remarking, for example, that “it will be easier for everyone with me gone” seems almost in bad taste, and certainly not a line that would have been likely to come from Diana herself.

The reflections between her and the Queen also seem oddly handled. The whole of the tension around the Queen’s silence following this incident is framed almost entirely around the idea of Britian needing ‘mothering’, and less around the perception, at the time, that the leading Royal simply did not care, something which became a major aspect of this story in the real world, and which seriously harmed the Royals’ standing.

Of course, The Crown was never going to outright condemn the Queen for her delayed response, nor play into the various conspiracy theories that became popular afterwards. Nevertheless, it’s a facet to her character that was sensitively handled in previous episodes, such as season 3’s ‘Aberfan’, yet here it’s barely touched upon. Nor for that matter is the role of then-Prime Minister Tony Blair, for whom this was perhaps his first truly memorable moment as leader.

Indeed, if there is one notable downside to this half-season, it’s how much it focuses on Diana’s story to the expense of all else. Much of what the Crown has dealt with in the past, such as the Queen’s interactions with her Prime Ministers, or in fact, the character of the Queen herself, are not nearly as present here. Gillian Anderson’s role as Thatcher, for example, in season 4, was one of the most memorable things about that season. The actors playing figures such as Winston Churchill and Harold Wilson have also been particularly impressive.

Yet here Blair has barely any impact whatsoever, while at the same time, Imelda Staunton, in her turn as Elizabeth II, has still not it seems been given nearly as much to do in the role as Claire Foy and Olivia Colman were given prior. Presumably, the second half of this season will work to wrap up the storylines for these other characters and plot lines which we have been following throughout. And, as noted, it was likely inevitable that Diana’s story was going to take centre stage here.

This half-season for the most part does still get right much of what The Crown has been strongest on throughout, from an impeccable cast and production design, to its haunting, powerful soundtrack. But the tight focus that it has on this one tragedy does perhaps make it seem more one-dimensional and disposable than previous seasons have. How well the second half of the season will be able to draw all this together remains to be seen.

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The Crown Season 6 Part 1
The first half of the Crown's sixth season remains as well produced and acted as ever, with a laser-tight focus throughout on Princess Diana and her final days. But much of this can at times seem overwrought, and to the expense of other plot elements the show has going on, with the final output seeming like it's missing much of what made the show such a hit.