Perhaps it has been long enough that a televised reenactment, and an imagining, of Diana Spencer’s last days can play as solemnly respectful rather than ghoulish. That is the hope of the first four episodes of the final season of The Crown (Netflix, November 16), Peter Morgan’s sprawling series about Queen Elizabeth II and her familial cohort. Last season, we were introduced to adult Diana, played with poise and the slightest of winks by Elizabeth Debicki. She was a breath of fresh air in this (deliberately, at times) musty show, and now we must watch her die.
To be fair, The Crown does not show us anything gory. We simply see, in the season’s opening scene, a Mercedes go zooming into a Paris tunnel, chased by paparazzi on motorbikes, and then hear a crash. The first three episodes then flash back to Diana’s final weeks, focusing particularly on her budding romance with Dodi Fayed (Khalid Abdalla)—himself the scion of a proud and wealthy family who is forever in search of an autonomous place in the world. He and Diana are kindred in that way, a connection that The Crown susses out persuasively.
It helps that Debicki and Abdalla are so good in the roles, honing these profiles of famous dead people into tangible human beings. The Crown shades their relationship with sad nuance: This was not true love, it argues, but rather a fling that might have led to a beautiful friendship. Had, of course, the predations of the media (and, by extension, us) not chased them into ruin. That would be enough of a conclusion to draw from all of this: that Diana and Dodi were victims of a terrible but ineffable thing, a kind of collective force for which no one person is to blame.
And yet the show does gesture quite heavily toward Mohamed Al-Fayed (Salim Daw), Dodi’s domineering billionaire father, who—according to Morgan’s scripts, anyway—orchestrated his son’s romance with Diana in the hopes that a connection to the royal family, however tenuous, might bring him closer to public esteem, and citizenship, within the UK. While it is true that Mohamed was rather consumed with securing stature in Britain, The Crown perhaps too closely maps that drive next to the death of his son and Diana, suggesting a causality that threatens to turn Mohamed into some sinister, hubristic machinator, the center figure of a Greek tragedy.
There are some racial undertones to all this, as there was in the coverage of the Fayeds in real life. Over its past five seasons, The Crown has proven pretty ill-equipped to handle the royals’ relationship to race, and its own relationship to it. This framing of Mohamed does not improve matters. But the show, thankfully, pulls back before it has made him an outright villain. It’s appreciated that The Crown does pay careful mind to the fact that it wasn’t just Diana who died in Paris, and Daw’s textured performance is so compelling that we ultimately feel more empathy for a man mourning his son than we do any kind of scorn.