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Harry and Meghan going off-script sets the story line for royal dramas to come

The fallout from Meghan and Harry's interview was reflected in the front-page headlines in the British press.
The fallout from Meghan and Harry's interview was reflected in the front-page headlines in the British press.GLYN KIRK/AFP via Getty Images

Surely the scriptwriters for the royals — “The Firm,” the sinister term used for those bureaucrats and worshipers behind the crown — did not devise this unhappy development. They did not want Harry and Meghan to publicly gripe about the cold lack of concern, the royal racism exposed by Meghan Markle (who is mixed race) and her first pregnancy, and the callousness of Prince Charles, among other unflattering things. It was not on their list of upcoming plot twists.

But of course The Firm’s scriptwriters are the equivalent of America’s network TV writers. Everything about the royals needs to appear friendly and respectful, with fairy tales about teatime and, to keep things spicy, the occasional classic catfight. Happy endings are essential. In last night’s two-hour dish with Oprah, Meghan and Harry went for a much darker and unresolved story line featuring cable- or streaming-level material. They revealed Meghan’s suicidal thoughts, raised moral questions about the throne’s responsibility, and summoned the troubling memory of Princess Diana, whose tragic life has apparently failed to teach her contemporaries any lessons.

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On the one hand, the interview was affecting and well-done. It’s troubling to hear about Meghan’s struggles, as, not unlike Diana, she naively entered royal life without understanding she’d be expected to suppress her independence and identity. Even her thoughts of suicide failed to move The Firm, despite the similar crises that plagued and undid Diana. The interview also was angering, as those rumors of racism turned out to be true; a member of the royal family — whom the couple refused to name — worried about “how dark [their son Archie’s] skin might be when he was born,” as Meghan said. And Harry’s disappointment in his father, Charles, was sympathetic; “I feel really let down, because he’s been through something similar,” he said, referring to how the media had harassed Diana, his mother.

Also, Oprah reminded the mainstream public why she is Oprah, a different kind of queen, with her kind but firm approach. She consistently worked to make everything explicit, to bring out any of the points the couple was leaving vague. But she refused to bully them into negativity, the go-for-blood tactic often used by interviewers looking to make headlines. She let us see that those of us who thought that the royals had developed thick skins over generations of negative opinions about them were wrong. They do have strong feelings about how they’re portrayed in the epic story, and they are indeed pawns when it comes to The Firm and its dated, self-serving manipulations. The British tabloids have turned Meghan into a villain — with last night’s interview sure to fuel that take — and that deeply disturbs her and her husband; They aren’t merely playing reality TV roles for us.

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On the other hand, what is a healthily cynical person to make of all this? Thanks to last night’s interview, royal watchers here and overseas now have enough material to keep the presses running for a few more years — decades, even. Those outlets that exploit and profit from the dramas of the British monarchy — the “Entertainment Tonight” shows and People magazines of the world — have been given a huge bump. When the inevitable revival of “The Crown” arrives at some point in the future, the Oprah interview with Meghan and Harry along with its prelude and fallout, will win an episode or two or three.

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Certainly, Harry and Meghan were poised and articulate, and they appeared to have made the right choice in leaving the royal family behind. But didn’t they know that they’d be feeding the beast? Don’t they understand yet that they cannot control a media for whom they are catnip and, even better, moneymakers — a media that, like reality TV, needs to create villains and saints in order to captivate the public? Are they addicted to the game, constitutionally unable to lie low and ignore “The Real World: Buckingham Palace?”


Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew.gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.