The latest chapter in “Whose Narrative Is It Anyway” is brought to us by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Harry and Meghan. It’s a few things all at once: an enraging tale of racism, a fascinating look into a profoundly rarefied way of life, and a sometimes too self-celebratory vanity project that, for the most part, reiterates what we already know.
The pair, now apart from the crown and ensconced with their two children in Montecito, Calif. — the British press’s so-called “Megxit” — are telling their side of the story, a more in-depth version of the charged material they shared with Oprah Winfrey in their March 2021 TV interview. Called “Harry & Meghan,” the Netflix six-parter gives us three episodes on Thursday and three more on Dec. 15.
And why shouldn’t Harry and Meghan share their perspective on the strange, and at times ugly, world from which they have emerged? They say they want privacy, and I suppose they could just walk away and keep their mouths shut — and many wish they would. But then they’d leave behind a twisted portrait of themselves solely defined by the tabloids, she as an attention-obsessed, mixed-race mercenary, he as an ingrate who’s under her thumb. Easier said than done, I think.
Also, the crown certainly wants the couple to keep their mouths shut, to maintain its image of discretion and dignity, which I imagine also contributes to their desire to go public. “We will not be shushed” is the unspoken mantra in “Harry & Meghan.”
There is a lot of anger afoot in the first three episodes, and it’s hard not to share in it after seeing all of the racist coverage of Meghan in one place. She was quickly turned into an interloper and, amid the immigrant-phobia in England, referred to as “(almost) straight outta Compton” among other racist allusions. That’s not just your everyday average tabloid hazing ritual.
We see how, at first, the pair tried to play the game, which one of the couple’s employees refers to as, “We pay, you pose.” Basically, since taxpayers pay for the royal family, the royals must make themselves available to the media for all kinds of exploitation. They can’t be too warm to the “paps,” of course — Meghan quickly learned that when she was nice to them, they accused her of attention-seeking — but they must participate.
But the racism was a deal-breaker for the couple, as we know, especially as the tabloid disrespect of and fury against a mixed-race woman spread to social media. “My job is to keep my family safe,” Harry says early in the series, a reference to the tragedy that claimed his mother, Princess Diana. He very much sees Meghan as he saw his mother — “she has the same compassion, she has the same empathy, she has the same confidence, she has this warmth about her” — and, from a deep place, he doesn’t want history to repeat itself.
We also hear Meghan’s side of the estrangement from her father and her half-sister, as the paparazzi appears to have put the two relatives on their payrolls. The foul aggressions of the paparazzi aren’t news by any means, but it’s nonetheless sad to see just how insidious they can be in destroying relationships. “I shouldered that,” Harry says, “because if Meg wasn’t with me then her dad would still be her dad.” Harry doesn’t talk about his current relationships with his father and brother; perhaps he’ll get to that in the second batch of episodes.
There are excesses in the authorized “Harry & Meghan,” too. The Liz Garbus-directed series, like so many “docuseries” these days, can at times resemble a Kardashian-esqe reality show. The pair always look smashing and aspirational, both physically and morally. We see footage from their courtship, including their first texts, which may be more than we need to see. Yes, OK, they are cute, the secrecy of their first months was romantic, and this is a love for the ages. We get it, and we’ve seen it before.
We’ve also already heard about Harry’s Army service, which gets special note in the series, and we see him meet with praise for owning his “unconscious bias.” The couple’s good works get plenty of airtime, too, as each is shown greeting poor children and holding forth on various diases. If you’re inclined to think that these wealthy royals are coddled and self-regarding, you might find some confirmation in the series.
For me, the interest in “Harry & Meghan” transcends the particulars of Harry and Meghan. It’s about the universal battle between conformity and individuality, writ large. The story has been told many times before — from the days of King Edward’s abdication in order to marry a divorcee, to the split between Charles and Diana — but it’s one that nonetheless resonates.
On the one hand, there are the made-up fairytale lives of the royals, in which they wear the correct hats, stay happy and happily married, follow strict protocol, and have white skin. They’ve been appointed by God. On the other hand, the less manicured one, there are all of the complicated and unpredictable realities of human life: unexpected love, divorce, depression, and diversity.
It’s the tension between these two poles that underlies almost every episode of “The Crown,” and it will surely reappear as future generations continue to look back on the Sussexes and their narrow escape.
HARRY & MEGHAN
First three episodes now streaming on Netflix; last three on Dec. 15.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.