After I saw the first four episodes of the final, sixth season of Netflix’s “The Crown,” my initial thought was: Elizabeth Debicki. How on Earth did she do that?
The Australian actor channels Princess Diana in her last weeks with a devastating precision, weeding out the fragility of her season five performance as her affecting heroine develops a bit of confidence and media savvy. The cliché emerges and insists on being used: It’s like seeing a ghost, as she nails the tilt of the head, the evolving determination, the doe-eyed charm, the resignation and loneliness, the mama-lion instinct — I could go on. It’s one of the most evocative performances I’ve seen on TV.
Debicki’s work — and I hesitate to use that word, since her performance is so natural and effortless — anchors the set of four episodes streaming Thursday (the last six arrive Dec. 14), so that the tragedy that ensues has all the emotional weight it deserves. The season premiere opens moments before the Paris accident in August 1997 that took her life and that of Dodi Fayed (Khalid Abdalla), then flashes back to show how the two wound up in a limo being chased into an underpass by paparazzi — “hunters,” as one tabloid photographer puts it. We see Debicki’s Diana, 36, adrift after her divorce, but still wielding her sly humor and the bit of frolic in her physicality as she winds up on Fayed’s yacht in St. Tropez. We see Diana and Dodi warm to each other over the summer, becoming romantic while he juggles another relationship. And we see them photographed kissing on a boat, breaking the news cycle and diminishing any notice paid to Prince Charles.
Throughout, you feel as though you’re watching Diana herself, her body language as articulate as creator Peter Morgan’s scripts. The accuracy is stunning. But accuracy is the question that has hovered over the series all along, and particularly since season four, when the action reached the 1980s and began to touch on events many of us remember and feel proprietorial toward, events that continue to have resonance internationally. Critical viewers have gone after Morgan for inventing scenes and pasting on psychological motivations. In season six, he continues to imagine private interactions between the characters, including some intense material that has Dodi’s father, the wealthy Mohamed Al-Fayed (Salim Daw), pressuring his son to propose to Diana prematurely and tipping off the paparazzi to their location. Morgan gives us a man obsessed with the royals, and a son who allows himself to be used. He also gives us a Charles (Dominic West) deeply wounded that his mother refuses to acknowledge the love of his life, Camilla (Olivia Williams).
Such is historical fiction that it triggers strong opinions both for and against it for being largely made up. For me, fabrication is part of the genre, which, at its best, is an artful vision of a time and place and a set of characters based on a broad knowledge of facts and a storytelling instinct. It is also, inevitably, a reflection of our present sensibilities. Morgan has come up with all kinds of intimate moments in the palace and mind-sets that, obviously, he has concocted for dramatic purposes — and he has done that beautifully, in many cases. The last full scene in Paris between Diana and Dodi, before they fatefully get into that limo, is extraordinarily written and acted. As with the royal dramas across the ages, “The Crown” offers one of many, many takes on the Windsors and their reign. If you are looking for straight-up history, and not game for this kind of leap, there are libraries and documentaries awaiting you.
While Diana and Dodi court, she is preoccupied with her sons, who are often with their father and grandmother. Some of the warmest scenes show her with them, close and affectionate, and the episodes due in December will, among other things, cover their grief after Diana’s death. Some of the coolest scenes involve Imelda Staunton’s Queen Elizabeth, who is unwilling to embrace Charles’s relationship with Camilla and unhappy about Diana’s adventures — “All one wants,” she says, annoyed, “is for that girl to find peace.” She isn’t awful, but she often needs to be guided toward compassion, by her sister and by her son. She is used to rising above messes like divorce and the untimely death of her ex-daughter-in-law, but she is beginning to understand that her role as a leader no longer allows that kind of aloofness.
And that is part of the reason the show is called “The Crown”: It is, underneath the fascinating soap opera and the political shifts, about the changes that came to the British monarchy during Elizabeth’s reign, not just divorce but the irrepressibility of the royal family’s emotional lives. Morgan has and continues to spend a lot of time on “The Crown” portraying the workings of the media like it’s one of the show’s main characters, out to spoil the family’s efforts to appear impeccable. The palace can no longer ignore the press, and it’s resonant to see both Charles and Diana trying to master it and weaponize its members against each other. In a rarified world tethered to the past, set in old buildings and amid values that no longer pertain, they’ve learned to move forward.
Starring: Elizabeth Debicki, Imelda Staunton, Khalid Abdalla, Dominic West, Lesley Manville, Olivia Williams, Claudia Harrison, Salim Daw, Jonathan Pryce
On: Netflix. Four episodes stream Thursday. The remaining six episodes stream Dec. 14.