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'The Crown' shines in its final season — just remember it's not the History Channel

Elizabeth Debicki as Diana in the sixth and final season of <em>The Crown.</em>
Elizabeth Debicki as Diana in the sixth and final season of The Crown.

(Be warned: this review discusses key details from the first four episodes of The Crown's sixth and final season)

From the opening scene in the first episode — with cars speeding down a Paris street moments before sounds of an off-screen crash — The Crown makes plain that its sixth and final season will finally depict a seismic moment.

Namely, the 1997 deaths of Diana, Princess of Wales, her companion Dodi Fayed, and their driver in a car accident while fleeing paparazzi.

Along the way, the season's first four episodes deftly reflect the series' ongoing examination of the tension between the royal family's private lives and public duty.

Viewers see the struggle to manage shattering grief in a family dedicated to maintaining a stoic public presence, outlining how Diana's demise pulled the British monarchy – especially Queen Elizabeth – into a more modern understanding of how they could connect with the people of England.

Documenting a historic relationship

But before fully diving into the details of that fateful day, The Crown flashes back to show her relationship evolve with Dodi Fayed, the son of billionaire Mohamed Al-Fayed. By the third episode, Diana — played with stunning allure and sensitivity by Elizabeth Debicki — admits a growing ambivalence about their romance, speaking by phone in a presumably private conversation with her therapist.

Khalid Abdalla as Dodi Fayed and Elizabeth Debicki as Diana.
Daniel Escale / Netflix
Khalid Abdalla as Dodi Fayed and Elizabeth Debicki as Diana.

The therapist, Susie Orbach, is shown suggesting that Diana might want to distance herself from Dodi, who the therapist says is caught in a difficult relationship with a domineering father.

"The risk is, one normalizes the abnormal and becomes accustomed to living in the madness," Orbach says. "That's when things really go wrong."

Not too much foreshadowing there. But this is an example of a staple of The Crown: Personal conversations shown in ways that may confuse viewers about how much of the moment they are watching has been invented or assumed.

Depicting a key moment from their last day

That issue surfaces again in another key moment from the third episode (yet another spoiler alert that I'm about to mention an important detail).

The scene in question centers on whether Dodi proposed marriage to Diana on the day they died and how she reacts.

Khalid Abdalla as Dodi Fayed.
/ Netflix
Khalid Abdalla as Dodi Fayed.

It's a fascinating, well-told moment, buoyed by fantastic performances from Debicki and Khalid Abdalla, who plays Dodi. Abdalla renders Dodi as a sensitive man pressured by his father to marry Diana to elevate their family — nevertheless, close enough to her to speak frankly when she asks him what's wrong with her life.

"Look what you've managed to achieve, in the year since you've been divorced," Dodi tells Diana. "A global anti-land mine campaign ... raising millions for charity ... and yet you're still not satisfied. Stop being in such a mad hurry to find whatever it is you've been looking for."

A representative for Mohamed Al-Fayed, who died in August at age 94,has said publiclyin the past the two were engaged. More recently, the representative deniedAl-Fayed pushed the couple together. But I asked longtime royal filmmaker Nick Bullen of True Royalty TV – a platform with loads of documentaries on the British monarchy – for his perspective. He told me that Diana had been hinting to friends that she was reconsidering their relationship.

"I think [the proposal] is probably artistic license," Bullen said. "She definitely wasn't in a place where she wanted to get married."

Then I talked with Emily Burack, a news writer at Town & Country who has extensively covered the royal family and The Crown. She said that the show does flesh out Dodi's story in a way that depicts him as more than just a wealthy playboy who died in a car next to Diana.

"It gives you a fuller portrait of Dodi as a person," Burack said. "People only think of Dodi in his death. They never think about this fun summer he had with Diana or the person he was."

Drawing distinctions between fact and fiction here may sound nitpicky. But their story could be important to people who anticipated a possibly historic union between an Egyptian man and the mother of a future King of England.

Showing conflict over Diana's funeral

Both Bullen and Burack also said that another private moment shown in The Crown likely did happen in some way: when then-Prince Charles, played by Dominic West, pushes a reluctant Queen Elizabeth to show grief over Diana's death publicly and give her a public funeral.

"It's always been hard for us to understand the connection that Diana has with people," Charles tells his mother in an emotional scene. "But the fact that it's inexplicable, shouldn't lead us to deny it ... I've seen it for myself. People taking to the streets. Not just here, all over the world ... And they will expect us to show grief and compassion and for you to be mother to the nation."

Imelda Staunton as Queen Elizabeth and Elizabeth Debicki as Diana.
/ Netflix
Imelda Staunton as Queen Elizabeth and Elizabeth Debicki as Diana.

There has already been some criticismof scenes which depict Diana appearing to both Charles and Queen Elizabeth to have conversations with them after her death. While it may seem as if her ghost were visiting them – Dodi is also shown having a post-death conversation with his father – for me, the scenes played as if these people were working through their feelings by imagining conversations with Diana and Dodi that they were no longer able to have.

These first four episodes of the season – the final six will drop next month, concluding the series – also provide another chance to re-evaluate Diana's legacy, just as the world is re-considering how many famous women were treated in the 1990s, from Britney Spears to Tina Turner.

As a critic, I have always been uneasy with how The Crown shifts seamlessly from highly accurate depictions to invented moments. And last season, which featured a detailed portrayal of how Diana and Charles' marriage fell apart, was criticized by actress Dame Judi Dench and former British Prime Minister John Major.

Still, there is no denying these episodes of The Crown are incredibly well done, fleshing out an important moment for the family in a creative, telling way.

Just so long as viewers remember they're watching a TV drama, not a program on the History channel.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.