While the anticipation of Princess Diana’s fatal car crash was hard enough to endure in The Crown Season 6 Episode 3 (icymi, here’s the recap) , it was just as difficult to watch Prince William and Harry receive the news that their mother was dead in episode 4 (“Aftermath”).
The Paris crash that took the lives of Princess Diana (Elizabeth Debicki), Dodi Al-Fayed (Khalid Abdalla) and driver Henri Paul (Yoann Blanc) on August 31, 1997, occurred just after midnight. When news of the crash was first reported, Diana was still alive, though Dodi and Paul were killed immediately. (The fourth occupant of the car, Trevor Rees-Jones, would be the only survivor.) Reports stated that Diana suffered a concussion and a broken arm, though in reality, her injuries were much more severe and she was suffering internal bleeding. It took over an hour for her to be cut out of the highly secure bullet-proof Mercedes she was traveling in, a delay that likely only made her injuries more severe.
As doctors in Paris rushed her into surgery to try and save her, news of the accident was relayed to the royal family and to Mohamed Al-Fayed, awakening them all from sleep in the middle of the night. That’s where the fourth episode of this season picks up, as phones begin to buzz and word begins to spread. Al-Fayed helicopters in to Paris, first to look at the scene of the accident, and then traveling to the morgue where he has to identify Dodi’s body. Mohamed has not come off well this season, but Salim Daw’s performance as an anguished father shows a side to him we never saw while his son was alive, as he kisses his dead son’s face and howls with grief in the morgue.
At Balmoral Castle, Prince Charles (Dominic West), Queen Elizabeth (Imelda Staunton) and Prince Philip (Jonathan Pryce) are all briefed about the accident, informed that Diana is still alive. As the hours pass, however, Diana’s surgery has proven unsuccessful, and just before 4 a.m., she is pronounced dead. The show has made a creative choice to drown out the sound any time news of Diana’s death is revealed, which was probably helpful from a writer’s standpoint (how many times can you re-write the same bad thing over and over?), but I’m grateful as a viewer, because I probably wouldn’t have been able to take it if we had to hear the news more than once. Charles, Elizabeth and Philip are informed by their press secretary, who briefly has to pause and collect himself before telling them. While Charles breaks down and weeps, Elizabeth and Philip begin their long and controversial campaign of apathy, unable to even console their son, let alone mourn the woman who dared to be different from them.
“When are you going to tell the boys?” Camilla (Olivia Williams) asks Charles when he calls her to discuss the news.
“I wanted to let them sleep,” he says before adding the saddest thing I’ve ever heard: “While they’re sleeping, they still have a mother.”
“This is going to be the biggest thing any of us has ever seen,” Charles rightly predicts before he hangs up with Camilla, it’s something no one in the family has prepared for, and though Charles tries to lead the family in grief, no one in the family handles it well.
When the time comes to tell the boys, Charles wakes William up saying, “You’re going to have to be very brave,” before the sound drops out again and William is told of his mother’s death. Harry is told next, and we’re spared seeing their immediate reactions, which would have been too much to take.
While Elizabeth and Philip are initially stoic after learning about Diana, they’re downright cruel when they learn that a request has been made to use a royal airplane to carry her body back to England. “No, no, no, those planes are for a royal death abroad,” Philip says. “Diana was no longer royal. We must be seen as doing this by the book.” When their secretary replies that he suggested that to Charles, Charles “asked if we would prefer that the mother of the future King of England be brought back in a Harrod’s van.” That certainly changed their mind, but only because it was put so bluntly.
Now, I’m as emotionally crippled as the next Gen X woman raised on sarcasm and deflection, but even I think the Queen is taking her chilly stance too far. When she confirms that the royals will all be attending church that morning, she insists that the service not mention Diana, despite the fact that this family of freshly wounded souls could probably use some grief counseling and spiritual comfort right about now. After the church service, Charles flies to Paris to bring Diana’s body home. Like Mohamed, he also breaks down in the morgue. The sight of Diana (whose body we never see) is too much to bear, and a reminder of all their past failures and a future that will never be. As he travels with the coffin from the hospital to the airport, throngs of onlookers flank his car and weep, applaud, and wave to the people’s princess as she passes.
“Paris. One of the busiest cities in the world, and you brought it to a standstill,” Charles says to himself on the flight home. Only he’s NOT speaking to himself, he’s speaking to Diana’s Ghost. Or at least, her memory. “Ta-da!” she replies. Diana’s Ghost tells him how much she loved him and then says, “It’ll be easier for everyone with me gone.”
“No, it won’t,” he argues.
“Admit it, you’ve had that thought already,” she smiles.
“The only thought I’ve had since the moment we heard is regret,” he cries. Though this Diana’s Ghost is simply Charles’s subconscious, it’s the healthiest and most honest they’ve ever been with one another. Charles is ironically the only member of the family willing to grieve, willing to push for the family to come together during this time of raw emotion. His parents scoff at any kind of public statement and they absolutely refuse to support a state funeral for her, which Charles begs them for, but they actually push back by blaming him for pushing Diana out of the family.
“They all expect us to show grief and compassion, and for you to be mother to the nation,” Charles tells his mother, who tells him she doesn’t appreciate “being told when and how to grieve.” (Prince Philip gets in a cruel jab at his son, adding, “Particularly by the person who’s caused her the most pain.”)
William, shy and introverted, listens to this whole conversation, much of which is about him, and the way that the future King should be acting, and he decides to go on a walkabout.
He disappears without telling anyone, and while everyone at Balmoral stops what they’re doing to go on a manhunt for him, he can’t be found. Fourteen hours later, he turns up, drenched from the rain and still silently grieving. William’s out-of-character disappearance helps Elizabeth realize that perhaps Diana’s death is affecting the nation more than she realized, and that she should issue a statement consoling the bereaved. “Don’t you dare,” Philip tells her. “Sanity will soon prevail.”
While the royals try to figure out what kind of service to give Diana, if any at all, Mohamed Al-Fayed honors Dodi with a traditional Muslim ceremony.
Mohamed had mistakenly thought that he was a “brother in sorrow” with the royals and the Spencers, and he made numerous attempt to reach out to them with flowers, notes, and some of Diana’s possessions, all of which are returned to him or simply ignored. All he wants, now that Diana and Dodi are gone, is to honor them both, but he is completely isolated, shut out from their world now more than ever. Many news outlets have ignored Dodi’s death completely, leading him to have his own spiritual interaction with the ghost of Dodi. “Why do they hate me?” he asks his son. “Is it the fate of the Arabs to always be hated by the West?”
“It’s as if only one person died,” Mohamed continues, showing Dodi the newspapers.
“You shouldn’t look up to the West,” Dodi tells his father, whose entire life has involved ingratiating himself into Western society.
“Exalted expectations are not fair,” Dodi tells his father, and now I think maybe we’re not talking about different cultures. Mohamed begs Dodi for forgiveness for his own “exalted expectations” and like Charles, his conversation with his dead loved one helps to heal the wounds that were left wide open while they were still alive.
Over the past few episodes, we’ve seen how wounded Dodi, Diana, and Charles have all been by their parents. Charles is now the only one left of the three of them, and he’s still agonizing over how his mother’s inaction, as a biological parent and as mother to a country, are affecting the national mood. Charles confides in his sister Anne that Elizabeth appears “unable to mother the nation in precisely the same way she was unable to mother us,” and that it might have consequences for the whole family’s reputation. Once again, he is correct, and when the media cycles isn’t dedicated to discussing Diana, it’s focuses on the Queen’s absence from the spotlight and the anti-royal movement that’s growing by the day as a result.
The Queen is then visited by Diana’s Ghost who sits with her on her couch. “I hope you’re happy now,” she bitterly tells Diana’s Ghost. “You finally succeeded in turning me and this house upside-down.”
“That was never my intention,” Diana’s Ghost tells her, but Elizabeth just scoffs. She points to the television, a screen filled with mourners leaving thousands of bouquets at Buckingham Palace, and tells Diana’s Ghost, “Look at what you’ve started, it’s nothing less than revolution.”
Diana’s Ghost quietly tells Elizabeth that it’s only a revolution if the Queen tries to make an enemy of her, rather than joining with the mourners. “As long as anyone can remember, you’ve taught us what it means to be British. Maybe it’s time to show you’re ready to learn, too.” And so, the Queen delivers a statement to her public – in spite of what Philip thinks, in spite of how things are done “by the book” – and refers to Diana as an “exceptional and gifted human being” and offers what solace she can to the rest of the nation.
The speech plays as we watch scenes of William sobbing, and Harry penning a letter addressed to “Mummy” that he would later place on on her coffin. Scenes of mourners are spliced with actual news footage from the day of the funeral, as strangers cry and the family marches behind Diana’s body.
“Millions of others who never met her but feel they knew her will remember her,” the Queen says. And that’s why we’re here, aren’t we? Whatever unsettling feelings these episodes have stirred up have been stirred up because we feel that we knew this person, like perhaps she belonged to us. “May we, each and every one of us, thank God for someone who made many, many people happy,” she ends her speech. As the Queen sits beside her bed praying in the show’s final moments, the cruel irony of it all is that we can’t tell whether she believes the words she has spoken or not.
Liz Kocan is a pop culture writer living in Massachusetts. Her biggest claim to fame is the time she won on the game show Chain Reaction.