There are a number of shows that have come out recently, including Netflix’s Beckham docuseries, as well as their newly-released Robbie Williams, that serve as indictments of the British tabloids. It’s an industry that abuses celebrities for sport, and both David Beckham (and his wife Victoria) and singer Robbie Williams describe in great detail the mental health struggles they experienced as a result of years of relentlessly cruel tabloid coverage in the U.K. In the late ’90s, when the Beckhams, Williams, and Princess Diana were all at their peak of stardom, they each experienced inhumane treatment as the result of a press that built them up, only to tear them down. Whether it’s coincidence that those two shows have come out around the same time as The Crown Season 6, I guess I’ll have to ask the Netflix programmers, but they all tell a similar, disheartening story about the way people are made to suffer at the hands of the press. Perhaps no one suffered more from that than Diana.
In the second episode of The Crown‘s sixth season, the confluence of tabloid journalism and invasive paparazzi created a shitstorm for the royals thanks to a paparazzo named Mario Brenna and the relationship the royals had with the press. Early on in the episode, we meet Mario Brenna (played by Enzo Cilenti), a real fashion photographer who explains in faux docu-style, “Everyone wants pictures of celebrities. People pay one, two hundred thousand dollars for the right shot. But the right shot is hard to get. You have to be like hunters. Killers. The competition is crazy, you have to use the imagination, be creative. Take risks. I take more risks that everyone, which is why I am the best.” Brenna is shown scaling a wall to get the perfect shot of a private moment between a generic celebrity couple engaged in a physical fight.
This is in contrast to prim portrait photographer Duncan Muir, who is actually a fictional character and not based on a real person, but Muir is a staunch “Elizabethan,” a royalist who makes a living taking respectful, non-invasive photos of good and decent people like Queen Elizabeth II (Imelda Staunton). These two photographers represent different creative styles and different ways of life, one modern, the other staunchly traditional.
During a royal family meeting/press debrief, the Queen, Charles, Princess Anne and the like sit around a table while their head of PR shows them their newly updated royal website (cue the sound of dial-up!) and then explains that there’s a confidential, serious matter to address: Diana’s (Elizabeth Debicki) relationship with Dodi Al-Fayed (Khalid Abdalla). The problem is not that Diana shouldn’t be dating, it’s that she shouldn’t be dating Dodi. Because if they were to become serious or even get married, that would mean that the country might want to consider giving Dodi’s father Mohamed the British citizenship he’d been requesting for years, and we wouldn’t want to do that, would we? (Not to jump ahead, but even in the elder Al-Fayed’s obituary, printed this year, it referred to a conspiracy theory he bandied about that suggested Diana and Dodi were killed to prevent her from marrying an Egyptian Muslim.)
This episode gives a lot of weight to Mohamed’s plot to legitimize Diana and Dodi’s relationship at any cost, whether for his own British citizenship or just to raise the family profile. As we see Diana and Dodi enjoying yet another trip on the family yacht, Mohamed places a call to his head of staff on the boat to find out whether or not Dodi and Diana have been having sex. When he can’t say for sure, Mohamed insists on speaking to the yacht’s maid, who can confirm they share a bed. That’s enough confirmation for Mohamed, and he does what any loving father does and hires Mario Brenna, the “best photographer on the Mediterranean,” to secretly photograph the pair in an intimate pose. (The suggestion here is that the photos that revealed Diana’s relationship to the world were not just the work of a random, savvy photographer, but completely orchestrated by Mohamed Al-Fayed, who is very self-satisfied once said photos are eventually published. This assertion has never actually been proven, however. )
Dodi and Diana are still enjoying each other’s company on the yacht and as they discuss her upcoming trip to Bosnia to promote awareness of land mines, he reminds her that he should be getting married to Kelly Fisher right about now. “Oh, yeah,” she says, and then she asks if Kelly knows about their relationship. (The Kelly Of It All feels confusing, because it certainly seemed to me in episode one that Kelly not only knew about Diana, but also was unhappy, if not already broken up with, Dodi, but apparently she’s still being strung along.)
They chat about summer plans (she tells him that she’ll be sending the boys away for a holiday with Charles and plans to pick them up on the 31st, a line that would be a throwaway if it weren’t such an obvious and ominous reference to the fact that that’s the day she’s going to die), and then they start to flirt and kiss. Brenna, who has flown to St. Tropez with his telephoto lens, is anxiously awaiting this PDA and snaps a few shots, which will disrupt Dodi and Diana’s lives soon enough.
When Diana returns to London, she spends a final few days with William and Harry before sending them to Scotland with Charles (Dominic West). She wears an old band t-shirt (Duran Duran) and plays Uno Attack with them, an entire vibe I can wholly relate to, until play time is interrupted by a call from Dodi who tells her that private, intimate photos of them are starting to circulate. Diana tries to suppress whatever anxiety this causes, but knowing her in-laws, this is going to be a kerfuffle.
When Charles comes to pick up the boys the next day, we watch another moment, an awkward reference to Diana’s looming death, play out as she insist William give her a hug goodbye. “It’s three week, it’s an eternity,” she tells him, insisting on a snuggle that will prove to be the last physical contact she’ll have with her son. (Am I the only one watching the show through this morbid, moribund lens? I don’t want to, but it’s impossible not to relate literally anything anyone does back to the fact that tragedy is about to strike. )
Just as meaningful is the conversation Diana shares with Charles before she sees him off with the boys. She’s obviously uncomfortable around him, and he offers her an olive branch, of sorts, asking, “Even though we weren’t brilliant at being married, can we be brilliant at all this?” as he gestures to the kids. She agrees, telling him, “Alright, let’s be brilliant at divorce.” It hints at the scene from last season where she cooked Charles eggs and you could sense that there was/is some affection that exists between these two, you just really have to dig to find it.
When the photos, which were sold to the highest bidder, The Sunday Mirror (but recirculated by dozens of other newspapers), do come out, it’s during Diana’s trip to Bosnia. Talk about stepping on a landm…. nevermind.
She’s just trying to do good, charitable work, but the news of her and Dodi’s relationship has completely overshadowed the purpose of her trip, and it has angered the entire royal family. See? A kerfuffle. “One would almost feel sorry for her if one weren’t so cross with her,” the Queen responds when she sees the photos.The royals’ head of press explains that these photos have set a precedent, saying, “Now that photographers realize they can become rich overnight, interest in the Princess is unlikely to die down.” Cool foreshadowing, bro.
The photos have also destroyed any goodwill between Charles and Diana, too, despite whatever they said to each other in their previous conversation. Charles’ PR team decides to stage a “counter-photo” of their own (pitting a “tabloid princess” against a “broadsheet prince”). Charles objects at first, saying what we’re all thinking when he asks, “Hasn’t everyone had enough of photographs!?” But then he learns that Diana has made a snarky comment about a private weekend away that Charles and Camilla shared, and he becomes furious. Let the counter-photographing begin!
When he tells his sons about the shoot, the boys object at first, citing the ridicule they’ll face at school, but when they learn they won’t have to wear kilts, they acquiesce. They hire Duncan Muir to take a portrait of him looking demure and princely with his two sons.
The photos are a hit and they work as intended, and the Queen tells Prince Philip (Jonathan Pryce), “As a contrast with Diana’s antics, it speaks volumes.” The Queen then reveals to her husband that just yesterday, Diana and Dodi went to Derbyshire via helicopter to see a psychic who might be able to help Dodi “decide where his priorities lie, romantically.” (A scene I desperately wish we saw more of, you can’t just yada yada Princess Diana’s psychic.) The Queen says that Diana’s behavior is becoming erratic and reckless; what she means is “more of a liability for the royal family.” But is she? Diana is a grown woman who is allowed to do what she wants. If it weren’t for the arbitrary rules of the monarchy, her behavior would all be considered pretty normal by most people’s standards (aside from the jet-setting and yachting every weekend).
At the top of this recap, I compared this episode of The Crown (and in particular, Diana’s experience with the paparazzi) to a bunch of shows about the 1990s; to close this recap, I’ll compare Queen Elizabeth II to a show about the 1880s, The Gilded Age. So much of that show’s drama is based around the formality and structure of American high society. The rules about behavior and about class structures were so rigid with no fluidity, no room for error, and often on that show they’re so ridiculous that they’re laughable. And yet here we are over 100 years later, and the Queen still lives by these kinds of rules. And while the rest of us are laughing at them, the Queen hasn’t caught up with us yet.
“All one wants is for that girl to find peace,” the Queen says as the episode ends. It’s a lovely sentiment, but forgive me if I don’t quite believe her, because if that’s how the Queen truly felt, it would be one of the most generous and kind things we’ve ever heard her say.
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.