Royalist is The Daily Beast’s newsletter for all things royal and Royal Family. Subscribe here to get it in your inbox every Sunday.
The closing moments of the sixth and final episode of the Netflix show Harry & Meghan contained some significant words.
Reading from a speech she read at her wedding, Meghan Markle described their story as “a modern fairy tale,” saying: “Once upon a time, there was a girl from LA. Some people called her an actress. And there was a guy from London. Some people called him a prince. All of those people didn’t fully get it, because this is the love story of a boy and a girl who were meant to be together.”
Throughout the six hours of this documentary, Harry and Meghan carefully crafted their narrative at a variance to what the casual reader of tabloids might have thought was tale of palace hatred, feuding, ghastly families, insane privilege, ingratitude and a fixation on a bridesmaid’s dress, as a classic fairytale love story, replete with a full set of dramatis personae.
Through everything, the couple—beautiful and devoted to good works—faced all manner of obstacles to finally get their happy ending. The wicked ogre was played, not, as the palace had feared, by King Charles, but by the Daily Mail, with William and Charles getting mere walk-on parts as the ogre’s bewitched servants. Harry blamed the paper directly for Meghan’s miscarriage.
There was an enchanted castle, Kensington Palace, which looks fabulous from the outside but ends up trapping our couple in a corridor of funhouse mirrors, and a poky little broom cupboard/cage (Nottingham Cottage). Meghan’s wicked step-sister Samantha Markle played her wicked step-sister Samantha Markle.
Goodies were thin on the ground, but the fairy godmother was played with aplomb by Meghan’s mom, Doria Ragland—who spoke extensively and eloquently of her love and concern for her daughter—alongside a spookily clairvoyant hologram of Princess Diana. Despite all the obstacles thrown at them, our heroes made it to California, proving that “love wins”—a catchphrase made popular in the campaign for marriage equality.
The strange thing about the crafting of this fairytale narrative is that Netflix, via its dramatic trailers, had promised us a bloody revenge tragedy, with Harry and Meghan apparently turning their ire on the royal family. The palace was on tenterhooks. Harry and Meghan, it was strongly hinted, were the victims of a war waged against them by the royals, they were going to tell the whole truth, and, damn it, they had the receipts.
In the event, what bombshell revelations did we get? William yelled at Harry at the Sandringham Summit, staff in Prince-now-King Charles’ office leaked a letter Harry wrote to the media and Harry’s staff issued a statement saying he hadn’t been bullied by William without consulting him.
The overarching thesis, that the royals had conspired with the media to do down Harry and Meghan because they were jealous of them, was unsubstantiated; it existed in this film only in the statements of Harry, Meghan, their friends and their lawyer, who claimed she had seen “evidence” of this but mystifyingly, chose not to share it.
It’s fair to say that none of these claims are going to bring down the monarchy, although they might bring down Netflix’s subscriber numbers a bit. But, in truth, Netflix is likely pretty happy. Their $100m might not have bought them an Emmy, but it did get them kilos of publicity and an implicit royal endorsement for their tentpole show The Crown.
In terms of the public, the program has likely further entrenched those who are hardcore Harry and Meghan fans, and those who are their detractors. The six-part series showed these two groups either bravely battling for a new life away from a madly dysfunctional family and destiny, or showed them as narcissistic ingrates, making a pretty television postcard in tribute to themselves—but not answering any hard questions about past situations and behaviors.
Whatever, promising the earth and then not delivering very much at all is a sure fire way to irritate viewers, which might go some way to explaining the 13% audience score the show has on Rotten Tomatoes.
Here’s just some of the questions that were not even asked, let alone answered, in this show.
Aren’t you invading your brother’s privacy? What about Kate’s mental health? What about their kids? Did Camilla ruin your parents’ marriage? How do you feel about her now? Who was the royal racist? Did you bully your staff as they allege? What was it like waking up at Balmoral that day in 1997 to be told your mother had died? How was it to walk behind her coffin? How was Charles as a father? How is your relationship with the rest of the royals now? How is the rift? Can it be healed?
Instead, Harry and Meghan showed us only what they wanted. Thanks to Instagram we are all very well versed these days in how easy it is to carefully curate reality to suit our own version of events. And when we were deep in fairytale mode in the show, this show felt like a particularly shiny Instagram feed doing just that, precisely because it only presented one side of the argument.
True, these sorties were on occasion successful, if their goal was to make us understand and empathize with Meghan and Harry’s plight.
Meghan’s account of her descent into suicidal depression was moving and painful to watch—particularly the utter lack of support she allegedly received. Harry and Doria experiencing the situation as her closest loved ones was heartbreaking. The many details on the Sandringham Summit in the fifth episode, the way they were manipulated and controlled, felt like a real peek under the bonnet, a series of insights of the kind we had been promised. Their depiction of that system would have made anyone sympathize with their desire to break free.
But the sense of the couple being victims of their own siege mentality and paranoia was hard to shake, made more blatantly obvious by the complete failure to even pretend to be even-handed by the film makers. With Harry and Meghan as co-producers through their company Archewell, their truth was accepted uncritically.
Tough questions, which would have added credibility to the series, simply went unasked and unanswered.
“At the palace, they know they are not out of the danger zone yet, and there is genuine nervousness at what ‘Spare’ could allege”
Of course, they may be answered in the Sword of Damocles hanging over the royals in the shape of Harry’s memoir, Spare, due out in January.
At the palace, they know they are not out of the danger zone yet, and there is genuine nervousness at what Spare could allege, but the sense is undoubtedly one of relief that this hurdle, at least, has been surmounted.
Indeed, those who already thought the the royal family were saints will likely conclude that they are in fact even more beatific than previously suspected after six hours of prime time trolling. Those who thought they were a bunch of racists probably still feel the same way too.
King Charles led the family in a carol service in London on Thursday night, hours after the long feared Netflix bombshell turned out to be more of a damp squib.
Standing in the pulpit of Westminster Abbey, Prince William spoke of “the spirit of togetherness” and declared: “This is the time of year when we remember that God sent his only son ‘to serve, not to be served.’ He restored love and service to the centre of our lives in the person of Jesus Christ. It is my prayer this Christmas that his example and teaching will continue to bring people together, to give the best of themselves in the service of others.”
Sources at the palace said that the remarks were composed some time ago. Observers could have been forgiven for concluding they were a remarkably apposite rejection of everything their critics accuse Harry and Meghan, and Harry & Meghan, of perpetrating. Equally, the royals could just as easily be accused of executing another PR masterstroke to reclaim the headlines.
And so it goes on—less fairytale, more soap opera.