A dark cloud has loomed over The Crown since Princess Diana, then played by Emma Corrin, appeared in the fourth season. The impending tragedy, held in the periphery of every viewer, has crept closer and closer since, an undeniable historical moment that eventually will have to be portrayed. That time has come in The Crown’s final season, which has been split into two parts. The first four episodes, out Nov. 16, detail the events leading up to and surrounding Diana’s death in Paris in the summer of 1997. The latter six, out Dec. 14, will move forward in time to encompass a greater span of events, including the courtship between Prince William and Kate Middleton.
Much debate has emerged, especially in England, about what and how much The Crown creator Peter Morgan should show of Diana’s death. But the final season pulls no punches about its intentions to showcases the scope of the tragedy. The first episode opens with a disarming sequence of a man walking his dog along darkened Paris street. It’s only after a few moments that you realize what he’s about the witness. A car careens by, following by paparazzi. They disappear into the now-famous Pont de l’Alma tunnel—The Crown did shoot on location in Paris—and the sound of the crash can be heard before the credits roll.
It’s a poignant, pointed way to begin the season, reminding us what is truly at stake. The events flash forward to earlier in the summer, as Diana (Elizabeth Debicki) is heading on holiday to the south of France with her sons, William and Harry. She’s been invited to join Mohamed Al-Fayed (Salim Daw), who wants to introduce her to his engaged son Dodi (Khalid Abdalla). Diana is carefree and happy, shedding the restrictive monarchy for colorful swimsuits and joy. She dazzles the paparazzi by posing for them in a leopard print swimsuit, offering them the shot to leave her and her boys alone for the rest of the vacation.
The first two episodes center on Diana and her blossoming friendship with Dodi, who will also die in the crash. The series cleverly cuts between her newfound freedom and the British royal family, who remain as uptight as ever. Prince Charles (Dominic West) just wants his parents to accept his relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles (Olivia Williams), but the Queen (Imelda Staunton) is less approving. Diana and Charles continue to war over their sons, albeit with less hostility. In the second episode, Morgan juxtaposes two photographers, a famous paparazzo hired to surreptitiously shoot Diana and Dodi and a homespun Scottish portrait photographer who is asked to take candids of Charles and his kids. It’s an extremely well-constructed episode of TV, which ends with a famous image of Diana in a blue swimsuit sitting on the end of a long diving board. She’s isolated, awaiting her fate.
Morgan’s skill with The Crown isn’t just these tempting behind-the-scenes moments, many of which are built from both historical research and imagination. It’s also his ability to distill specific events or themes from a lengthy, complex history and make them into must-see TV. Much of what is on the screen is accurate—the series has a thorough research department—but what is so compelling is the lenses through which Morgan asks us to look. He takes famous and lesser-known circumstances and dramatizes them without losing a sense of reality. Last season wasn’t the show’s best, although the “Annus Horribilis” episode was genuinely compelling. But if the beginning of Season 6 is any indication there won’t be a similar slump here.
Diana has been one of the show’s best characters, thanks both to Corrin and Debicki who have embodied her with grace and impressive preparation. Her storylines have been the most memorable, especially in Season 5, and the emotion of losing her is tangible. Princess Diana’s actual passing was an immersive global tragedy, which is clearly what Morgan wants to showcase, but it’s almost worse when we’ve been inside her head for several seasons now. What does that mean for The Crown in the second part of the final season? Not to mention there are two more deaths impending: Princess Margaret (Lesley Manville) and the Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother (Marcia Warren). Diana was a foil for the monarchy and its traditions, allowing us to see how its rigidity keeps it so stuck in the past.
Although not every season and every episode has been perfect, The Crown has cemented itself as one of the most well-made TV shows in the modern era. The level of craft is impeccable, from the costumes to the production design to the hair and makeup, and nearly every performance has hit the mark. It’s the golden standard for historical drama and it will be hard for another series to stand in its shadow. Morgan has encouraged the audience to ask questions and consider what the British monarchy’s place should be in contemporary society. He hasn’t given us any answers, but it’s something we should keep considering as the series comes to its end.