Early on in The Crown Season 6, Part 1 premiere, Prime Minister Tony Blair (Bertie Carvel) reminds Queen Elizabeth II (Imelda Staunton) of what she knows to be true, but so desperately wishes weren't the case: "When Diana talks, the world listens."
Blair intends to convince the Queen that Princess Diana (Elizabeth Debicki), with her immense popularity and charming personality, could be an asset to the British government, despite her being officially "out" of the royal family following her divorce from Charles, Prince of Wales (the miscast Dominic West). Though the PM isn't successful — "You yourself will know the difference of being in government, or out," the Queen warns — his remark reflects the overarching theme of the four-episode installment and creator Peter Morgan's attempt to give Diana a greater voice than he did in the drama's disappointing fifth season.
If The Crown Season 4 (the only season to win Outstanding Drama Series at the Emmys) introduced a vibrant Lady Diana Spencer, played by Emma Corrin, whose light was dulled by her marriage and the expectations of the royal family, Season 5 left new star Debicki to pick up the pieces. With the separation from Charles and their ensuing media war dominating her life, Diana became a shell of the woman she once was, and Debicki spent much of Season 5 staring off into the middle-distance. She imbued the character with pathos, to be sure, but there was no mistaking the fact that Diana was now a passive player in her own story, and the season, which sidelined the Queen to focus on the divorce proceedings, suffered as a result.
The first half of Season 6, however, serves as a reintroduction to the Diana we once knew, and a coming-out party for the woman she was starting to become before her death on August 31, 1997. Written by Morgan, the premiere, "Persona Non Grata," emphasizes her maternal spirit and effervescence: She both consoles 15-year-old Prince William (Rufus Kampa), who's not excited to spend 10 days on Mohamed Al-Fayed's (Salim Daw) yacht in Saint-Tropez, and playfully scolds 12-year-old Prince Harry (Fflyn Edwards) for playing with the automatic windows on the plane, transitioning seamlessly from one mode to the next.
Despite the paparazzi circling the boat, Debicki brings a lightness to Diana in these scenes, which offer a colorful and dynamic contrast to the events happening back at the palace, that's been absent since the early part of Season 4, and the show feeds off her energy. The chemistry between Diana and Dodi Fayed (Khalid Abdalla) — whose father has instructed him to woo the princess in order to improve their social standing in the U.K. — can hardly be described as electric, but Debicki so expertly captures Diana's magnetism that their transition from acquaintances to lovers feels believable, if a bit rushed.
Their most affecting moment comes not as the season marches toward the car crash in Paris (a tragedy that's handled with the utmost respect and not dramatized on-screen), but in the premiere, when they bond over their fruitless efforts to earn the approval of their fathers. "You're lucky to have a father who cares. Mine barely noticed if I was coming or going," a wistful Diana tells Dodi. "I was so desperate to make an impression, I learnt the piano just for him ... I ironed his shirts. I baked him cakes. Even married the Prince of Wales. Anything to make him notice me. Be proud of me."
As Diana and Dodi's romance continues throughout the summer of 1997, the media frenzy reaches a fever pitch, and their relationship begins to unravel. Though Morgan is left to speculate about what exactly happened in the days and hours before their deaths, he effectively conveys the sense that the two were being hunted by paparazzi hungry for a lucrative story and an adoring public unwilling to afford Diana the privacy she craved.
The stifling nature of Episodes 2 and 3 ("Two Photographs" and "Dis-Moi Oui") leave no doubt that the princess is the victim in all this, but at the same time, The Crown makes space to examine Diana's role in prolonging her predicament, as when therapist Susie Orbach (Kate Cook) cautions that the relationship seems to be feeding into her "addiction to drama." The implication may not sit well with Diana's most ardent supporters, but when it comes to the character study at the heart of the show, it complicates the prevailing narrative in an interesting way.
But while The Crown Season 6, Part 1 is a marked improvement over the previous outing, it's not without its problems. In a glaring attempt to whitewash history, these episodes largely ignore the royal family's racist attitude toward Mohamed Al-Fayed and Dodi Fayed. The show is clear that the palace opposed Diana's relationship with Dodi, a Muslim man born in Egypt, but it's presented as a problem only in that Mohamed could use the relationship as "leverage" to secure British citizenship, a decision that deliberately sidesteps the family's (and the government's) history of bigotry. The context surrounding why Mohamed, the billionaire owner of Harrods, was denied citizenship twice before this point remains unacknowledged; instead, Morgan attributes those long-held racist beliefs to the media, which describes Dodi as an "oily love rat," and "the West" at large, with little recognition of the fact that one colonial power and its monarchy played a key role in shaping those views on a global scale.
The season also loses momentum when it leaves Diana to focus on Charles' relationship with Camilla Parker-Bowles (Olivia Williams) and the Queen's resistance to his "campaign for Camilla's legitimacy" as his future wife. Their screen time is limited in the first three episodes — Staunton hardly appears at all, reflecting the Queen's diminished importance in both the monarchy and the show — but they return to the forefront in Episode 4, "Aftermath," which dramatizes the royal family's private and public reaction to Diana's death. Disappointingly, the episode feels like a retread of Morgan's 2006 film The Queen, which set up a similar conflict between the family's responsibility to one another and to their country, and adds little beyond providing more fodder for Charles' redemption tour.
"Aftermath" also breaks from The Crown's cinematic realism to include a series of moments in which Diana and Dodi return as ghostly apparitions and absolve their family members of their sins. A conversation between Debicki and West is particularly bizarre, as Diana appears not as she was, but as Charles wanted her to be: "Thank you for how you were in the hospital. So raw, broken... and handsome," she tells her ex-husband. Even though the two were on good terms at the time of her death, it seems entirely unlike Diana to flatter Charles' ego in this way. In that way, Morgan removes the agency afforded to her in those exciting early episodes, rendering what should be an emotional goodbye toothless.
The limpness of "Aftermath" doesn't inspire a ton of confidence in The Crown's ability to stick the landing without the charismatic princess, but with the show shifting focus to the next generation — Part 2 will dramatize the early days of Prince William's relationship with Kate Middleton, played by Meg Bellamy — there's hope for the Netflix drama yet. For the past two seasons, Debicki, like Diana herself, forced viewers to sit up and take notice; when she talked, the world listened, and the show was better off for it. Now, it's up to the young stars playing her children to do the same, lest the series become as hollow as the British monarchy itself.
The Crown Season 6 is streaming on Netflix. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.