In 1981, in their first public appearance after their wedding, Prince Charles and Princess Diana visited Brecon, a small town in Wales with a population a little under 8,000. “It was very cold, but people didn’t seem to notice the cold because they were so excited about Diana coming,” Valerie Harris, a Brecon resident, would later recall. Townspeople lined both sides of the main street, waiting for the royal visitors to appear. Charles had decided they would each take one side of the street and switch off. Each time this happened, Diana’s part of the crowd would let out a huge groan of disappointment. As Charles shook their hands, they nonetheless continued calling out “Di! Di,” Harris remembered, “to come to their side.”
When The Crown premiered in 2016, some viewers had the same reaction. The series begins with a young and beautiful Queen Elizabeth II (Claire Foy) on the eve of her nuptials in 1947. Yet fans immediately began wondering when they could expect a glimpse of Princess Diana—who would not even be born for another 14 years. One tweeted “I watched the first episode of The Crown tonight. Unless Diana’s in the next one, I’m out.” Not long after the series premiere, magazines began speculating who would be cast to play the People’s Princess. Perhaps Rosamund Pike, one publication speculated, could draw from her Gone Girl role to channel Diana, another wife at war with an adulterous husband. Show creator Andrew Morgan quickly stepped in to tamp down expectations, warning viewers in an interview with People magazine that Diana would not appear until season 3 (which later turned into season 4).
Only in this latest season does Princess Diana (Emma Corrin) finally come to our side of the street—our reward for wading through the three previous seasons of relatively minor drama: the queen’s overly close friendship with a horse breeder named “Porchie”; a confusing sex scandal involving Prince Phillip’s osteopath; a young Prince Charles butchering the Welsh language; multiple failed attempts by all of them to show human emotion. I recently joked with a friend that the first three seasons amount to probably the most expensive and drawn-out prequel in television history. Even when Diana wasn’t on screen, her presence was everywhere. In seasons 1 and 2, as the queen denied Princess Margaret her love match to Peter Townsend in favor of a more suitable but ultimately disastrous marriage to Lord Snowdon, it was as if we were watching a dress rehearsal for the infamous War of the Waleses. And when the queen broke protocol and insisted that the Buckingham Palace flag be flown at half-mast to mark the death of John F. Kennedy, who among us did not gasp in horror, remembering that the palace refused to do the same for Diana following her car crash in Paris?
Now the real star has arrived, and everyone is jealous, or, as Princess Margaret would say, “positively constipated with envy.” That a 19-year-old girl, with nothing more than a shy downward gaze, silly sweaters covered with lambs, and blue eyeshadow could disrupt the pecking order is a greater affront to the other royals than any individual slight. And they are right to worry: Diana’s much-awaited appearance suggests The Crown’s appeal does not necessarily lie in the trappings of monarchy so much as in the possibility of its destruction. This season, which also explores the rise of Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson), is the first that forces the queen to contend with alternatives to a hierarchy based on aristocracy and royal succession. As the paparazzi lights flash, as the fan mail pours in, Diana comes to represent not the prestige of the British monarchy but rather a rejection of it in favor of something more egalitarian, and dare I say American: celebrity.
The new season opens with the queen mounting a horse in full military costume, as an IRA member asks in a voiceover: “Why are the English still with us?” It is the same question that comes up in the United States whenever there is a royal wedding or birth (or a new season of The Crown), with Twitter each time reliably supplying versions of the same We fought a war not to have to care about these people joke.
While the show starts with this question, the conflict is largely brushed aside except for how it plays into the story behind Charles’s engagement to Diana. While salmon fishing in Iceland with friends (as one does), Charles learns that his great uncle and surrogate father, Lord Mountbatten, has been assassinated in an IRA attack. Charles is racked with guilt, as the two had earlier argued on the phone over Charles’s continued relationship with a married Camilla Parker-Bowles. On his way home to the funeral, Charles receives a letter Mountbatten wrote to him after their fight, warning him against meeting the same fate as the last Prince of Wales, Edward VIII, who abdicated to marry the American divorcée Wallis Simpson. Mountbatten, known affectionately as “Dickie,” tells Charles he must fulfill his duty and find a wife who is “sweet and innocent, [a] well-tempered girl with no past who knows the rules and will follow the rules.”
Fortunately, he has recently met Diana Spencer, the virginal teenage daughter of the eighth Earl Spencer. Diana is so blinded by the youthful fantasy of marrying a prince that she overlooks what an egotistical bore he is (if season 3 was about humanizing Charles, season 4 undoes that work in quick order). When they go on a date to the opera (chaperoned by Diana’s grandmother), he begins lecturing her on Verdi, chastising her for calling his music romantic: “to focus simply on romance diminishes Verdi’s legacy and political influence.” He invites her to Balmoral Castle in Scotland for a weekend of “tests,” which she passes. The tests, as far as I can tell, revolve around knowing what to wear when hunting and which chair to sit in (not Queen Victoria’s!). Charles phones Camilla after the weekend to break the news that his family loves Diana, or, as he puts it, she got “rave reviews from the whole ghastly politburo,” and they want him to marry her.
In this season, we don’t yet see Diana the global humanitarian and icon who would raise awareness about land mines or stand side by side with Mother Teresa. We still have Diana as a young girl enamored of Diana Ross, roller-skating, and fan letters. This infuriates Charles, who can’t understand how he can love someone who watches “television” (he says the word like he’s scared he’ll choke on it) and expresses no interest in his tutorials on poetry, let alone how the whole world can adore her. Diana is soon miserable in the marriage, well aware by now that Charles has no plans to end things with Camilla (on the eve of her wedding, Diana discovers a bracelet Charles has had made for Camilla with their nicknames, “Fred and Gladys,” engraved on it).
There is a moment, however, during her tour of Australia with Charles, when Diana seems to become aware of herself and the potential of this marriage beyond her relationship with her new husband. As she looks up to see people hanging out of windows shouting her name, and she is handed flowers by people on the verge of tears (“You’re so beautiful,” one of them bursts out), she begins to spin around, realizing something very important. This celebrity is power, too, and she has more of it than Charles or anyone else in the line of succession.
All this unfolds against the backdrop of the Thatcher era, marked by the infamous iron will of the Conservative Party leader who held firm to her policies, even in the face of rising unemployment and global outcry when she refused to impose sanctions on apartheid South Africa. Thatcher is determined, even as the queen leaks to newspapers that she finds the prime minister “uncaring,” that she can face anything by virtue of her upbringing—that the very fact she is where she is means that she has earned the position, unlike the queen and her critical Cabinet ministers, in whom she sees a “lack of grit as a consequence of their privilege and entitlement.”
Yet ultimately, the only thing that comes close to actually bringing down the crown is Diana, whose popularity just grows as news that her marriage is falling apart begins to percolate. While those in the palace dismissively attribute her appeal to good looks and designer dresses, Diana knows that ultimately the love people have for her is a function of their deep-seated dislike of the monarchy—its coldness, rigidity, and hierarchy. “Since I’ve joined this family,” she tells the queen, “it’s not been easy. I’ve been given no help, no support, just thrown in the deep end, and I think that people out there can sense that I’ve suffered.” The queen scoffs and insists no one sympathizes with them, seeming to rest firm in a belief (perhaps borne out by the very success of The Crown) that people will always see monarchy as a glamorous world apart, fascinating for—not in spite of—its distant and unrelatable nature.
The writer Taffy Brodesser-Akner, known for her celebrity profiles, recently said in an interview with Radio New Zealand, “I sometimes think celebrity is the only true democracy because we allow people to rise and fall at our whim.… Every person that becomes a celebrity is someone we elected to make into a celebrity.” Yes, we sympathized with Diana, but we also understood that in making her a celebrity, we were rebuking the monarchy, letting them know that some things—even if only the fawning cheers of a crowd—are not a birthright.
For the past three seasons of The Crown, we have been waiting for Diana. But we have also been waiting for the image of Charles at a polo match, falling on his face as the crowd laughs and chants “We want Di! We Want Di!” As Diana says in an early episode as she looks ahead to their next date: “All good things come to those who wait.”