keeping up with the royals

Why We Watched Oprah Interview Meghan and Harry

Oprah With Meghan and Harry contained so many multitudes that it could be framed through practically every lens and genre through which we watch contemporary television. Photo: Joe Pugliese/CBS

Oprah With Meghan and Harry: A CBS Primetime Special, the heavily hyped first broadcast interview with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry since they broke from the royal family and moved to L.A. last year, was without question a major television event. According to same-day Nielsen ratings, 17.1 million viewers watched the conversation as it aired live on Sunday night. That’s a significantly larger audience than the most recent Golden Globes and Emmy Awards could muster, and almost in the ballpark of the same-day audience for the Game of Thrones finale.

It’s incredibly rare these days for Americans to sit down and watch anything live on television, in real time, that doesn’t involve sports. Clearly this interview was different. My colleague Kathryn VanArendonk posited that the success of The Crown had something to do with it, and she definitely has a point. More people may find themselves caring about royal gossip after having its history contextualized and made highbrow in four seasons of The Crown, especially the most recent, Princess Diana-focused one, which, as Kathryn notes, is basically the “previously on …” precursor to Winfrey’s interview.

Even before The Crown, though, the royals have always been a television draw here in the States. In 2018, nearly 30 million of us tuned in to watch Harry and Meghan get married. In 2011, 23 million Americans watched Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding. Following Princess Diana’s death in 1997, 33.2 million U.S. viewers watched her funeral. When Princess Diana and Prince Charles were married in 1981, 17 million Americans, a number brought full circle by the ratings for the Harry and Meghan interview, witnessed it on television.

Whenever the royals come up in conversation, there’s always that one guy — technically not always a guy, but, you know, usually — who asks why anyone cares about them since they’re all a bunch of privileged richie-riches whose activities have no bearing on American life. My snarky response to this sort of thing is usually something along the lines of this: “I don’t know, why do you still care about the New York Jets since what they do has no effect on society at large, and also, they’re consistently terrible?”

The answer to both questions is the same: Because you’re invested in their story. If you’ve been following the Jets since you were a kid and hope every year that somehow they’ll figure out how to win a Super Bowl for the first time since 1969, you’re invested in seeing that play out. If, like many Americans, you started paying closer attention to the royals after Diana’s wedding or during the mourning over her death, you are invested in the story of what happens to the family now, particularly Diana’s two sons and their spouses. Meghan is of extra interest, not only because she is a biracial American, but because Meghan’s experiences as a royal mirrored Diana’s in many ways.

Our long-term investment is what compelled a lot of us to show up to CBS on Sunday night to see what Oprah Winfrey would ask the now former princess and prince. The promos for the interview piqued interest and the interview itself delivered what it promised: significant and candid revelations. The conversation contained so many multitudes that it could be framed through practically every lens and genre through which we watch contemporary television.

Every ad break during the interview was preceded by the kind of cliffhanger that would absolutely convince a Netflix subscriber to proceed directly to the next episode. One pre-commercial moment, for example, included Meghan Markle’s reveal that there were conversations within the royal family about how dark baby Archie’s skin might be when he was born. After a comment like that, you couldn’t stop watching even if you tried. Seriously. I attempted to flip to the Critics’ Choice Awards for a quick second and my television asked me exactly where the hell I thought I was going.

The conversation between Oprah and the ex-royals contained moments worthy of a soapy primetime drama — so it wasn’t Meghan who made Kate Middleton cry the week before Meghan and Harry’s wedding, it was Kate who made Meghan cry, oh damn — or an uplifting episode of This is Us (they’re having a girrrrl). At times, Oprah With Meghan and Harry had the depth of a serious, historical docuseries — the specter of Diana’s relationship with the royal family was present in the subtext and sometimes even the text itself, as when Harry noted that he didn’t want his mother’s history to repeat itself through his wife. At other times, the broadcast contained the horrific undertones of a cult-focused true crime show. “I was trapped,” Harry told Winfrey of his life as a royal, “but I didn’t know I was trapped.” That’s a line of dialogue straight out of a NXIVM or scientology documentary.

It also must be said that the interview spilled absolute rivers of tea, enough to make your average reality TV producer extraordinarily jealous. Again, I can’t stress this enough: Both Harry and Meghan said that one of the royals expressed concern about how dark Archie’s skin would be. You know something is racist when even Oprah Winfrey is like, “That’s so racist that I actually can’t talk for a second.”

Even though Winfrey pressed both of them to identify the person who said this, both refused, which gave the interview a bit of a mystery box quality: That unanswered question immediately gave everyone something to theorize about online. Cannily, it also gave Oprah Winfrey something to talk about the next day on CBS This Morningshe clarified that Harry said neither of his grandparents were responsible for the remark — and because of the implication by Meghan and Harry that Archie’s mixed race may have been tied to the decision to not grant him a title or the security that comes with it, it has put added pressure on the royals to answer for themselves.

There was a lot of power in what was said, but maybe even more in the fact that Meghan and Harry were the ones to say it. We all could have guessed from following the ongoing saga of the royal family that some of its members are racist. And given everything she went through publicly, it sadly wasn’t terribly surprising to learn that Meghan Markle became so depressed that she contemplated suicide. But to see and hear her tell the story of that anguish in her own words, rather than read about it in scandalized headlines, made it more personal and real. To see and hear Harry, who has been trained to honor royal protocol and issue dignified “no comments” his entire life, admit that his own father, Prince Charles, wouldn’t take his calls is jaw-dropping because Harry has never called out his dad on his bullshit publicly before. In the same way that Diana took control of her narrative in that famous 1995 interview with Martin Bashir, Harry and Meghan were taking control of theirs.

But as earth-shaking as that Diana conversation was at the time, this one seemed even more shocking because, unlike Diana, Meghan didn’t make these statements by herself. Harry was with her for a full hour of the interview, and they said what they said as a unit. This time, the alarm bells weren’t being rung solely by someone who came from outside the royal bloodline. The alarms were sounding from inside the palace, too.

Some people wrongly think that royal obsessives are fascinated by the Queen and her descendants because focusing on their lives is a way to vicariously live a fairy tale. That may be true for some people and at certain moments; it’s always true, for example, on a royal wedding day. But a lot of people, especially post-Diana, are just rooting for the people trapped by the villain — the villain being the institution of the Royal Family and possibly also Prince Charles (because seriously, who ghosts their own son?) — to find a way to escape a stultifying system. These people may have all the privileges in the world, but if they can’t live unencumbered lives, what good is that? (This is definitely something we’ve all learned from The Crown, by the way.)

We tuned in to watch Oprah sit with Harry and Meghan in a backyard with top-notch landscaping and tell us all the stuff that goes on behind Buckingham Palace doors because, yeah, sure, we’re curious. But we also wanted to know how Meghan and Harry got out, and how it feels to be estranged from family but also free. After following this epic, ongoing saga for years, we came to that interview hoping to see a couple who is finally able to take an infinite number of deep, cleansing breaths, something Princess Diana, who died a little over a year after finalizing her divorce from Charles, got to do for far less time than she deserved.

Why We Watched Oprah Interview Meghan and Harry