When much of this episode concerns itself with how to best tell one’s story, it’s unexpectedly fitting how it starts: with Prince Philip (of all people!) self-editing. He’s aware of the currency of every single word when speaking as a royal and the need to get it right. As he gives an interview on how he got into carriage-driving, he’s interrupted with devastating news: 5-year-old Leonora Knatchbull has died. After attending the funeral, Elizabeth suggests that Philip go pay his godson, Norton, a visit. They share a tender moment, saying how they make each other better. “Isn’t that the point of marriage?” asks Elizabeth. It’s an interesting line for Elizabeth to utter, particularly when the majority of her children are in unhappy unions and seemingly unable to be their best selves.
When Philip visits the Knatchbull residence, Penny (Natascha McElhone) also reveals that things aren’t perfect at home between her and Norton. Philip speaks of how much the comfort of marriage appealed to him when his life prior to Elizabeth had been so unstable. (Interestingly, both Philip and Diana had chaotic childhoods and saw marriage as a hopeful, potential antidote to familial trauma, with obviously different degrees of success.) But he also acknowledges that, once married, the two people inevitably grow in different directions.
When Philip leaves, he suggests Penny start a charity in Leonora’s name and find a hobby for some healthy escapism. When she offers him an “irreparable” carriage, he suggests he fix it up so she too can share in his passion for carriage-driving.
Speaking of unexpected help, enter Andrew Morton. Diana learns via her friend James Colthurst that the journalist is writing a book about her and would like her input via tape recording; they’d never have to meet in person. It’s a chance to regain control of her narrative, Morton claims.
Diana is intrigued but doesn’t want trouble. James has his concerns, too, knowing how naïve Diana can be (and considering how Martin Bashir will eventually land his interview with the princess, the concern is valid). Obviously, the book will make Morton rich, but James wants to know that this will help his friend, not hurt her. So Morton suggests he put a draft together and, after reading that, Diana can decide to kill it if she’d like.
And so James bikes over to Kensington Palace to help Diana record the secret tapes. When asked why she’s doing this, she says all other options (i.e., confronting Charles and approaching the queen) have been exhausted. But she then reveals a specific concern that’s tied to what she values the most: her children. The Crown can assume the legal custody of heirs to the throne, so Diana can’t take the boys abroad without risking losing them, and she knows firsthand the pain of losing access to a mother. It’s a reminder that Diana’s troubles did not begin solely upon mixing with the royal family — though that certainly exacerbated and created new trauma. Her childhood was unhappy, too.
She speaks, sometimes in tears, about her traumatic childhood, the lead up to the wedding, her binge-eating and bulimia, and, of course, her unhappy marriage. Diana says her husband’s priority was always Camilla or the queen. And, finally, we see Diana discuss her suicide attempts, admitting she threw herself down the stairs of Sandringham when she was pregnant with William.
In the story of Diana’s life, this particular chapter (that of the bombshell book) should feel like a significant moment. But we’ve been so oversaturated with Diana narratives over the past few years that we already know the tragic details of her story, particularly her marriage, inside and out. The information she provides to Morton in this episode seems like it’s meant to feel shocking — it certainly was at the time — but while it’s sad to hear repeated, it’s no longer revelatory. And while I think The Crown probably does the best job at depicting Diana in different shades and considerable complexity, there’s an uneasiness in realizing we’re just rewatching events that lead up to a literal car crash.
But maybe I’m being oversensitive. And according to Philip in this episode, avoidance isn’t the way through grief. After a fun excursion in the Knatchbulls’ newly spruced-up carriage, Philip offers words of comfort to Penny, who’s clearly still mourning her daughter. He recalls how losing his favorite sister, Cecilie (who happened to be pregnant at the time), in a plane crash taught him how grief permeates and never leaves. But he also says he learned to carry on with it, assuring Penny that she will be happy again, just differently. Throughout this episode, it’s become clear that Jonathan Pryce’s Philip is resolutely more sensitive than previous portrayals of the Duke of Edinburgh; age has made the man something of a softie.
Before Philip leaves, Penny offers him some valuable knowledge, too, though it’s far less comforting: Diana’s rumored to be involved with a book that’s not exactly kind to the royal family.
You know what else is unkind? Attempted murder! A white van hits James while he’s on his bike, driving him off the road. Meanwhile, Morton goes back to his flat to see that it has been ransacked (though apparently nothing is stolen). Diana thinks these events, as well as clicking sounds on her phone calls, aren’t coincidences — someone’s out to get her. Justified or not, her paranoia will only grow from here and, eventually, be full-on exploited.
Philip visits Kensington Palace (or, as Diana calls it, the leper colony) after being tipped off about the book. He admits he’s always had a soft spot for Diana and he’s on her team. He says it’s wrong to look at the Windsors as a family — it’s really a system they’re all in, for better or worse. And airing grievances causes greater damage to the system than it would a family. He advises that she can do whatever she wants privately as long as she remains publicly loyal to Charles and the rest of the Windsors. (But as we see with Charles and Camilla, carrying on secretly is not a fulfilling way to live, either.) When she clarifies that he’s implying she should be silent and he affirms, the suggestion leaves her speechless. Mission accomplished?
Later, Philip tells Elizabeth about his meeting with Diana. The queen is concerned by his advice that husbands and wives should withhold secrets from each other. He tries to backtrack but digs in deeper, suggesting discretion is key to keeping things intact. She reminds her husband that God’s always watching, but Philip thinks the Big Guy clocks out every once in a while. Elizabeth walks away, quietly disappointed. It’s a seeming one-eighty from the loving moment they shared at the top of the episode — yet another thing to make Elizabeth feel further adrift.
Suddenly it’s pub day! Morton’s book, Diana: Her True Story, is out and flying off bookshelves worldwide. The episode ends with Morton giving various interviews about the record-breaking biography. He keeps his promises: He claims that he only spoke to those who know Diana. (“I can say categorically that I did not interview the princess,” Morton tells a reporter, which is technically true.) When asked if he feels guilty about where this book puts the Windsors, Morton talks about the royal family being in a crisis of their own doing, one that seems bound to escalate to war. This is the second time this season that we’re ending on an ominous note. Rally the troops.
• The Prince Philip interview at the top serves to introduce how he fell into carriage-driving, but it also seems like a convenient way to quickly and mildly acknowledge his occasional but documented tactlessness when dealing with people from different backgrounds.
• I love how, when Diana agrees that Morton should speak to some of her friends (so the provision of such intimate details seems less suspicious), she suggests her aromatherapist, astrologer, acupuncturist, and bodyworker. Diana was a wellness queen. Goop would be quivering.
• On a similar note, this might be a stretch, but this episode seemed to denunciate New Agey thinking. Prince Philip impassionedly brings up how the theory that cancer stems from long-repressed emotion is ridiculous when children can die of it. And when Diana is listing off her friends for Morton to interview, there’s a twinge of mocking judgment in James’s reaction. (Is this subtly eroding the idolization of Diana?)
• McElhone is so delicately affecting here as Penny. Plus she might be the most beautiful crier in the world. Another great casting choice. Give her and her cheekbones a raise.
• Diana rocks two of her iconic sweatshirts in this episode: one from Harvard and another courtesy of the British Lung Foundation, of which she was patron.