Opinion: In its final season, ‘The Crown’ has lost itself

Editor’s Note: Holly Thomas is a writer and editor based in London. She is morning editor at Katie Couric Media. She tweets @HolstaT. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.

The most anticipated season of “The Crown” has arrived, and no one’s losing much sleep over the Queen this time.

Holly Thomas - Holly Thomas
Holly Thomas - Holly Thomas

The undisputed star of season six — or at least, of the first four episodes released this week — is the late Princess Diana, played by Elizabeth Debicki. This installment, which covers the weeks leading up to Diana’s death in 1997, sees the stiff fabric of the show unravel as everyone is dragged irresistibly into her orbit.

The episodes melt into each other, the constitutional “monster of the week” formula abandoned as they all build to one incessantly foreshadowed climax. The show’s break with its compartmentalized traditions is a laden metaphor for history, but it’s fitting that the season many critics have dubbed its undoing also tackles the biggest disaster faced by the institution so far.

One of the many things that captivated viewers when “The Crown” arrived in 2016 was its cinematic scale. The first season’s extraordinary budget was reflected in episodes that were almost mini-movies. Episode four (“Act of God”), which depicted the catastrophic London smog of 1952, had a singular aesthetic and character, as did episode eight (“Pride and Joy”), which saw the Queen and Prince Phillip embark on a grueling round-the-world trip against the backdrop of Elizabeth’s rivalry with her sister Margaret.

The lines between episodes one and three of season six, by contrast, are impossible to draw. Their themes are all the same: Diana, as ever, outshining her former in-laws; Prince Charles’ jealousy as he seeks public approval for Camilla Parker-Bowles; the senior royals’ resisting modernization and Mohamed Al-Fayed’s attempts to fashion his son Dodi as the new Mr. Spencer. Images of Diana cavorting on Al-Fayed’s yacht in a swimsuit and the paparazzi hurtling after her could be placed almost anywhere on the storyboard. It’s deliberate chaos, perhaps, but chaos nonetheless.

The show’s fondness for metaphor, always exorbitant, has finally exploded. Remember the excruciating second episode of season four, when the royals put the young Princess Diana and Margaret Thatcher through their paces at Balmoral Castle? Diana’s portion saw her stalk and eventually kill a stag alongside Prince Philip as an allegory for her eventual fate with Charles. Season six so far is like that, but several hours long.

The celebrity paparazzo hired by Al-Fayed to leak the news of his son and Diana’s new romance is a jarring foil to the devoted Scotsman who nibbles on digestive biscuits while waiting to take his heavily staged photographs of the royal family. Diana is preemptively angelic, counseling a “lost” Dodi to stand up to his overbearing father and unable to slow the bullet train of her whirlwind charity commitments. The anticipation of her last phone call with her sons is so overwrought that it eclipses the heartbreaking point: that the real-life conversation, as both William and Harry have since recalled, was fleeting and perfunctory. And given how impossible it’d be to portray this period of history in a way that would satisfy everyone, season six pulls a surprising number of punches.

Its inclusion of ghostly, posthumous visions of Diana and Dodi has drawn a lot of critical fire, but it’s arguably gentler on the royals’ reaction to Diana’s death than it could have been. There’s a scant scene or two spent on the Queen’s refusal to make a public show of grief before she capitulates to public pressure. But if people are going to be mad anyway, why not double down?

The show’s creator, Peter Morgan, might argue that he’s trod that ground before, in his 2006 movie “The Queen.” However, considering how often the show has provoked controversy with its depictions of lesser-known or imagined royal missteps (Prince Charles lobbying for his mother’s abdication in season five comes to mind), it seems odd to spend so little airtime on an event that’s widely agreed to have been a PR disaster.

Instead, the sacrificial stag of season six (part one) is Mohamed Al-Fayed, played by Salim Dau. As “The Crown” tells it, Al-Fayed’s relentless campaign to see his son Dodi and Diana engaged and thus secure British citizenship is almost as culpable for their deaths as the crash itself. Diana’s final night in Paris is rendered as the fatal culmination of Al-Fayed’s engineering of their relationship, and his pressure on Dodi to propose.

In real life, Al-Fayed, who died earlier this year, denied any involvement in their relationship, and his former spokesman has repeated that denial since the show aired. TV dramas are not obligated to offer a mirror image of history, and artistic license isn’t just allowable: it’s often necessary. But when the true story is already so well-documented, adding an apparently fictionalized proposal narrative feels like throwing a match on an inferno. In one sense at least, “The Crown”’s handling of Diana’s death feels true to life: It was utterly unable to cope.

For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at CNN.com