Netflix’s ‘Harry & Meghan’ Rehashes the Royal-Family Drama, One More Time: TV Review

Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan Markle, have shocked the world multiple times over — first, with their 2020 exit from the United Kingdom and their lives as working royals, and then, in 2021, with their interview with Oprah Winfrey. In its moment, that interview was a triumph of narrative control. But with today’s release of the first three episodes of their Netflix documentary series, “Harry & Meghan,” the Sussexes surprise us yet again, with just how narrow their vision of their fame is, how pinched and unimaginative their presence on the world stage has become. They may have shed their responsibilities to the crown, but they’re still in a kind of service: There’s an air of duty about the entire enterprise of “Harry & Meghan,” as if they’re honor-bound to keep reciting their personal story until we eventually lose interest.

Little in the first three episodes, directed by Liz Garbus, comes as news: We receive, once again, the story of their courtship, Harry’s proposal, Meghan’s initial adjustment to life as a royal, her sense of being trapped by the family’s general refusal to engage critics. We get the betrayal of her father, as well as her strong relationship with the daughter of unbeloved half-sister Samantha Markle. This latter element is new, and cannily deployed to defuse criticism from the Markle family, but so much else has been said before. And it was said in a situation where a sharp interviewer coaxed the pair perhaps farther than they intended to go. At the top of the series, Meghan asks the camera, “Doesn’t it make more sense to hear our story from us?” The unstated answer comes to be, Well, sure, but maybe filtered through the sensibility of a journalist or presenter willing to push past the familiar. As with the most recent, painfully dull season of “The Crown,” there seems a sort of narrative stuckness, an inability or lack of desire to find the next thing to say that we haven’t yet heard.

With Oprah, Harry’s and Meghan’s clear disdain for unnamed royal family members provided both heat and a sense of their thinking. Perhaps time has healed wounds; perhaps they’re saving their big reveals for the next batch of episodes, due out December 15. But the appearance is that Harry and Meghan have gone from one set of strict press controls to another, the second self-imposed. We get a clear sense of the tight restraint with which both operate, inviting viewers into their lives but giving up relatively little. At one point, early on, Meghan mentions a “list” Harry had made of the traits of his ideal partner. A peremptory coldness enters his voice as he says “Let’s not go there,” and the subject is dropped. Much has been made of how Harry, in his desire for freedom and his high passions, is truly Diana’s son; it’s moments like these that remind one that he’s Charles’, too.

Part of this sense of remove, even as cameras document parts of the subjects’ lives, is likely self-protection. Press interest in them remains rapacious, and Garbus includes a car ride in which Meghan, her mind ticking methodically, tracks the paparazzi who’ve been following them throughout. And there’s the matter that, no matter what the pair think of Charles, or William, or whomever, they are forced to be family for life: A carefully worded note, or disclaimer, at the series’ opening advises us that “All interviews were completed by August 2022”: In other words, before the September death of Queen Elizabeth II. Historians appear, deep into the third episode, to describe the deep scars left by the so-called Commonwealth — not coincidentally, the passion project of the Queen’s life. But those concerns are not put in Harry and Meghan’s own voices, leaving the very well-taken and worthwhile political statements feeling passive-aggressive and out-of-place. The title of the series is “Harry & Meghan”: Doesn’t it make more sense to hear this story from them?

Harry and Meghan are people who strive to do good: Harry’s work with veterans, for instance, is admirable, and we see it onscreen as the one time he’s truly at ease. Which makes their restaging tabloid fights that seemed to have ended in a bloody draw seem like a distraction, or a painful necessity. There’s a clinical quality to Harry and Meghan’s approach, a grudging sense of going through the motions. One suspects that their ambition for their partnership with Netflix was not, solely, a reiteration of their life story (indeed, Meghan’s planned children’s series for the streamer, “Pearl,” was among several children’s projects that were cancelled). Theirs is a public romance with big, rootable beats — the triumph of love over racism; the emergence of a progressive figure whom the hidebound monarchy could never hope to understand; the reiteration of the Diana narrative, with its ending, this time, in a Montecito idyll rather than a Paris tunnel. But it’s also comprised of beats we’ve heard, with little interest in looking forward rather than back, or at the world outside rather than the world of Haz and Meg.

It’s challenging to arrive at this conclusion: Part of the frustrating dynamic, with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, is that their most ardent critics are acting in cruel bad faith. These are not people it is easy to criticize, for fear of ending up among those who hate them because of an ineffable lack of “dignity,” or because of the color of Meghan’s skin. And yet “Harry & Meghan” exists as a data point in what about the pair is so particularly frustrating. As charity campaigners for legitimately good causes, they stand primarily for what I have come to think of as Issues Awareness: Speaking in comforting and appropriate tones about a sense of the world so vague it comes to blur together. The only time specificity enters the picture is when speaking about personal matters.

That represents a challenge for two figures whose continued maintenance of an expensive lifestyle will necessitate holding our interest for decades to come. As part of their Netflix deal, Harry and Meghan have been seemingly forced into restaging the story of their courtship, wedding, and family feuds past the point that they, or anyone but diehard fans or haters, can still care. What they want to do now that they’ve overcome adversity may well lie ahead in the next batch of episodes, but speaking in their own voice about issues other than their personal experience would have represented a good start. But perhaps that’s not the remit, on a show for which the pair are engaged with a major streaming corporation to dish the dirt once more. Pity them, too — even after breaking free of Buckingham Palace, they’re still someone’s subjects.

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