Who was the real Princess Diana, according to The Crown? Season 4 of the series portrays the Princess of Wales as a powerful life force, a naive youth, and a natural mother—but most fundamentally, as a victim of the cold, unloving royal family. Here’s our Take on how The Crown paints Diana: as the casualty of a ruthless institution that has repeatedly failed to respect human beings’ most basic need—to be loved.
Who was the real Princess Diana, according to The Crown? Season four of the series portrays the Princess of Wales as a powerful life force, a naive youth, and a natural mother, but most fundamentally, as a victim of the cold, unloving royal family.
For the first time ever, this season’s finale doesn’t end on a shot of the Queen, but on a close-up of Diana. By subtly re-centering its story’s orbit around Diana, the image signals that this charismatic superstar will start to displace the Queen at the heart of the myth of the royal family in the public’s mind. And indeed, in reality, this woman would forever alter our modern conception of royalty.
All this apparently hit a nerve. UK Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden led a bid to convince Netflix to add a disclaimer reminding viewers that this show is fiction, which suggests that the royal family and its supporters still fear judgment for their treatment of Diana decades ago.
The Queen Mother: “Diana is an immature little girl, who, in time, will give up her struggles, give up her fight, and bend.” - The Crown, 4x6
Here’s our Take on how The Crown paints Diana: as the casualty of a ruthless institution that has repeatedly failed to respect human beings’ most basic need— to be loved.
Diana: The Victim
Our earliest sightings of Diana suggest something elusive about her, escaping our comprehension. Just as an aura of mystery surrounds this icon and what really happened in her death, the character is literally hiding from our view.
Diana: “I’m not here. I was given strict instructions to remain out of sight.” - The Crown, 4x1
Dressed as a kind of woodland sprite from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the shy, playful sixteen-year-old Diana appears to us like a mischievous, naive nymph— an otherworldly creature. The choice of play is symbolic too. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is set in a forest full of fairies, where everyday reality becomes suspended and anything can happen. It’s a place where different kinds of people can meet— like Diana and Charles. In real life, Diana and Charles met in a decidedly less ethereal setting: a plowed field where a shooting party was taking place. So, with these creative liberties, The Crown is making an editorial choice to highlight both the supernatural mystery Diana has taken on in our minds since her death and the natural, gentle innocence she possessed as a youth with no idea what she was getting herself into.
This innocence is the essence of Diana’s appeal to Charles. When he’s emotionally reeling from the sudden death of his father figure, Lord Mountbatten, her condolences feel human and genuinely sincere. To the family, she also seems like a fresh start; this virginal young woman is a contrast to the sexually experienced wife and mother, Camilla, from whom his family keeps pushing him to break away.
Princess Anne: “It’s time to finally close this chapter. To put the whole Parker-Bowles soap opera behind us.”- The Crown, 4x2
When Diana passes the Balmoral test with flying colors, she thinks she’s won. But the family’s evaluation of the potential bride is intertwined with its hunting a wounded stag— which hints that she’ll be the eventual prey of this family of hunters. Just before the title sequence, the episode implicitly compares her to the animal by cutting from the scene of Diana leaving Charles with a mysterious look back to him to a shot of the stag in the forest. Like Diana, the stag is majestic and natural— a beautiful, somewhat wild, living creature the royals want to destroy and hang up on their wall as a prize. Ironically, it’s Diana who glimpses the wounded beast and helps Philip figure out where the wind is coming from so he can take down the stag. So it’s as if she’s symbolically offering herself up for slaughter.
When Prince Philip instructs Charles to marry Diana, he’s standing beside the very same dead stag, though Charles views himself as the victim deer in the scenario. And at the end of the episode, when the family mounts the stag on the wall as a trophy of their conquest, it’s a sinister image of what eventually awaits Diana: a tragic death.
Prince Philip: “Let’s just say, I can’t see it ending well for you.” - The Crown, 4x10
Smitten by a girlish fantasy of marrying a handsome prince, Diana believes this to be the beginning of everything. But the show paints the engagement as the end of what Diana herself later reflected turned out to be “the happiest time of her life,” with her young, carefree friends in London. Charles’ proposal to Diana is a business transaction he forces himself to go through with.
Prince Charles: “It’s done. I did it.” - The Crown, 4x3
And after the family has solved their problem of securing a suitable bride for Charles, they seem to view the business as over with. Like the stag hung on their wall, the princess is expected essentially to be quiet and stop bothering them— not to be a living being who needs continued attention. When Charles abandons her in the palace, her loneliness in the enormous, empty spaces establishes that she’s essentially entering into an abusive relationship with this cold family.
Princess Margaret: “She’s struggling to cope, apparently. Wretched in the marriage.” - The Crown, 4x6
And of course, Diana is also the victim of being hoodwinked into marrying a man who’s hopelessly in love with another woman. As the show points out, the sense that Diana has been victimized in love is a key part of her fairy-tale narrative.
Still, if we look closely, we can see that the seemingly powerless Diana has actually exercised a lot of influence throughout the season. She orchestrated her first ‘chance’ encounter with Charles, showing that this innocent nymph may not be as naive as she seems to be. She looks at Charles longingly through a window twice, as if plotting how she might ensnare his heart. Her winning over the entire royal family in a weekend is something almost no one can do. And as she begins to win the affections of the entire world, we see an incredibly shrewd and savvy person within Diana. So, even as the show presents Diana as a victim, it also shows that she has a burgeoning will of her own, and she won’t go down without a fight.
Diana: A Mother for the World
Following the birth of her first son, William, Diana begins to evolve into a more recognizable figure: the beautiful young mother who stole everyone’s hearts with her public expressions of genuine emotion. Diana’s motherly attachment to her child may not sound that unusual on the surface, but the season emphasizes that this is a radical departure from the royal status quo.
Queen Elizabeth: “I’d heard she’d been hysterical. Clinging to that baby like a life raft.”
Princess Anne: “Evidently, that clinging is what the Australians responded to. What a natural mother she is.” - The Crown, 4x6
The writing contrasts Diana’s warmth as a mother to the Queen’s notable distance from and coldness to her children. The Queen is so detached from her own children that all four are unnerved when she requests to have individual lunches with them. And she has little knowledge of even their basic interests. It’s her motherly qualities that lead Diana to become wildly popular with the public. Her warm sincerity, her open realness, and most of all her emotional vulnerability— all the things that make her precisely what the stiff-upper-lip royal family is not.
In The Diana Chronicles, Tina Brown writes that the princess’s public conversations about postpartum depression helped other mothers feel comfortable talking about their experiences. Later, in Andrew Morton’s biography, Diana would become radically open about her struggles with bulimia and self-harm.
Prince Charles: “I can see how unhappy you are. How thin you’ve become.”
Princess Diana: “Trust me, you don’t know the half of it.” - The Crown, 4x6
And she would speak bluntly about her marital troubles in public interviews.
Diana Spencer: “Well there were three of us in this marriage. So it was a bit crowded.” - BBC1 Interview with Martin Bashir (November 1995)
While the Queen embodies a higher level for the public to aspire to, mother Diana is on everyone’s level— the “people’s princess”. For the first time, the public finds a relatable figure in the royal family. On a trip to New York, she hugs children with AIDS, despite the public stigma in the ‘80s. This vulnerability disgusts the royal family, in part because they subconsciously realize that Diana has a power over the public that they don’t.
The Crown shows even the Queen wondering whether Diana might be the future of the monarchy, even if she’s not willing to fully accept it just yet.
Diana: A Need for Love
On the surface, Diana and Charles are two extraordinarily different people, mismatched in age, personality, and interests, but they’re actually alike in the most important way: both desperately crave love.
Prince Charles: “We both need the same as each other. To be appreciated.”
Princess Diana: “To be loved.” - The Crown, 4x6
Arguably, what most attracts Charles to Diana initially is her school-girlish adoration of him. Charles has never received nurturing acceptance from his mother, while his father’s tough, paternalistic attitudes clash with Charles’s more sensitive nature. Diana, in turn, was bereft of love after her parents’ divorce, and especially lacked affection from her mother, who, according to Diana’s brother, “wasn’t cut out for maternity.” After at last speaking honestly about this during their tour in Australia, they seem briefly drawn together by understanding their mutual need for love and validation.
Princess Diana: “Any time either of us feels we’re not getting what we need, we simply need to give that very thing to the other.” - The Crown, 4x6
But The Crown also paints this commonality as what dooms their marriage to fail. Diana hopes to share her love of performing with Charles, first in public and then, to correct her mistake, via a private tape. But Charles doesn’t want to offer Diana an audience at all. He envies the love Diana receives from the public and can’t forgive her for outshining him. He wants someone like Camilla to build him up. Charles, meanwhile, fails to take responsibility for his ongoing affair with Camilla, forcing Diana to look elsewhere for affection. And turn even more to the public for the love she lacks at home.
Charles feels justified in his behavior because he’s been forced into a marriage he never wanted, but we watch him unfairly take his anger out on Diana, instead of the actual cause of his unhappiness— the Crown.
Prince Charles: “I refuse to be blamed any longer for this grotesque misalliance! I wash my hands of it!” - The Crown, 4x10
Throughout this series, we see how various members of the royal family strive for love within the cold walls of palace life. And strikingly, the romantics in the family don’t fare well. Some, like Edward VIII, choose love but pay a high price. Others, like Princess Margaret, sacrifice love to remain in the family’s graces. In the heartbreaking scene the night before Charles and Diana’s wedding, when the Queen pushes a crying Charles to go through with it, she knowingly repeats the unhappy history she imposed on her sister. The Queen’s refusal to acknowledge the importance of love for her family members is especially curious given that she herself did marry for love.
Princess Margaret: “No one wanted Philip. She dug her heels in, got the man she wanted.” - The Crown, 1x6
Yet because she has in every other way put duty first in her life, she seems to assume that this will be enough for her family members. When both Diana and Charles seek out the Queen to acknowledge their emotional suffering, she tries her best to avoid them and then scolds them for being so selfish as to want to speak about their feelings or to even expect a loving marriage, when they have everything else. The show often features a divide between the steady duty-bound royals and the love-hungry individualists in the family.
Prince Philip: “Alongside that dull, dutiful, reliable, heroic strain runs another. The dazzling, the brilliant, the individualistic, and… the dangerous.” - The Crown, 3x2
Diana obviously belongs to the latter strand. But the family fails to recognize that, compared to the others before her, Diana is even more sensitive, even more individualistic, even more defined by her need for love. And unlike others before her, she won’t do what’s expected of her and fall in line. Philip explains that everyone in the royal family is an outsider except for the queen.
Prince Philip: “Everyone in this system is a lost, lonely irrelevant outsider” - The Crown, 4x10
And, like Charles, he tries to frame her need for love and attention as a form of narcissism.
Prince Philip: “Apart from the one person, the only person that matters. You seem to be confused about who that person is.” - The Crown, 4x10
As we conclude the season on Diana’s face, she’s realized she’ll never fit in the royal family portrait, literally and figuratively, and that its other members have no intention to change anything about this situation. But her expression signals she won’t just accept how this game is played. Ending on Diana contradicts Philip’s statements moments earlier that the whole production of the British royalty is always only about the Queen. And it signals that the royal family as it exists in our minds and hearts will be forever changed, defined by this new icon in the modern era arguably even more so than the Queen.
As Sarene Leeds writes for Vulture, “Diana is the face of the royal family now, and she’s trapped inside its gilded cage. Yes, she will break free, but Diana’s freedom— and the freedom of those who came afterward— will come at an excruciatingly high price.”
The Crown asks us to look beyond the media-crafted narratives of Diana as an icon, and examine the very real human tormented by the monarchy’s rigid values and lack of love. We can draw obvious comparisons between The Crown’s treatment of Diana and its more recent attitude toward the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, another beautiful outsider who’s rekindled the public’s interest in the monarchy, while also disrupting it
Meghan Markle: “Thank you for asking because not many people have asked if I’m okay.” - ITV News (October 2019)
The Crown makes it clear the royal family has long repeated its habit of alienating any member who dares to be an individual or express human need. But the show also reminds us that, despite being a victim, Diana has a will of her own, and the royal family isn’t prepared for how Diana will rock their world as she finally breaks free.
Interviewer: “You’re not what we expect from royalty.”
Princess Diana: “Well that’s because I don’t think of myself as royalty.”- The Crown, 4x6
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