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Keeping up with the Sussexes

Harry and Meghan’s Netflix show is a very modern blend of documentary, reality television, soap opera—and brain worms
January 25, 2023

“How did we end up here?” Prince Harry asks in the first episode of his Netflix television series, Harry & Meghan. It’s a fair question, and one that I asked myself throughout the six hour-long episodes—and in the weeks that have passed since I first watched them. Why does this show exist? Who is it for? Why are there six whole hours of it? What more needs to be said about their story—from dizzy new romance to lavish wedding to departure from the royal family—that hasn’t already been covered in the infamous Oprah interview, Harry’s new memoir and a variety of other media sources?

Meghan and Harry’s justification for making this series, which includes “candid” home videos from their private life, is that they are people who have had their story told for them. Now they are here to tell us their version of events. Again.

It’s an interesting format. Testimony from the couple is intercut with newspaper headlines and discussions with experts on royal affairs, but also interviews with close friends of the couple about memories of their time together, funny stories about their early courtship, that sort of thing. It is somewhere between an almost Kardashianesque reality series and an objective documentary: a cushy and curated slice of their day-to-day lives but also a no-holds-barred speaking of truth to power. “No one knows the full truth: we know the full truth, the institution knows the full truth and the media knows the full truth, because they’ve been in on it,” Harry tells us in an early episode. 

Unsurprisingly, Harry and Meghan come out of this show very well. They have clearly had a good deal of creative control. Right at the top, a title card defensively asserts that all interviews were complete by August 2022: before the Queen died, that is, which would have certainly affected the things they say about the royal family. We see Harry volunteering as a young man in Lesotho, and hear gushing praise from those who met him at that time. Meghan is painted as a bright, bubbly young girl who campaigned against sexism in adverts from a young age; an activist in the making.

It would surely be impossible for this show not to include a mention of young Harry’s biggest scandal, dressing up as a Nazi for a party, but even this is presented through the lens of him having successfully learned an important lesson.

Perhaps inevitably, it is also a bit cringe in that particular, earnest, Californian way. Meghan calls her husband “H” throughout, and at one point a friend of hers recounts that, during the worst times in Harry and Meghan’s relationship with his family, she and the duchess would sign off every text to one another with the phrase, “love wins”.

It’s not the first time that members of the royal family have allowed a documentary crew into their lives. In 1968, the BBC was permitted to follow the royals around for more than a year to make a programme about their everyday lives: attending shooting parties, hanging around at the palaces, fulfilling royal duties. The documentary they then released was said to be so unpopular with the Queen that copyright is strictly enforced by Buckingham Palace bureaucrats, and physical copies are reported to be out of bounds to the public. The reason for this, supposedly, is that she felt it revealed too much about the family, and that their control over the narrative of their lives was being threatened by the documentary’s existence. 

Even in this series, there is a sense that Harry and Meghan are giving away things that they perhaps didn’t mean to. There are questionable gaps in the story—plainly a huge rift opened up between Harry and William, but very little detail is given here, at least, about why or how. The show seems to want to do a number of different things at once. It aims to tell the audience who the couple are as people, and act as a blow-by-blow account of the ways the media misrepresented their actions over the years. At the same time, it wants to give a broad overview of various contexts in which we need to understand their relationship: that of systemic racism, the colonial history of the British royal family and how the media works in this country. The media angle is where it’s most interesting: the show does a good job of explaining how a complex network of tit-for-tat arrangements between various royal press offices and the newspapers influences what we see on the front pages.

But the series also demonstrates a certain naivety on the part of the couple, and the frustrating limits of their anti-royal sentiment. For all their objection to the institution of the royal family, and there is plenty of it—their anger and disbelief at the treatment their mixed-race son has received and the lack of protection they were given from tabloid journalists is evident—there is a voice in your head, as a viewer, that reminds you that Meghan wanted to be a part of all of this, initially. The couple were happy to be in the royal family as long as they were allowed to represent the institution on their terms. At one point, Harry talks about only recently learning what unconscious bias is, and Meghan claims she had no idea about the potential for racism that she might experience from the royals, figureheads of a long and brutal colonial history.

For all their objection to the institution of the royal family, there is a voice in your head, as a viewer, that reminds you they wanted to be a part of all of this, initially

This is not the only reason the show feels uncomfortable to watch. Harry, in particular, seems to be someone who is only beginning to process a lifetime of trauma sustained from living in the same gilded cage that ultimately killed his mother. He seems very bitter about the way his brother and his father have, apparently, failed to support him.

Can we call this programme exploitative, though? Of whom? And who’s doing the exploiting? These are grown adults who have undertaken to reveal their deepest thoughts and feelings voluntarily—albeit as a response to having their private lives invaded by the media in the first place. But that doesn’t mean that we have to like it. 

People will want to watch this show for the same reason they want to watch anything about the royals: for the gossip. For all the educational content about Windrush and British tabloid culture, the draw here is yet more rubbernecking at the country’s premier soap opera. The fundamental disconnect is that their one plea, made repeatedly, is for a quiet, private life, and yet making a show like this (and appearing on Oprah, and releasing a memoir) buys into the same circus that they hated so much in the first place.

It’s a show that makes camp in the rocky territory between the celebrity desire for privacy and the celebrity necessity for public divulgence. It is a document of the particularly virulent species of brain worm that comes with being famous for a long time. There is still the expectation of attention here, and perhaps Harry has just been trapped in the snow globe for so long that he is overexcited now that he gets to shake it himself.