Television

Netflix’s Big Harry and Meghan Doc Tries Two Things, and Succeeds at Neither

The much-anticipated new series can’t pick a lane.

A man and woman both in sunglasses with their dog taking a selfie.
Courtesy of Prince Harry and Meghan, The Duke and Duchess of Sussex/Netflix.

The first half of the Netflix docuseries Harry & Meghan—the debut product of the multi-year, multimillion-dollar deal between the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s production company Archewell Productions and Netflix—is a bit of a mess. Because this series is marketed as a long-awaited tell-all from the couple’s POV, fans of Harry and Meghan will tune in to see what revelations it bestows upon us. (Haters, who’ve already started calling out the docuseries based on its trailers, will follow suit.) But following their bombshell interview with Oprah in 2021, it was unclear what more Harry and Meghan had to say. The Oprah special raised some big questions: What really caused the couple to step down from royal duties in January 2020 and move to Montecito, California? Who, specifically, should be to blame for failing to protect Meghan against the public vilification directed at the first mixed-race member of the royal family? We know the Sussexes’ outline of how these things happened. What’s missing now is names.

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So far, Harry & Meghan isn’t saying. As of yet—the final three episodes of this series drop next week, and the press wasn’t given advance screeners, so I’m just as oblivious to what’s in there as anyone—there’s little new juicy drama and few shocking reveals. The disclaimer that opens the episodes—“Members of the Royal Family declined to comment on the content within this series”—seemed to serve as a warning to ready your popcorn, but ends up being indicative of a whole lot of nothing. (So far.)

What the series does offer, instead, are some underdeveloped attempts at historical racial analysis. Racial analysis of what? Take your pick: the British media; Americans Meghan encountered in her childhood; Britain, as a whole, in the past; and an added bonus: Britain, as a whole, now. This is not necessarily unexpected—to properly rationalize Harry and Meghan’s exit from the circus of the royal family, you need to explain the British media’s treatment of Meghan, which, in turn, necessitates some analysis of the racist history of the British media. In order to look at that racist history you need to look at the way racism has played out in Britain at large. The docuseries attempts to meld the Sussexes’ sensationalized situation with history, knowing that the former is what audiences want, but the latter is the story they’d like to tell. Meghan and Harry tell us again and again that their experience as a dartboard of the British media is the end result of a history that extends far back, before Princess Diana (whose experiences in the public eye are often compared to Harry and Meghan’s), back to the Commonwealth’s deeply rooted history of colonialism.

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But the sociohistorical analysis, judged on its own merits, feels lacking. The docuseries (again, the first half, anyway!) can’t seem to definitively blame the monarchy for the very colonial and post-colonial histories that the series itself rightfully claims are so damaging. The doc explains that Queen Elizabeth II personally worked tirelessly to create the institution of “The Commonwealth,” which academic and author Kehinde Andrews argues on camera is the same thing as the British Empire but with “better PR,” citing the unchanging conditions of Black people within The Commonwealth as proof. But Harry & Meghan, at least so far, falls short of actually questioning the continued existence of the monarchy. In a year when the legitimacy of the monarchy has become, again, a live question, and since the Sussexes’ experiences are part of that public suspicion, the reticence around this question makes the docuseries feel less than topical.

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Instead, the series throws it all back to the Duke and Duchess of Sussex (as it must—that’s what we’re here for). I was entirely amused, waiting to see how Harry & Meghan would stitch together segments explaining how slavery funded the old British Empire and others on more recent incidents, like the murder of Stephen Lawrence, with the story of Harry and Meghan. The result is often awkward. Harry & Meghan argues that the engagement and subsequent marriage of Meghan Markle into the royal family would’ve been the catalyst for Britons to finally start having these necessary conversations about the empire’s unsavory past—had the media’s maltreatment, and “The Firm”’s failure to shield the couple from it, not pushed them out. “Could this really be a moment, in essence, in which the royal family caught up with the rest of Britain?” historian and author David Olusoga, interviewed as another talking head, remembered hoping. This is the same Britain, by the way, that Harry & Meghan, merely an episode earlier, explains was embroiled in a Brexit-fueled period of xenophobia and jingoism at the time of the couple’s engagement. This analysis is all over the place, essentially positing the prospect of a hypothetical successful initiation of Meghan into “The Firm” as some magical salve to heal the nation the docuseries has just explained is a total mess.

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When it comes to telling their personal stories, Harry & Meghan dangles a carrot of truth in front of us, rehashing episodes we’re familiar with, but leaving out the details we’re so desperate to know. The series starts off with their touching love story, but still doesn’t say who it was that set them up on their first date. It details Harry’s relationship with racism, including a sincere apology for his most egregious social misstep, then returns to his resentment of the media for his and his family’s (particularly his mother’s) torment. The only place Harry & Meghan remotely delivers is in divulging the behind-the-scenes scoop of how Meghan went from being a self-proclaimed “Daddy’s Girl” in her youth to having an utter falling-out with her father shortly before her wedding. The falling-out was reported in the tabloids at the time, but the details felt entirely speculative. It is heartbreaking hearing the truth, as Meghan tells it: that her father sold out, selling staged photos of himself to the tabloids without Meghan’s knowledge. He then refused to attend Meghan’s wedding, another thing she found out from the tabloids. And even when he suffered a heart attack around that time, he remained unreachable, despite her and Harry’s many attempts to check on him. Essentially, this first half of the docuseries tells us, Meghan was losing her father, while the tabloids were unjustly blaming her for it.

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Those revelations are the kinds of things I tuned in for. I wanted specific details of what really went down behind the scenes as the tabloids were publicly attacking Meghan. I wanted the truth, not about how the historically nasty media in a historically racist country continued to be nasty and racist, but about how this institution that many admire—“The Firm” or the crown or whatever you want to call it—contains some rather distasteful characters. I wanted names to pin to the alleged horrors mentioned in the Oprah interview—who, exactly, was it who was concerned about the skin color of Harry and Meghan’s future children? I wanted dirt on who helped and who hurt, and to know if William and Kate were as complicit and unhelpful as they seemed to be from the outside.

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Instead, the docuseries, in its first half, attempts to pull double duty, divulging tame personal stories and recounting the most upsetting parts of British history. Harry & Meghan may be juggling too much, but the real clown here is me for thinking I was going to get any new hot goss that would actually keep me well-entertained, and maybe enable me to say “I always knew he was a mean one.” Instead, I got a docuseries that, so far, can’t entirely decide what it wants to be. Pick a lane: history analysis or juicy tell-all! Half-baked is only good when I’m seeking out overpriced New York cookies.

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