Drama-loving viewers at home joked that the Sunday night special CBS Presents Oprah With Meghan and Harry was their—OK, our—version of the Super Bowl. But maybe we weren’t so far off: It was certainly a night that ended with winners and losers. It’s just that instead of fighting over a ball, this interview was Meghan, Harry, and the British royal family fighting a public relations battle. Who had the absolute worst—dare we say unsurvivable—night on Sunday? Here’s my ranking, in ascending order of disaster.
Not Disasters at All (“Winners”)
Last place goes to the best: Talk of Meghan having single-handedly toppled the British monarchy is a bit premature, but there’s no question that the duchess was the night’s heroine. She came into the special with some sad and frankly damning things to say about her experience as a royal, but she was careful in her approach: She declined to name names, or when she did, such as in telling a story that involved Kate, the duchess of Cambridge, she tried to do so with the utmost generosity and empathy. As a result, Meghan came off as someone who wasn’t bitter but who actually wanted the institution she was part of, and maybe the world, to be better. There are no guarantees that she’ll find success in her post-royal life as a foundation head–slash–content creator, but Meghan showed the world that she is a force to be reckoned with.
It’s been 10 years since Oprah ended her daily talk show, so even though she remains a famous and beloved figure, it’s been a while since she’s done this sort of old-fashioned, high-profile special. On Sunday, she reminded everyone that interviews like this are what she built her entire career on. Meghan and Harry may have been ready to spill, but it was undeniably exciting to see Oprah in her element again.
It turns out that a lot of people wanted to hear what Meghan and Harry had to say—17.1 million of them, in fact, and those are just the ones that watched it live in the U.S. At a time when streaming services reign supreme, it was a big, throwback win for one of the old broadcast networks—even if it was a win that network paid handily for, spending $7 million to license it, according to the New York Times.
17. Princess Diana
Harry’s mother’s presence lingered beatifically throughout the special: It was Harry’s inheritance from her that enabled him to start a new life for his family outside the U.K., and when Meghan’s mental health was suffering, she found comfort by seeking out one of Diana’s old friends. She may be gone, but all these years later, Diana can still easily outshine Charles and the rest.
The special gave us a glimpse of Meghan and Harry’s son’s new life in America, and the little lad looks to have got it made: bicycle rides with his dad, a little house in his parents’ chicken coop called “Archie’s Chick Inn,” a rapidly growing vocabulary. Footage of the sweet nearly 2-year-old playing with his parents only underscored the cruelty and racism with which the royal family greeted his arrival. Archie, America is rooting for you, and one day your cousins are going to be so jealous of you.
Less Obvious Winners
When Meghan knew that she needed treatment for her deteriorating mental state and had already been rebuffed once by the palace, she brainstormed a bit. “In my old job, there was a union, and they would protect me,” she told Oprah, likely referring to the Screen Actors Guild. It was a clear pro-labor message: Unions protect people. Meghan didn’t say as much, but it did get more than a few people thinking: Maybe the monarchy needs to unionize? Solidarity, Meghan.
14. Tyler Perry
When Harry and Meghan were looking to leave Vancouver after a tabloid exposed their location but before the coronavirus lockdown began, they didn’t know where to go, until their close friend Tyler Perry offered up one of his homes. Perry also threw in a security detail for the couple. Who knew Madea had such resources, or friends? In case you’re wondering right about now what Perry’s estimated net worth is, the answer is: $1 billion. Which is a lot more than Harry and Meghan’s was after the royal family cut them off.
13. Whoever’s Backyard That Was
At the beginning of the special, Oprah announced that they weren’t doing the interview at her house or at Meghan’s house but at the house of a “friend” who had “a very nice pergola.” (What is a pergola, you ask? It’s a “shade structure” that you can put over a deck or some such. Like these, though the one they’re under is probably not from Home Depot.) Don’t you think that unnamed friend and pergola owner is going to dine out on the famous Meghan interview taking place in their backyard for the rest of time? Unless the friend is, like, Jack Nicholson. But his grandchildren will think it’s cool.
12. The Crown
Oprah invoked The Crown when asking Meghan and Harry about their Australian tour: Was it like the Season 4 episode in which Princess Diana, also on an Australian tour, so bewitched the public that she started to make her husband and the other royals jealous? Harry and Meghan would only concede that they’d seen “some” of the show, but the situation they went onto describe sounded quite a bit like that episode indeed. Not an endorsement of the show, but not not an endorsement.
11. The Mental Health Series Oprah and Harry Are Working on for Apple
When Meghan was recounting some of her worst moments as a royal to Oprah, Oprah affirmed how important her story was … by sharing that she and Harry are making a mental health series for Apple. It was a bit of a shameless plug, but, well, now we all know Oprah and Harry are making a mental health series for Apple, don’t we?
There are quite a few moments in the special where Harry shines: Meghan says their love story is a fairy tale and that he saved their family. He seems like a devoted father. But Harry also sputtered a fair bit more than his extremely eloquent wife and seemed at times very unaware of, despite its downsides, the many privileges he enjoyed growing up in the royal family. And where Meghan seemed tactful, his choice not to identify specific people who mistreated them could read as cowardly.
The artist formerly known as CBS All Access was one of the easiest ways to watch the interview live if you don’t have traditional cable, great news for a streaming service that just relaunched and needs subscribers. But the show wasn’t available to stream after the fact on the app, for convoluted rights-related reasons, which seems like exactly the opposite way you want to launch a streaming service.
8. The Queen
Meghan was extremely careful not to say anything bad about Queen Elizabeth, Harry’s grandmother. The institution of the monarchy was horrible to her, but the queen was lovely, she insisted, always avoiding the uncomfortable fact that the queen is … in charge of the institution.
7. Prince Philip
Meghan also really tried not to say anything bad about Philip. On Monday, the day after the interview, Oprah clarified that the member of the royal family who had “concerns” over Harry and her baby’s skin color was neither the queen nor Philip—a clarification that really gets Philip off the hook, being that he is the royal family member who is probably best known for having said racist things in the past.
The Actual Disasters
6. Human Resources
At one point, as a last resort, Meghan said she went to palace human resources to see if there was any way they could help her get the mental health treatment she needed. She remembered being told, “My heart goes out to you, because I see how bad it is, but there’s nothing we can do to protect you, because you’re not a paid employee of the institution.” On the one hand, that’s pretty awful, but on the other, the institution and her family members really should not have put Meghan in a position where she was so desperate that she was asking the randos at the human resources department for help. Even so, not a shining night for HR.
5. Duchess Kate
The duchess of Cambridge doesn’t come off horribly in the interview, but the fact that she made Meghan cry over flower-girl dresses—and then didn’t correct the record when the press reported the opposite—is not great. Meghan provided copious caveats—Kate apologized; Meghan doesn’t blame her; there is no need for the two of them to be pitted against each other, etc.—but still. Not great.
4. Prince William
Harry’s brother’s name came up very infrequently during the interview, an absence that at times felt pointed. Being that there were people who mistreated them that Harry and Meghan refused to name, it certainly raises the possibility that William was among them. Of course, Harry and Meghan very much did not stay that. Whatever the case, there is clearly some tension between the brothers: Harry stayed extremely tight-lipped when he finally did discuss his brother, simply saying, “The relationship is space, at the moment. And, you know, time heals all things, hopefully.”
3. The British Tabloids
Quite simply, they tormented Meghan with their constant racism and criticism—a disaster they’re continuing to handle disastrously. However, according to Meghan, the palace could have seriously reduced the abuse and chose not to. So not quite the worst.
2. Prince Charles
He stopped taking his own son’s phone calls! And as with Prince William, well, it remains an open possibility that he was one of the unnamed family members who behaved more egregiously toward the couple. Harry’s words for him certainly seemed far more embittered than for anyone else.
1. The Institution
Who or what is the institution? It’s creepily unclear. “So, the institution is never a person. Or is it a series of people?” Oprah asked Meghan at one point. “No, it’s a person,” Meghan responded, before saying a second later, “It’s several people.” Well, which is it? It’s all very chilling.
It’s convenient for the couple to blame “the firm”—it’s so much better to blame a shadowy institution than to implicate specific members of your family. But it also seems, on some level, true. Ultimately, aides and officials at the palace could have helped Meghan, protected her, onboarded her better, whatever. They were the ones who took away her passport. They were the ones who told her not to go outside. And maybe, she and Harry strongly implied, they aren’t the only royals who are afraid of the institution.
However, one very important thing about this institution, the monarchy, is that it’s taxpayer-funded. So there’s always the risk that one of these days, subjects are going to get tired of one institutional failure after another.