Fame at last! Two minutes into Netflix’s Harry & Meghan documentary, the headline of an article I wrote in January 2020 flashed on the screen. “Harry and Meghan Won’t Play the Game,” it said. Observing the departure of the duke and duchess of Sussex from the Royal Family—and from Britain itself—the story declared that “no royal has ever taken on the press quite so directly, much though they might have wanted to.”
By that, I meant that Harry and Meghan had rejected the traditional bargain between the British royals and the media: The press follows you around, and you have to put up with it, because it’s part of the job. Now, three years later, we can see the new rules by which Harry and Meghan are playing. This six-part documentary is the tentpole of their reported $100 million multiyear production deal with Netflix. The director, Liz Garbus, is notionally independent, but the show makes frequent references to the couple telling “our story.” The interviewees in the first three episodes, which were released today, are mostly personal friends.
Above all, Harry & Meghan is a story about the media, and about the modern belief that everyone has their own truth, derived from their lived experience. Harry brings up the idea of consent, and that is what separates this documentary from the standard tabloid treatment of his mother and his wife. The couple are not averse to giving up their privacy—this documentary includes a blurry photograph of the moment Harry proposed, and video diaries of their departure from Britain—but they want to be in control of what they reveal. Being part of the Royal Family meant submitting to a media machine that was not run solely for their benefit. (In the trailer for this series, Harry complains that his family is a “hierarchy,” which suggests that the whole concept of a monarchy might have eluded him.)
Everything here is about rejecting the royal narrative of their lives and building a new American fairy tale. The couple’s softball engagement interview in 2017 on the BBC was an “orchestrated reality show,” Meghan says in the third episode—a complete contrast to the casual, authentic chat she is now having in full hair and makeup with a documentary filmmaker. “We were never allowed to tell our story,” she adds, as if her sit-down with Oprah Winfrey last year were a collective hallucination. Later on, Harry recounts in amazement that some people will accept huge amounts of money “to hand over photographs to create a story.” So true. How about $100 million?
Harry and Meghan have a rare talent—pointing out things that reasonable people would agree with, but doing so in the most annoying way possible. Racism is real. The tabloids were out of control during Harry’s childhood. Women marrying into the Royal Family undergo an extended misogynistic hazing. The trouble is that the couple’s complaints are by now very well aerated, and Harry’s memoir, Spare, hasn’t even arrived yet. I could have predicted before watching this documentary which cherry-picked headlines and quotations would make an appearance. At least one of them—the reference to Meghan’s “exotic DNA”—was a ham-handed attempt to contrast her favorably with the pale and stale Windsors.
The first three episodes focus on the couple’s childhoods and courtship, along with the press coverage of Meghan before the wedding. If you watched the Oprah interview—if it even happened, because after all, Meghan has never told her story before—you learn very little new information here, except that Meghan is friends with her half sister Samantha’s daughter Ashleigh. This is relevant to fans of the Markle Cinematic Universe, because Samantha nicknamed her half sister “Princess Pushy” and wrote a tell-all book in which she dramatically overstated their closeness. Ashleigh is here to back up Meghan’s version of events.
The documentary contains a lot of this stuff—evidence for the defense, you might call it. We get five minutes on how smart Meghan was at school, and how she wasn’t lying when she said she’d had no idea who Harry was before they met (she didn’t Google him, duh—she looked at his Instagram feed, which was full of pictures of elephants, and that is what made her agree to go on a date with him).
Unless you have a gaping void where your soul should be, you will notice that the couple do seem to be genuinely smitten with each other. Yet—and this is where it gets tricky—they also appear to be in love with the idea of being “Harry and Meghan” (or, as they might put it, “H and M”). There’s an uncomfortable Bonnie-and-Clyde, John-and-Yoko, folie-à-deux undercurrent throughout, as if taking on the Royal Family’s racism and the British press’s lack of scruples has become their mission. Us against the world. That is a noble intention, but it has the side effect of centering their entire lives on two institutions that they despise. Do they really want to spend the next 40 years as small, angry planets trapped in the gravitational pull of the Windsors? And have they not heard of diminishing returns? This plotline might sustain Harry’s book sales and one or two forgettable Netflix projects after that, but it ends with them delivering $150 birthday messages on Cameo by 2030.
These days, it’s very passé to make a film about a beautiful princess being saved from a monster by a handsome prince. Princesses have to be kickass now, and able to save themselves. And so just like Frozen and the new Willow, Harry and Meghan have an update to the old story. In this fairy tale, the prince was rescued from a terrible fate—being British—by one kiss from a beautiful Californian.
Netflix’s documentary presents Britain as an outdated, prejudiced backwater—the home of Boris Johnson, Brexit, and the slaver Edward Colston. The complex and often contradictory British attitudes toward race and immigration are not explored. Perhaps because of the production timetable, the first three episodes of Harry & Meghan make no mention of Rishi Sunak, who became Britain’s first nonwhite prime minister a few weeks ago with vanishingly little backlash. In today’s Britain, some of the Conservative ministers peddling hard-line rhetoric on immigration are, like Sunak, of South Asian descent. This is the messiness of 21st-century life in a multiracial country of nearly 70 million people.
Yet in this Netflix series, you can watch in real time as the facts get pounded into the correct shape to fit Harry and Meghan’s narrative. In Episode 2, Meghan says that people are now aware of her race “because they made it such an issue when I went to the U.K., but before that people didn’t treat me as a ‘Black woman.’” Minutes later, we are told just how trailblazing it was that her character on the legal drama Suits was biracial, and how the writers incorporated Meghan’s own background into her character, Rachel Zane. So when America noticed her heritage, that was good. But when Britain did it, that was bad.
Earlier this week, Harry and Meghan were in New York to receive an award from the Ripple of Hope foundation, in a ceremony somewhat improbably hosted by Alec Baldwin. This is their life now: touring American philanthropic foundations to be praised for their crusade against British royal intolerance. Progressive Americans love Harry, the awakened prince, and Meghan, the woman whose love awoke him. The couple have responded with a documentary precision-engineered to tell the story those same progressive Americans want to hear. Thank God we have left behind dreary old Britain for the [checks notes] postracial utopia of the United States. Harry is no longer the posh idiot who wore a Nazi uniform to a fancy-dress party, an incident he refers to here as “one of the biggest mistakes of my life.” Now he lectures audiences on unconscious bias. His new identity as a California aristocrat offers a completely fresh story line for his life, as powerful as anything Alcoholics Anonymous or an evangelical baptism can offer. He has been reborn in the U.S.A.
You can hear the subtle drumbeat of this America-flattering proposition behind so many moments in the Netflix series: Meghan mostly wore white, camel, and beige during her time in Britain, she says, to avoid clashing with the Queen. Now she can wear color again. I hope that The Crown’s head writer, Peter Morgan, a man who loves a clanging metaphor—hey, did you ever think the Queen was obsolete, just like the royal yacht?—was taking notes.
I don’t want to be too sour, because in the Netflix documentary the historian David Olusoga makes the important point that Britain tends to celebrate its role in abolishing the slave trade, with rather less focus on its participation in the slave trade. And I recognize a knee-jerk defensiveness in many of the British reactions to Harry and Meghan, including my own. Culture wars flourish best when two things are simultaneously true, and people must choose which one to emphasize. Does the British press sometimes treat the Royal Family appallingly, and do its white-dominated institutions perpetuate racism? Yes and yes. Do Harry and Meghan love rehashing their grievances, and seem unaware that they are wealthy far beyond anything their personal talents would normally merit? Also yes and yes.
By leaving Britain, Harry and Meghan really have changed their bargain with celebrity—and they have brought their brand to a much bigger market. In the third episode, Meghan is asked if she looked up how to do a royal wave on the internet before her first public appearance with Harry. She laughs, and says she picked it up by observation. “You don’t want to wave like an American,” she adds, flailing wildly. After all, that doesn’t go down well in Britain. “Everything is just … smaller.”