Harry & Meghan: Vol I television review: royal rumble counterpunch

part of my On Netflix Globally and Directed by Women series
MaryAnn’s quick take: There is little here we did not already know, but this is nevertheless a fascinating counterpoint to royal propaganda. Kudos to Harry’s audacity at being unwilling to perpetuate a noxious paradigm.
I’m “biast” (pro): not a fan of the British royal family, or the concept of royalty in general
I’m “biast” (con): not a fan of the British royal family, or the concept of royalty in general
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
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It is precisely because I am emphatically not a fan of the British royal family that I was keen to see what the new Netflix docu series Harry & Meghan had to say. A critical insider’s look at the most unfathomable medieval relic that persists to this day? Hell to the yes.

I mean, what the actual fuck. It is utterly incomprehensible to me that in the 21st century, huge swathes of ordinary hardworking people accept the notion that a vastly wealthy hereditary monarchy could be appointed by a deity to be their betters worthy of public adulation and — even in face of that vast wealth — also taxpayer-funded financial support. Are we living in the Middle Ages?

American actor and activist Meghan Markle — now wife to Prince Harry, second son of the current King of England (how is that still really a thing?!) — makes an allusion here to the cheesy American dinner-theater spectacle Medieval Times, as she explains how she kinda thought everybody was sorta kidding about how she had to *checks notes* curtsey to the Queen. Which is super relatable to me, who has also enjoyed American Renaissance festivals for the goofy storybook nonsense and yet is endlessly astonished to find that real people walking around on this green Earth today genuinely genuflect to this shit.

Harry and Meghan
Harry and Meghan come across as genuinely charming and deeply in love.

Anyway.

If modern British royalty is in any way “fairy tale,” it is only a grim Grimm one. The toxic way that everything to do with these people plays out in the media and the culture at large is appalling: we saw this with how Harry’s mother, Princess Diana, was treated, and we’re seeing it again, times a thousand, with Meghan. Huge kudos to Harry, for running the fuck away, even if it’s impossible for him to ever truly escape it all.

All that said, if anyone in The Firm, as the institution of the British royal family is apparently known by insiders, was worried about what dirty laundry might be revealed in Harry & Meghan, they can rest easy. At least as far as the first three episodes of this miniseries, which dropped yesterday globally on Netflix, are concerned. There is little newly damning here, little we did not already know, for anyone who has paid even the slightest bit of attention to the tabloid soap opera of the past six years or so since Harry and Meghan’s relationship went public. (Americans might be astonished to learn how absolutely foul the British tabloids are, though.) Perhaps the juiciest nugget comes when Harry says that other members of the royal family were perplexed by his insistence that Meghan should be protected from the abuse and the hounding of the UK press, because isn’t that a rite of passage that everyone in their circle has to weather? That’s not very nice, and also hints at how this nonsense endures: because they all just put up with it, and expect that everyone else should, too.

Harry and Meghan
One of their first dates was a camping trip in Botswana, where they were left the fuck alone.

No, so, perhaps the greatest consternation that members of The Firm may find here regards Harry’s audacity at being unwilling to perpetuate this noxious paradigm, for daring to not enact a performative stiff upper lip about it. Meghan’s cheery American bafflement at the unspoken depths of British reserve may be understandable, even dismissable — after all, she’s just a vulgar colonial. But Harry? He was raised better than this, wasn’t he?

Good for him for bucking that.

Of course there is so much else at play here. Meghan isn’t only American: she’s also biracial, a woman with a Black mother whose crashing of British blinkeredness about their own national past has surely been both 1) a refreshing smack in the face to the UK’s imperial hangover, and 2) an unforgivable reminder that most of the people who live in the so-called Commonwealth look a helluva lot more like Meghan than they do like Harry. British-Nigerian historian and academic David Olusoga leads the miniseries’s quick primer on UK history, how the royal family’s wealth was bolstered by the slave trade and the plundering of resources from the peoples and lands of Africa and Asia, and how Meghan’s arrival on the scene may have been a reminder too far of it all, a history that goes, apparently, untaught in UK schools and hence mostly unacknowledged in UK culture.

This is one of those social artifacts that people will watch to confirm their own biases going in.

I want to say that I watched Harry & Meghan so you don’t have to. But this is one of those social artifacts that people will watch to confirm their own biases going in. This can certainly be seen as a slickly produced bit of propaganda supporting the notion that a pair of very well off, very privileged people aren’t willing to play the game that props up their privilege. Me? With my very definite anti-royal bias, I still nevertheless saw a charming couple very much in love — in both their intimate video diaries of the past few years as well as the new interviews here — and very driven to push back against those who would disparage them. Not that, even given their immense privilege and the grand soapbox Netflix is affording them, they have much hope of countering the prevailing narrative, which, we see here, royal PR and the British press collude with one another to shape.

Whatever self-aggrandizing Harry and Meghan might be engaging in here is harmless and beside the point. (Director Liz Garbus [All In: The Fight for Democracy, Lost Girls] is better than that, anyway.) The institutional racism of the British press is inarguable (and we haven’t even gotten to the outrageously obvious biases that the next three episodes, landing next week, will surely cover.) The problematic legacy of the British royal family is unquestionable. The offenses of the UK press are beyond arguing. There is no amount of narcissism on the part of anyone involved here — if that’s what you want to see, and I’m not sure I do — that could ever justify the hounding, the stalking, the outright abuse that Meghan Markle was subjected to.

Harry and Meghan
They really do seem shockingly down to earth…

And that’s what it comes down to. A woman who some perceived as unworthy of marrying into the British royal family was treated so appallingly, by public entities, that her husband felt compelled to remove them from that environment in a way that was seen, by those willing to put up with such treatment, as untenable. And yet there is no hypocrisy in the duality of Harry and Meghan both wishing to be left alone and also putting themselves out to the world in a six-part Netflix series! Harry makes the point early on that as parents, he and Meghan reserve the right to decide how much of their children’s lives they want to share with the world at large. (We don’t see much of the kids here, if you’re wondering.) The unspoken corollary is that how much anyone, no matter how famous, shares about their lives is subject to their consent, too. Perhaps that goes double for someone like Harry, who in no way chose to be as famous as he is.

There is no winning for Harry and Meghan. There is nothing they could do, or not do, that would result in them being left alone. Not in today’s interconnected world, not unless they wanted to become literal hermits with strictly no contact with the outside world at all. Which is not a fair thing to expect of anyone. So of course they want to tell their side of things, and it’s a fascinating counterpoint to the royal propaganda that makes up the entirety of the other side. And there’s more to come…


see also:
my Twitter thread of thoughts as I watched the first three episodes, some of which are not repeated here


more films like this:
The Princess [HBO Max US (via Prime US) | Sky UK]
Nightcrawler [Prime US | Prime UK | Apple TV US | Apple TV UK | HBO Max US | Netflix UK]

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Arthur
Arthur
Fri, Dec 09, 2022 7:04pm

Glad you’re posting again — I’ve missed your take on cinema (and the horrible films you’ve watched, so I wouldn’t have to — there should be a medal given).

Jess Haskins
Jess Haskins
patron
moviegoer
Sat, Dec 10, 2022 2:25pm

Good to see you back! Really interesting to hear your thoughts on this one, as no fan of the institution of monarchy myself. I also wondered about the angle of privileged people building a media empire about how they want to be left alone, but it makes a little more sense now.