“Harry & Meghan” — the hotly anticipated Netflix series chronicling the couple’s split with the royal family — is the mother of all reality TV confessionals.
The first episode opens with a card touting “never before seen footage” from Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s “personal archive.” A second onscreen graphic notes that all interviews were completed by August 2022, an explicit reminder that the series was basically in the can before the death of Harry’s grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II, in September. And a third card notes that the “Royal Family declined to comment within the series.”
Naturally. The Windsor credo, after all, is: “Never complain, never explain.”
With their hard exit from royal duties — trading paparazzi-prowling old England for the cosseted beauty of sun-kissed Montecito, California — and a $20 million Netflix deal of which this six-episode series about their curdled fairy tale is the centerpiece, Harry and Meghan are doing a lot of complaining, but also a lot of explaining.
“Books have been written about our story from people I don’t know,” Markle says to the camera. “Doesn’t it make more sense to hear our story from us?”
And the first three episodes sweetly chronicle the couple’s early courtship: their third date was a camping trip in Botswana — in a tent, with no bathroom. But many viewers may feel as if they’ve heard plenty from — and about — Harry and Meghan, such is the all-consuming, clickbait nature of media in the social platform age.
There was the explosive sit-down last year with Oprah Winfrey, during which the couple revealed that a nameless palace denizen had questioned how dark their unborn son Archie’s skin might be. Harry has spoken openly about his disdain for the venomous British tabloids that he blames for hounding his mother, Princess Diana, to her death in horrific car crash inside a Paris tunnel in 1997. And since his romance with Markle first became public in 2016, he has admonished the British media for the racist overtones in their coverage of Markle, who is biracial. As he says in the promo for “Harry and Meghan”: “I did not want history to repeat itself.”
Still to come is Harry’s tell-all memoir, “Spare,” set for a January release. And on Dec. 15, Netflix will drop the final three episodes of “Harry and Meghan.”
If six hours feels like a lot of Harry and Meghan, director Liz Garbus (“The Farm,” “Ghosts of Abu Ghraib”) effectively frames the first batch of episodes around the corrosive and toxic British tabloid media, which routinely break the law (phone hacking, breaking and entering, bribery) and the rules of common decency in their pursuit of the royals and other celebrities. The series implies that the House of Windsor’s age-old deal with the media — to grant adequate, sanctioned access in exchange for humane treatment — is woefully anachronistic in the modern era of tabloid journalism, now supercharged by social platforms. And England’s history of colonialism and racial inequality makes for a particularly toxic media stew. As historian and author David Olusoga notes, 3 percent of the British population is Black and a mere 0.2 percent of its journalists are.
The hounding of Markle began as soon as her relationship with Harry became public, while she was still a working actress living in Toronto. Markle’s colleagues on the NBC series “Suits” explain that the studio was forced to erect a tall metal fence around the show’s trailers in order to keep paparazzi from sneaking on to the lot, or breaking into Markle’s trailer. Paparazzi offered crew members money for call sheets, so they could catch Markle arriving on set. Her house on a quiet residential street in Toronto was perpetually staked out by a phalanx of photographers waiting in their cars. One photographer paid a neighbor to position a live stream camera into Markle’s back yard. She called the police, who said they could do nothing “because of who you’re dating,” she says.
“I would say to the police: If any other woman in Toronto said to you, ‘I have six grown men who are sleeping in their cars around my house and following me everywhere I go, and I feel scared,’ wouldn’t you say that was stalking?”
But when she received a death threat, the studio hired security for her.
Markle’s mother, Doria Ragland, who has consented to few interviews, appears in the second and third episodes. She says that when Markle was a baby, strangers mistook her for the nanny instead of her mother because Markle’s skin was much lighter. She recalls warning her daughter, whom she calls Meg, that “this is about race.”
“You may not want to hear it,” Ragland says she told her daughter, “But this is what’s coming down the pike.”
For Markle, it was a shock. “It’s very different to be a minority and not be treated like a minority right off the bat,” she says in the second episode. Before the notoriety that came with being Harry’s girlfriend and then wife, she continues, “most people didn’t treat me as a Black woman.”
Harry says Markle’s treatment was viewed inside the royal system as a “rite of passage.”
“As far as the family were concerned, everything that she was being put through, they had been put through as well. And for some members of the family it was like, right, well, my wife had to go through that, why should your girlfriend be treated any differently? Why should you get special treatment?”
That Markle’s treatment was different because of its overly racist tenor fell on deaf ears, he says.
Garbus effectively juxtaposes Markle’s experience with familiar images of Diana attempting to evade the paparazzi; fleeing in her Mercedes convertible, shielding her face with a Prince tennis racket. There were times when she attempted to reason with them, including a memorable video during a ski vacation with William and Harry. And there are so many shots of Diana staring coldly into their cameras from a distance. Video of a press avail outside the hospital when Harry was merely hours old is particularly poignant: there’s Diana in a bright red muumuu, her outlandishly feathered hair rendered immovable by hair spray, her makeup thick and perfect.
We also know that Diana used the tabloids when she could. Her disastrous 1995 BBC interview with Martin Bashir ultimately led to the dissolution of her marriage. The interview spurred a recent investigation and an apology from the BBC for Bashir’s deception in garnering the sit-down. And Harry and Meghan are involved in ongoing legal action against multiple Britain outlets.
And watching this series, which distills the hounding endured by his mother and wife, one can understand why. With their exit from royal duties, Harry and Meghan have decided to no longer suffer in silence, though their detractors clearly wish they would.
Harry allows that “the majority” of his childhood memories with his mother involve “being swarmed by paparazzi.”
“Rarely did we have a holiday without someone with a camera jumping out of the bush, or something,” he adds. “We all now know that she was deceived into giving the interview but at the same time, she spoke the truth about her experience.”
Harry has always been more honest about that particular episode than has William. Perhaps it’s because he is third in line to the throne and is unlikely to get the top job, or perhaps it is because, as he says, “I am my mother’s son.”
If there is one moment from “Harry & Meghan” that crystalizes the messy, interdependent relationship between the monarchy and the media — and elucidates Harry’s motivations for fleeing a system that prioritizes duty above all else — it is a video shortly after the death of Diana. Harry, 12, and William, 15, together with their father, walk amid a sea of bouquets outside Kensington Palace while photographers snap pictures. Their mother’s death is one more media spectacle. Young boys, suddenly motherless, dutifully shake hands and comfort weeping mourners.