Netflix’s ‘Harry and Meghan’ docuseries: What was the point?

Before Meghan Markle had her first date with Prince Harry, she scrolled through his Instagram feed.

“Let me see what they’re talking about in their feed, not what someone else is saying about them,” as the now Duchess of Sussex explains in the first episode of the documentary series “Harry and Meghan.” “What they’re putting on themselves — that’s the best barometer.”

It could also be a thesis statement about the series itself: its chance to tell its story on its own terms after years (or, in Harry’s case, a lifetime) of being out of control about his narrative. Although, in the end, their six-hour Netflix docuseries, spread over two consecutive Thursdays, felt more for them than it did for us.

Shrouded in mystery until its launch, the show’s top-secret release (no journalists or critics were given early screenings) would suggest it would be a revelatory event. However, we didn’t learn much new information, especially not near the level of the couple’s explosive interview with Oprah Winfrey in the spring of 2021.

Of course, not everything has to deliver revelation after revelation. But such a prominent series inherently comes with those expectations. In contrast, the visually well-made docuseries, directed by Oscar nominee Liz Garbus, cover a lot of well-documented territory. It confirms what we largely knew about the vicious racism and misogyny Meghan experienced from the British tabloids and social media, aided and abetted by the royal family as an institution. As the two stated in the docuseries, Buckingham Palace officials essentially threw them to the wolves, especially her.

We get a window into them as people, often quite endearing (I laughed at their impersonations of Oprah visiting their little cottage in Kensington Palace: “No one would ever believe it!”). And among the many friends and confidants in the documentary who speak at length for the first time, we hear from Meghan’s mother, Doria Ragland, getting a more three-dimensional picture of her.

Plus, we get a glimpse of what was going on behind the scenes during key moments. Early on, we see how quickly the two tried to get to know each other before the world found out about their relationship and what they had to do to keep it a secret. In the second half of the series, we see the period leading up to her decision to leave the royal family in early 2020. It was years after they had proposed other plans to move to another Commonwealth country, but still performing her royal duties away from the glare of the UK tabloids.

But it’s also striking how naive they were at various points, such as Meghan underestimating the full force of tabloid coverage, saying she didn’t realize until much later that people believed what they read. Or his response to a moment in a 2019 documentary for ABC when a reporter asked him if he was okay, sparking a rare moment of candor about the toll it all had taken on him. According to Meghan, “I had no idea this it would be the one that traveled around the world. ” It is also telling when he admits his initial naivety about race, a product of growing up with relative privilege afforded him by his white presentation guise. At the same time, it’s hard not to feel for her because she really thought she could change the institution of the royal family, and her marriage into the family initially seemed to herald the dawn of a new day.

Throughout the series, there is added historical context from black British journalists and scholars about racism and colonialism and the continued attempts by British institutions to look the other way and pretend it’s all in the past. Again, this is not new information. But it can be helpful to have it all in one place, and including that context elevates “Harry and Meghan” above other celebrity-driven docuseries.

But what was all this for? It’s a tough ask for a viewer to spend six hours with this series. Ironically, Netflix’s other show about the royal family – a dramatization, not a documentary – gave more topics for discussion. The final season of “The Crown,” which covered Harry’s parents’ divorce, was somehow more interesting.

I can certainly understand why this project was important to Meghan and Harry, and I sincerely hope that it was some kind of catharsis for them. Perhaps for the first time in detail, the docuseries exposes the entrenched system they had to answer to and the lack of control over what they could say (or, more often, couldn’t express). Meghan describes the “orchestrated reality show” that was her largely anodyne post-engagement interview. Harry underlines the symbiotic relationship between the royal press group, known as the “rota” – made up mainly of sensational publications – and Buckingham Palace officials.

A private photo of Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, on their Netflix docuseries "Harry and Meghan."
A private photograph of Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, appears in their Netflix documentary series ‘Harry & Meghan’.

Courtesy of Prince Harry and Meghan, Duke and Duchess of Sussex

One of the biggest revelations in the six episodes was that Harry described a controversial meeting in early 2020, shortly before his and Meghan’s high-profile family exit. According to Harry, his brother, Prince William, yelled at him. But just after the meeting, Palace officials issued a supposedly joint statement “smashing the story about him harassing us outside the family.” Harry says in the docuseries.

“I could not believe it. No one had ever asked me for permission to put my name in a statement like this,” he continued. “Within four hours, they were happy to lie to protect my brother, but for three years, they were never willing to tell the truth , to protect us”.

This was the final straw. No wonder they had to leave and find a way to tell their story on their terms. But it’s possible to believe both: they’ve faced immensely difficult circumstances, but they are and always will be famous and have a huge platform that gives them plenty of opportunities to tell that story. They already have, with Meghan’s Spotify podcast earlier this year and Harry’s upcoming memoir in January. There is the argument that these projects are in different media, have different purposes and can reach different audiences. This is true. But still, it will probably have a lot of overlap.

The docuseries fits into a broader trend of celebrity-driven movies and series sold as an opportunity for audiences to get behind-the-scenes access and an intimate portrait of the person. In practice, they are often very curated, made with a particular agenda on the part of the celebrity and more on the surface than revealing anything deep.

However, the presence of such a celebrity often means that the show or film will have an automatic audience. This is especially the case with such a high-profile couple making news. The fact that Meghan and Harry were telling their story meant we were going to watch it anyway.

So, of course, many of us did. Based on Netflix’s internal metrics28 million households watched the first half of the series in its first four days and it charted in the top 10 in 85 countries, which Netflix claims is its biggest documentary debut ever.

Throughout the docuseries, we are pulled in different directions on how to characterize this story. It is a complicated and often infuriating account of institutional confusion and abuse. But it’s also a simple, magical fairy tale, a love story that was meant to be, as Meghan described in a speech at her wedding, which she reads in the final moments of the docuseries.

It is certainly both, and many others as well. But ultimately, it’s hard to get past the impression that this docuseries is similar to an Instagram feed, even if it’s not what Meghan says at first. Our personal Instagram feeds tend to be highly curated and not necessarily the best barometer of our lives, just scratching the surface.

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