Before Meghan Markle went on her first date with Prince Harry, she scrolled through his Instagram feed.
“Let me see what her feed is about, not what anyone else is saying about her,” the Duchess of Sussex said in the first episode of the Harry & Meghan docuseries. “What they say about themselves: That’s the best barometer.”
It could also be a thesis statement about the series itself: your chance to tell its story on its own terms after years (or in Harry’s case, a lifetime) with no control over its narrative. Although her much-hyped six-hour Netflix docuseries, spread over two consecutive Thursdays, ended up feeling more to her than to us.
Mysterious until its release, the show’s top-secret introduction (no reporter or critic received advance screenings) would suggest it was going to be a tell-tale event. Still, we didn’t learn a lot of new information, especially not close to the level of the pair’s explosive interview with Oprah Winfrey in spring 2021.
Sure, not everything has to deliver revelation after revelation. But such a high-profile series comes with those expectations. Instead, the visually well-crafted docuseries, directed by Oscar-nominated Liz Garbus, cover a lot of well-documented territory. It confirms what we largely knew about the vicious racism and misogyny Meghan had experienced from the UK tabloids and social media, backed and supported by the royal family as an institution. As the two claimed in the docuseries, Buckingham Palace officials essentially – especially here – threw them to the wolves.
We get a glimpse of them as people who are often very lovable (I chuckled at their spot-on impersonations of Oprah visiting her tiny Kensington Palace cottage: “Nobody would ever believe it!”). And among the many friends and loved ones in the documentary speaking in depth for the first time, we hear from Meghan’s mother, Doria Ragland, getting a more three-dimensional picture of her.
In addition, we get a sense of what happened behind the scenes at key moments. In the beginning, we see how quickly the two tried to get to know each other before the world found out about their relationship, and how far they had to go to keep it under wraps. In the second half of the series, we see the preparations for her decision to retire from the royal family in early 2020. It was years before they had proposed other plans for moving to another Commonwealth country, but still kept their royal duties away from the glamor of British tabloids.
But it’s also striking how naïve they were at various points, how Meghan underestimated the full brunt of tabloid reporting and said she didn’t realize until much later that people believed what they read. Here’s an answer for a moment in a 2019 documentary for ABC when a reporter asked if she was okay, prompting a rare moment of candidness about the toll it had all taken on her. According to Meghan, “I had no idea the would be the thing that traveled the world.” It’s also telling when she admits her initial naivety about race, a product of growing up with the relative privilege afforded to her by her white appearance. At the same time, it’s hard not to sympathize with her because she genuinely thought she could change the institution of the royal family – and her incorporation into the family seemed at first to herald the beginning of a new day.
Throughout the series there is additional historical context from black British journalists and academics on racism and colonialism and the continued attempts by British institutions to look the other way and pretend it was all in the past. Again, this is hardly new information. But having everything in one place can be useful, and including that context sets Harry & Meghan apart from other high-profile documentaries.
But what is all this for? It is a difficult task for a viewer to spend six hours with this series. Ironically, the other Netflix show about the royal family — a dramatization, not a documentary — resulted in further topics for discussion. The last season of The Crown, which dealt with Harry’s parents’ divorce, was more interesting in a way.
I definitely understand why this project was important to Meghan and Harry and I really hope it brought them some kind of catharsis. For perhaps the first time in detail, the documentaries lay out the deadlocked system they had to respond to and the lack of control over what they could say (or, more commonly, couldn’t express). Meghan describes the “orchestrated reality show” that was her largely benign post-engagement interview. Harry underscores the symbiotic relationship between the royal press pool known as the ‘Rota’, made up mostly of tabloids, and Buckingham Palace officials.
One of the biggest revelations over the six episodes was Harry describing a controversial meeting in early 2020, just before his and Meghan’s high-profile exit from the family. According to Harry, his brother Prince William yelled at him. But soon after the meeting, palace officials released what they said was a joint statement “in which they squashed the story that he bullied us out of the family.” says Harry in the docuseries.
“I could not believe it. No one had asked my permission to put my name under such a statement,” he continued. “Within four hours they happily lied to protect my brother, and yet for three years they were never willing to tell the truth to protect us.”
That was the last straw. No wonder they had to go and find a way to tell their story on their terms. But you can believe both: they went through some immensely difficult circumstances, but they are and always will be famous and have a huge platform that gives them many opportunities to tell this story. They’ve already done so, with Meghan’s Spotify podcast earlier this year and Harry’s forthcoming memoir in January. There is an argument that these projects are in different media, serve different purposes and could reach different audiences. That’s right. Even so, there will likely be a lot of overlap.
The docuseries fits into a larger trend of celebrity films and series being sold as a chance for audiences to go behind the scenes and get an intimate portrait of the person. In practice, these are often heavily curated, created with a specific agenda on the part of the celebrity, and superficial rather than revealing anything profound.
Nonetheless, the presence of this celebrity often means that the show or film automatically has an audience. That’s especially the case with such a high-profile couple making news. The fact that Meghan and Harry shared their story meant we’d watch it anyway.
Of course many of us did. According to Netflix’s internal metrics28 million households watched the first half of the series in the first four days, and it made the top 10 list in 85 countries, making it the biggest documentary debut of all time, according to Netflix.
In the documentaries, we are pulled in different directions to characterize this story. It’s a complicated and often annoying display of institutional deadlock 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 undoubtedly both and much more. But ultimately, one can’t help but feel that this documentary resembles an Instagram feed — albeit not in the way Meghan initially says. Typically highly curated, our personal Instagram feeds may not be the best barometer of our lives, but only scratch the surface.