Why the Harry-and-Meghan Fairy Tale Still Works
At the end of the first episode of Harry & Meghan—the five-and-a-half-hour exploration into the tender center of everlasting love; rat-bastard English people and the nasty things they get up to; heady, “Goodbye to You” defection from the British Royal Family; and the reality-show-within-a-reality-show miniseries Fifteen Million Dollar Listing—I informed my husband that henceforth he should call me “C” and I would call him “R.” This would put us in league with the glamorous young couple, and also allow us to imagine that we are characters in a Victorian novel whose names must never be revealed, not even to each other.
This project was immediately undermined, because it is just about impossible to impose a new nickname on someone you’ve known intimately for three decades, and with whom—even in the early years, back in the rent-controlled apartment with your big dreams and your red wine—you have never achieved even an ounce of the “Band on the Run”/Sentence Finishing/Pillow Talk Spectacular of the famous couple. These kids are so in love that absolutely any obstacle—bad press, frosty English sister-in-law, mean American half sister-in-law, disappointing fathers, paparazzo in a boat—only makes their love more passionate, their need to review their wedding videos and photo albums more urgent.
I had settled in to watch Episode 2 when R said that he’d rather watch hockey highlights, a preference that produced in me a stab of the kind of minor, familiar disappointment that—stab by stab, year by year—amounts to a strong and unbreakable union. In this way, Harry & Meghan, though it depicts a couple married for only four years, is a statement on marriage itself: Isn’t the institution, at its essence, a union between two people making compromises and trying to avoid their in-laws?
Ultimately, however, this is a series shaped around a single question: Can these two titled but underappreciated lovebirds transcend their bad luck and learn to find happiness in a nine-bedroom mansion located in the most exquisitely beautiful place in the world?
This is a story about resilience.
The very first scene of this Russian novel takes place at Heathrow Airport and consists of a clearly careworn Harry looking into his laptop or cellphone—the couple have been advised by “a friend” to keep a video diary, because “one day it will make sense,” and also (presumably) because B-roll doesn’t grow on trees—and telling us, “We’re here.” Before you can ask yourself where, exactly, they are (a Starbucks in Terminal 5? A laptop-charging power pole in Terminal 3?) a chyron solemnly informs you that Harry is speaking from inside the WINDSOR SUITE, LONDON HEATHROW AIRPORT.
Let this be a reminder that whatever you or I think of as the better thing (the first-class lounge, the ramekin of warm nuts in business class, Boarding Group A) is merely a token in a game that the truly rich would never play. The Windsor Suite comprises eight “private lounges,” in which the champagne wishes and caviar dreams of the traveler come true, starting at $4,000 for two hours. It’s the bottle service of Departures.
You haven’t realized just how vile air travel has become and how deeply you have been demoralized by it until you’ve imagined what it would be like to be greeted at the curb by a doorman, whisked into a private elevator, and delivered into the capable hands of your own butler, who will be just a bell cord away to answer your every call.
This, then, will be the ongoing challenge of watching (and presumably making) Harry & Meghan: The show needs to provide a compelling enough account of their emotional injuries that we are moved by them, while also luxuriating in the unimaginable opulence in which the couple nursed their wounds. It’s been done before: Wuthering Heights; Harlequin romance novels; all 22 seasons of Kardashian content. We’ve all had our problems, but have we had them in the rolling hills and designer shopping malls of Calabasas? The poor little rich girl is a perennial. But watching Meghan Markle sitting in a grand living room while bravely explaining that as a senior royal she wore muted colors so as not to upstage anyone could try the patience of Malala. (The couple was interviewed inside someone else’s Montecito pleasure dome, now on the market for $33.5 million, presumably because they’re determined to safeguard their … privacy. Or could it be that their own $15 million spread is too down-market for the dream to endure?)
We will be introduced to a few themes in this 330-minute (plus hockey highlights) presentation, the first of which concerns what was apparently a shock to Meghan and an oversight of Harry’s: the overt racism that lingers among members of European royalty who live in castles and whose exalted status depends on convincing a populace that fairy tales are real.
At Meghan’s first Christmas lunch (an annual tradition in which the extended Royal Family gets together at Buckingham Palace before the seniors decamp for Sandringham), Princess Michael of Kent arrived wearing a white coat, on the lapel of which was affixed a large brooch, depicting a Black man wearing a golden turban, and decorated in colored gemstones. The figure was a “Blackamoor,” portrayed in a historical style celebrating the glory days of colonialism and combining exotica with the perennial theme of ownership: of the man, the continent, the gold, the gems.
Why in God’s name would this woman wear this ornament to an event where Meghan Markle was being introduced around? Let me remind you that Princess Michael of Kent is the daughter of a literal Nazi, and has spent years making viciously racist comments (“The English take the breeding of their horses and dogs more seriously than they do their children”) and then offering insulting “apologies” for them. But please don’t call her a racist, because she feels that as “a knife through the heart.” She has traveled to Africa and described in a TV interview her “adventure with these absolutely adorable, special people … I really love these people.” Moreover, “I even pretended years ago to be an African, a half-caste African, but because of my light eyes, I did not get away with it. But I dyed my hair black.” The apology for the jewelry is in a class of its own: “The brooch was a gift and had been worn many times before. Princess Michael is very sorry and distressed that it has caused offense.” In other words, everyone’s been cool about it except Meghan Markle, and this whole episode has victimized Princess Michael, who is now enduring distress.
Anyone can find themselves related to a racist, and the standard method of dealing with this fact is simplicity itself: You disavow them, you shun them, you block their phone number, and if anyone asks about them, you tell the truth. That’s not what the Windsors have done. Princess Michael lives in a grand apartment in Kensington Palace (owned by King Charles, on behalf of the nation), where, at various times, she has been neighbor to William and Kate, Princess Eugenie, and—for half a decade—Harry himself, who lived in a cottage on the palace grounds.
God knows Harry himself hasn’t been perfect. He dressed up as a Nazi (specifically as a member of the Afrika Korps—you know, Rommel and all that) for a costume party when he was 20, and he tells us during the show that it was one of the biggest mistakes of his life. But, he says earnestly, he atoned by meeting with the chief rabbi in London and traveling to Berlin to talk with a Holocaust survivor, which is apparently the Windsor Suite version of doing the work. What’s going on in that family that you need to have some champagne and me-time in Heathrow VIP and fly to Germany to learn that Nazis = Bad? Currently, Harry’s immersed in a wholehearted effort to unpack his “unconscious bias,” but that could be an endless enterprise, given the complex history of his own family.
This is the incoherence of the couple’s position. They had wanted to carve out a “progressive new role” for themselves within the Royal Family, a role they had seen as including more outreach to the Commonwealth nations, in particular the ones (principally in Africa and the Caribbean) in which the majority population consists of nonwhite people. But what could possibly be progressive about representing the crown—the entity, more or less, that perfected the concept of empire—to these countries?
In the other corner: M’s family.
As she has throughout this courtship and marriage, Meghan’s mother, Doria Ragland, remains a class act. In her interviews for the series, she shows grace and restraint, and an absolute determination not to sully herself or her daughter with the antics of either her ex-husband’s family or Harry’s family—two groups that seemed equally matched. You can clearly sense that having her daughter and grandchildren safely back in California, barely two hours’ drive from her home in L.A., is a tremendous comfort to her.
Meghan’s father—and the aforementioned half sister, Samantha, from his first marriage—turn out to be spectacular characters, an accurate portrait of whom would require the combined talents of William Faulkner, J. D. Vance, and the Wicked Witch of the West. The half sister turns out to be genuinely frightening, having once left Florida to show up uninvited at Kensington Palace in order to “deliver a letter” and later pitching a book on “the evolution of my biracial lens.” (She’s white, her parents are white, whatever biracial lens she possesses has been trained on her biracial half sister and the best way to make her miserable.)
The salve for having been raised among these various characters has been the intense and world-historical level of romantic love that bonds our principals and that provides the through line of our five and a half hours in their company. Have you ever been to one of those weddings where the bride and groom—although well into their 30s—each deliver a speech that includes so many cute and romantic and “This Will Be (An Everlasting Love)” moments that you don’t know where to look and your face becomes a rictus of sympathetic embarrassment for the couple, and people start kicking you under the table?
Harry & Meghan is the eternal return of that experience.
The things the British tabloids had to say about Meghan’s race are beyond the pale, and that this kind of coverage sells papers in the U.K. was reason enough for Harry to take his wife and baby and get the hell out of there. The soundness of this decision was proved a few weeks ago, when The Sun published a column by a popular television commentator named Jeremy Clarkson: “I hate her on a cellular level. At night I’m unable to sleep as I lie there, grinding my teeth and dreaming of the day when she is made to parade naked through the streets of every town in Britain while the crowds chant, ‘Shame!’ and throw lumps of excrement at her.”
When I read that, I felt a stab of fealty and protectiveness more powerful than anything evoked by Harry & Meghan. The Sun withdrew the column and apologized for it after 20,000 complaints—but someone accepted it, someone approved it, someone published it online, and any number of people must have known that in addition to the people the column angered, there would be plenty of people who agreed with it. Who would like this kind of filth? Clarkson spells it out for us: “Everyone who’s my age thinks the same way.” No kidding, old man.
The very top of the column set the tone. It said that everyone had known that Harry (whom Clarkson referred to as “Harold Markle”) was a “slightly dim” but fun-loving fellow, and Meghan had “obviously used some vivid bedroom promises to turn him into a warrior of woke.”
And there it is: The idea that women will use whatever wiles they have to castrate a real man and turn him into a eunuch who lives to serve her, no matter how much humiliation she serves up. People like Clarkson—and Piers Morgan, and so many other men of their generation—are apparently experts on the treachery of women. Many are also devotees of the notion that masculinity is best defined by military service, the ultimate test of manhood. Clarkson has made popular television documentaries about great battles of the Second World War, and apparently that, too, is an act of manhood. Except that it’s not.
Here’s the truth: Harry served two tours in Afghanistan with the British Army, the second as an Apache helicopter pilot—once apparently helping rescue American servicemen under Taliban fire—and fought with great valor, very much in the shit. He was held in the affectionate, ball-breaking high regard of his fellow soldiers. This wasn’t Charles getting seasick in the navy, or Andrew forgetting how to sweat in the Falklands, or William assisting the Liverpool Coast Guard on civilian rescue sorties. This was war, and Harry survived it, came home with the usual psychic wounds of combat, and carried on with his life.
Harry is a grown man, he’s had a lot of experience with women (and “bedroom promises”), and he married the one he loved. When she was miserable, the way his own mother had been miserable, he didn’t do what his grotesque father had done—cheat on her, treat her like a broodmare, ignore her suffering; he moved her and his family far away. Considering that three of his grandmother’s four children got divorced, he seems to have a better idea of what constitutes marital obligation than most of his in-house role models.
Quit while you’re ahead! you want to yell at the television screen—but they can’t. These two burn through money at a fantastic rate, and the only thing that reliably sells is their own story, which is getting pretty threadbare. It’s so familiar to us by now that we could tell it ourselves.
But we probably could never tell it the way they do, could never cast the fairy-tale spell that they can. We could never convince a vast audience that the paper moon hanging over the cardboard sea is real—if only you can believe in it.
In the first episode, we see a video diary of Meghan standing on an endless lawn, in the blue shadows of early evening, the sky beyond turning the saturated orange and pink of a color-enhanced postcard of the original California dream. She’s wearing a striped apron and a pair of gardening gloves, and she’s holding a handful of blush-colored roses. In the weary tones of Every Mom, she tells us in a near whisper, “Both the babies are down.” It’s a “nice, calm night.”
For a moment, we take it all in: the huge lawn, the sunset, the rose garden in which not a single bloom is marred by spider mites or overwatering or bad attitude. Her voice lowers to an actual whisper and here she is, the picture of a pretty wife and mother, her children sleeping and her attention turned to simple abundance: “Just picking some roses.”