The Ghost of Princess Diana Is Painful to Watch on ‘The Crown’

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One of TV fans’ most morbid, ghoulish curiosities was satiated this week. We now know how Netflix’s The Crown series depicts the death of Princess Diana.

It is painful, moving, and emotional—but only when it isn’t absolutely ridiculous. Of all the ways critics and viewers imagined the show might handle the tragedy, I’m not sure anyone guessed what we’d see now that the first part of The Crown’s final season is streaming: Ghost Diana.

This is a strange case where we’re not sure if there needs to be a spoiler warning on this piece—were you aware that, in fact, Princess Diana died in 1997, and that a TV series about the royal family documenting that time period would cover it? But I suppose we should caution that you shouldn’t read on if you don’t want any more specifics on how that devastating, historic time is portrayed in the series, particularly if you want to fully experience the greatest TV jump scare of our lifetimes.

I’m going to be shamefully candid, and assume solidarity that I’m speaking for many The Crown viewers, when I say that these episodes are the ones we’ve been waiting for. I hate that it’s true! It doesn’t reflect great on me—on us—but it would be a lie to suggest that this isn’t some “main event” after six seasons of the series. I also don’t mean this crassly.

There were legitimate questions about how graphic the drama might be in showing the wreck that killed Diana, if it was shown at all. And that’s not to mention the complexities of the tone in which it would depict the royal family’s mourning; since what is said and felt behind palace walls on The Crown is (essentially) fictionalized, the series had carte blanche to characterize Liz, Chaz, and company any way it desired. It could demonize them for their response to her death, or it could absolve them of criticism by showing them bereft and generous. Or, as we now know, it could bring Diana back as a ghost, counseling the royal family through their grief. It really happens.

Four episodes of The Crown’s sixth and final season were released this week, with the last six coming in December, and they are a standalone batch—which makes for a satisfying, but ultimately strange viewing experience. The premiere begins on the side of a Paris street, where a man walking his dog late at night notices a car speeding down the road and into a tunnel. It disappears, and then the man hears a loud, horrifying crash. Oh, you think, startled. That’s how this is starting… The jarring nature of the scene, right off the bat in the first episode, rips off the Band-Aid. It’s a narrative “alright, here we go” that gets right to the point—these are the death episodes—but does it respectfully; blessedly, you never see the wreck or any carnage.

But these are also the life episodes. Immediately after an emergency call is made, The Crown rewinds two months. The ensuing three installments of the series depict Diana’s last summer, a time that was filled with some joy, purpose, the promise of personal and emotional growth, and burgeoning love as much as it was complicated by the vulturous press and paparazzi.

Season 5 of The Crown seemed like a cautionary tale: The closer the series’ timeline got to the present day and the gossip and intrigue that viewers are familiar with, the more it came off like a soapy Lifetime-movie recreation. But, especially due to Elizabeth Debicki’s graceful and layered depiction, we get fascinating insight into what may have been Diana’s emotional state as she navigated a new stage of her life in front of an ever-intrusive world.

The time was rife with chaos, with cameras stalking her every move—especially once she began dating Dodi Fayed (Khalid Abdalla). But, at least as portrayed in these episodes, Diana also seemed to have peace. The scenes with her and her boys are buoyant with palpable happiness and mutual adoration. Her work raising awareness for the danger of landmines in Bosnia activates and inspires her.

Like so much of her life, there’s always duality: She is frustrated when the public fixation on her romance overshadows her charity endeavors, and whatever flame might be flickering with Dodi is repeatedly extinguished by the oppressive paparazzi. More than before on this series, we’re given visceral insight into the prison of her fame, and the reality that being beloved can be a punishment.

This is actually the strongest string of episodes The Crown has produced in a while, and then—BOO!—Ghost Diana shows up.

Episode 4, the one that deals with the aftermath of Diana’s death, is remarkable for its dignity. Each time the news is delivered that she didn’t make it through surgery after the crash—first to hospital workers; then to the Queen, King, and Charles; and finally to William and Harry—it’s done silently. You never hear the words “Diana died,” which is a classy move.

There are certainly strong choices that are made, specters of deceased former princesses aside. The biggest is the extent to which the show reveals Charles to be devastated and then regretful over how he treated his ex-wife during her life. The Crown offers a very empathetic take on Charles, but it is also quite moving. The Queen is depicted as truly conflicted over how to behave, both publicly and privately. Rather than cold and unaffected, she seems quite sad and lost over how to navigate the expectations of her titles as both monarch and grandmother in a changing world.

Of course, the catalyst for understanding much of this emotional nuance is—once more for the cheap seats—GHOST DIANA!

The first time she appears, on Charles’ plane back from Paris after retrieving her body, is its own-out-of-body experience: What?! No! That’s not… They’re not… The exes have a little therapy session, saying the things one wishes they had said to a person before the opportunity is gone. She tells him how much she loved him. He confesses to how much regret he will always hold. Then she pops up next to the Queen, clasping her hand (!) as they have an ethereally tense discussion that serves as the catalyst for Elizabeth finally deciding to publicly mourn and be “mother” to the British people.

In other words, The Crown tries to give Diana and her family what life couldn’t give them: closure.

The narrative device has already sparked passionate opinions from viewers. “Peter Morgan [is] going to hell,” one user posted on Twitter (or X, or actual hell), referring to The Crown creator. “It’s like Charles wrote that script,” posted another.

But Ghost Diana has her defenders too. “It was obviously a projection of the two characters who spoke to her, having spoken to her way too little in life,” one viewer wrote. “‘Ghost Diana’ is just a dramatic tool to tell a story. It’s not like she’s wearing chains and wreaking revenge from the grave,” wrote another, calling the backlash “irritating.”

Was it a wild choice? Of course. Did I scream when I realized what was happening? Absolutely. Did I cry anyway? As the sky is blue and the grass is green.

At face value, the scenes were beautifully scripted. And besides, no story about the royal family—be it a TV show like The Crown or a gossip article in a tabloid—can possibly escape Diana’s ghost. So why not just have her show up?

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