There is a scene early on in the first episode of Netflix’s new “Harry & Meghan,” the documentary on the members of the British royal family who seceded from “the firm,” in which Meghan describes her early courtship with the prince. It began, she says, when he saw a photo of her clowning around on a mutual friend’s Instagram feed. Haz wanted to meet her, the friend said: Was she game? Meghan wasn’t sure (first she had to figure out who “Haz” was). So she did what anyone would do when being potentially set up on a blind date: She checked out his Instagram feed. And was won over by all the photos of wildlife in Africa.
It’s a seemingly charming little aside that has been largely buried among all the other nuggets that have made news since the first three episodes of the series dropped: the excited revelations that the bad guys of this particular narrative are not the royal family after all (at least not yet), but the morally bankrupt British tabloids, framed by the revisiting of old Diana footage; the look at the relationship between colonialism, the Commonwealth and racism that shaped attitudes toward Meghan, a biracial member of the royal family; the suggestion that Meghan’s relationship with her father was destroyed when he sold his story to the papers, rather than come to her wedding; the fact the protagonists refer to each other as “H” and “M.”
But the Instagram detail also serves as a clue about the purpose of this particular tell-sort-of-all; an Easter egg for what is to come. After all, as many commentators have pointed out, the revelations contained in the documentary are not actually confessional or political — the broad strokes of their story and how they see it are, post-Oprah-Winfrey-interview, pretty well aired. The biggest additions are visual: the never-before-seen “archival images” touted in the trailer and provided to the director, Liz Garbus.
In other words, the personal snapshots that chronicle the formerly royal couple at all stages of their relationship. They tell the soft-focus tale Harry and Meghan want to get out, perhaps even more than they want to get out their opinions about the role of monarchy in the modern world. A tale deliberately crafted for a generation that lives online, and shaped by a platform where the colors of life itself can be filtered according to taste, framed and controlled. They speak the language of influence, for the era of influencers.
In these snaps we see them saying good night to each other from across the ocean when they were still in their long-distance phase; jumping for joy and giggling in the Botswanan bush when they went on their first trip together and were deciding if they wanted to be a couple; wearing matching beanies and sunglasses; mugging in (maybe?) a photo booth. Generally laughing and cuddling and otherwise acting fully enthralled. Later snuggling with their children. Dismantling royal froideur one hug and facemash at a time.
They are even more striking than the video snippets of Meghan feeding the chickens on her new California estate or Harry riding their son, Archie, around on a suitcase, and they add up to a love story rife with affection and made for public consumption. It’s not an accident that the first trailer — and many of the promotional images — features a black and white shot of Meghan and Harry kissing in an empty industrial kitchen after a black tie event. The actual documentary is awfully long and sometimes tiresome and not everyone will want to sit through the various retreads.
But those pictures, promising intimacy of the most stage-managed kind, are everywhere. That’s not to say they aren’t authentic, or don’t convey real emotion. They do. But they convey an agenda all their own.
Just as, indeed, the perfectly framed live-interview sections of the series do: Meghan in matching tone-on-tone dove gray knits, sitting in a soft light gray chair, perfectly framed by three enormous arched glass windows in their home in Montecito, letting in the (also filtered) sunshine; Meghan in tone-on-tone white, sitting on a white couch next to Harry in coordinated all black; the décor and costume together presenting a picture of relaxed serenity and ease of the most highly aspirational kind. As the couple is careful to acknowledge their continued privilege, in part to forestall criticism, they are also haloed by its golden glow, their pain rendered comfortably, consumably, palatable.
(Is it an accident that an Hermès blanket has slipped into the frame of a snippet in the trailer for the next three episodes, one in which Meghan is shown wiping a tear from her eyes? Doubtful.)
In the third episode, Meghan reveals that she chose to wear only neutral colors such as beige, cream and black during her time in the royal family so that she would “blend in,” and because no one was allowed to wear the same color as the queen or another senior royal in a public setting. The implication being now that she and Harry had left “the firm,” she was free to express her true self in whatever bright plumage she desired — except judging by her film choices, that apparently means more neutrals. Which undermines the suggestion of sacrifice attached to her royal wardrobe, while underscoring her sensitivity to presentation and its various interpretations. Which brings up all those personal photos again.
Who took the various shots? It’s unclear; they aren’t all selfies. But there are so many of them! The relationship was being preserved in its fairy tale form for posterity from the very beginning. Perhaps not a surprise, given Meghan’s pre-Harry Goop-like lifestyle site The Tig. She had to close it, of course, when the relationship went public and royal protocol intervened. Just as the Sussex Instagram account had to obey certain palace rules. There was a lot of catching up to do, and the documentary in part serves that purpose. When asked by The New York Times whether the Sussexes had approval over the final cut, Ms. Garbus would say only it was a “collaboration.”
Another way to think of it, however, is not so much of a bombshell directed at Buckingham Palace as an image-making exercise for the endless scroll.