The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Meghan and Harry made a fairy-tale escape. They still seem trapped.

The Sussexes are stuck telling the story of their break with the monarchy, over and over

(The Washington Post illustration; Seth Wenig/AP)
8 min

Once upon a time, there was a commoner who became a princess (but only after she’d already become a different kind of royalty: a successful actress and lifestyle blogger recommending things such as gluten-free bakeries and Kat Von D lipstick), and who then moved into a palace that turned out to be more of a prison, and who then assessed her new extended family, said never mind, and who then high-tailed it back to California with her prince — and that is where our story begins.

It was shocking to me, in 2020, what strong feelings perfectly rational people seemed to have about the absconsion of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Prince Harry and Meghan, “H” and “M” as they call one another, as a new Netflix documentary reveals. The couple announced they were abdicating from their official role with the royal family, and dividing lines were quickly drawn. It was “How could Meghan do that to them?” vs. “How could they do that to her?”

What’s even more shocking is that nearly three years have passed since that bombshell of an announcement, and perfectly rational people have not calmed down. Scroll through the hashtag #HarryandMeghan on social media, and you’ll learn that Meghan is either an attention-gobbling witch or Jesus of Nazareth in the hearts and minds of the public. The hashtag, and the renewed debate, both come from the aforementioned Netflix show, in which the couple set out to finally tell their side of the story. The first three episodes became available last week, and another three dropped on Thursday.

Why this new raft of Haz ‘n’ Meg content? Did they not tell their side of the story with an Oprah interview in 2021, which alleged revolting racism and bigotry within the royal family? Did they not tell it via a large profile in the Cut, Meghan’s podcast, “Archetypes,” or Harry’s upcoming memoir, advertised as a work of “raw, unflinching honesty”?

No. There is always more to tell. There is always more to make the public understand. Harry says there will never be “genuine accountability or a genuine apology” from his family for the treatment that he and Meghan received while living in the United Kingdom. Meghan was shut out of the royal “round table” discussing the couple’s move to the United States — a tense meeting during which, according to Harry, Prince William yelled at his brother.

The series opened with archival footage of Meghan from years ago, before she met Harry, doing an interview in which she was asked lightning-round questions, such as what her favorite mood-boosting song was. Whom did she prefer, the interviewer asked: Prince William or Prince Harry? A young and innocent Meghan scoffed at the inane question — and this should have proved it, shouldn’t it? Meghan never planned for any of this! Meghan had to Google the lyrics to the British national anthem!

Netflix's documentary series, which premiered Dec. 8, delves into the couple's courtship, marriage and exit as senior members of the royal family. (Video: The Washington Post)

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In addition to telling their personal story, the series attempts to tell a complicated story of Britain — its colonial past, its ghoulish media — making it clear that a smart, biracial, fashionable feminist like Meghan never stood a chance in a family where the other women seemed happy to smile and wear shiny pantyhose. The royal media were vipers. The royal family were either clueless or complicit. Harry saw his mother succumb to this cesspool, and he wanted to make sure the story was different for his own wife and children.

To an onlooker, it seems as if the question to be answered by this documentary is whether Harry and Meghan are: a) sympathetic and relatable, or b) entitled and kind of phony. They were living a life of astronomical privilege, after all — wealth, residences, travel, opportunity, history, what many royal subjects would kill for — and they chucked it like the night shift at Arby’s.

They had to chuck it, as they explained to Oprah and everyone else. They had to leave behind everything, to live more “authentically.” But as you watch them roam around their new West Coast digs, which are verdant and huge and beautiful and expensive, where happy chickens roam through air so sunny and sea-kissed you could smell it through the television, you can’t help but think: I, too, would like to sacrifice everything.

Harry is a career soldier. Meghan was a basic-cable actress. Based solely on their earning power, a more “authentic” lifestyle would be a more modest one, but instead this looked as if they had traded a pair of golden handcuffs for a diamond bedroom set.

At its heart, the Meghan and Harry debate isn’t about whether they deserve wealth; it’s about whether they deserve happiness. This question is far more elemental and familiar: If the choice is between pleasing your in-laws and centering your own ambitions and desires, what do you choose? If a system is broken, do you try to fix it from within, or do you escape, then lob grenades at the castle walls?

The heart wants what it wants, and sometimes it wants Montecito. Is following the heart there an admirable act, or a selfish one?

This is a story, at a basic level, of what it means to marry into a family. There’s a sister-in-law who got there first and who isn’t a hugger and who brought her own shiny pantyhose. There’s the brother-in-law your husband used to be close to, but with whom things are now awkward and everyone is acting as though that’s your fault. Things are also awkward with your father-in-law, who married his mistress, and we haven’t even gotten started on your new uncle, the one who had been pals with Jeffrey Epstein. The person you like best is your mother-in-law, whom you never actually got to meet, because she died 25 years ago.

Do you suck it up, Christmas after Christmas, christening after christening — through casually racist conversations (how light-skinned will your baby be?) and uptight dinner parties? Through the relentless scrutiny of those watching to assess whether you were having a good enough time at those dinner parties? (Every time Meghan didn’t quite fit in, the paparazzi made a slide show about it.) Do you grit your teeth, then go home and breathe deeply into an empty Lululemon bag?

Or do you turn to your new spouse and say: “I’m out. You coming?”

Meghan and Harry did the latter, and this enrages the kind of people who would do the former — who have done the former, for years, and who are at this very moment getting ready to go spend the holidays on Uncle Mert’s pullout sofa. It especially enrages the kind of people who do the former while wishing they could do the latter — but who can’t even get their spouse to delete 17 hours of “Naked and Afraid” tying up space on the DVR, let alone renounce a royal birthright.

For as angry and frustrated as Haz and Meg are, “Harry & Meghan” is a careful documentary. There are a few hints of family drama, but mostly, instead of dishing the dirt, they gently tap it with a trowel. Members of the royal family are rarely named as villains. Instead, the villains are “the institution” or “the offices” of the family — the royal communications departments who, the couple says, planted negative items about the Sussexes in the tabloids to take attention away from other senior royals.

“Harry & Meghan” did settle something for me: I’m now convinced that stepping back from the royal family was the right thing to do, mostly because the couple believed it was the only thing to do. The relationships — between Meghan and the press, between the couple and the family — had become disastrous to Meghan’s mental health. At one point, she contemplated suicide. No tiara or title is worth this.

Here’s what I’m still puzzling over, six episodes later: This is supposed to be the story of how Harry and Meghan won their freedom. But did they?

They’re no longer grinning bravely for the cameras of the royal press corps. But they’re still here on the television, singing for their supper. No longer funded by British taxpayers, they must find some way to pay for the infrastructure their lives now require: the security details, the assistants, the caretakers who look after their children while the couple builds a new kind of empire.

And the most popular song they have to sing is the song of their royal mistreatment: the tabloids, the lawsuits, the betrayals, the tears, the dashed hopes of dashing princes. Harry and Meghan’s entire livelihood now depends on revisiting the institution that traumatized them to begin with.

That isn’t a fairy-tale ending. That isn’t even an ending, and that’s the problem. The problem with Harry and Meghan’s story is that the beginning never ends.