[Editor’s note: The A.V. Club will publish episode recaps of The Crown’s fifth season every weekday at 1 a.m. Eastern through November 22. The following details episode seven.]
Who’s ready for a Diana episode?
In many ways, “No Woman’s Land” parallels episode five, “The Way Ahead,” which focused on Charles (Dominic West). Both installments open with their subjects speaking in voiceover about their own self-image. When we get the reveal of who Charles is talking to, it’s a table full of people, keen to stroke his ego. Diana’s (Elizabeth Debicki) musings, however, are delivered to one person: her acupuncturist during a session. Both are captive audiences; Charles’ dinner party seeks proximity to power, and Diana’s acupuncturist is being paid. But there’s a key difference: He is holding court; she is seeking connection wherever she can find it.
Diana says separation is a “no woman’s land,” as she’s neither single nor married, royal nor normal. She compares herself to a harpy, a mythological creature that’s half woman, half bird. She’s nervous about William (Senan West, Dominic West’s own son) starting Eton because he’s always been her rock, a strange thing to say about your 13 year old. She and Charles drop him off at the boarding school together as cameras click and reporters scream at the young prince. They can’t get through the outing without arguing. Charles accuses her of smothering William, and she counters that it’s simply mothering.
We’re also introduced to Martin Bashir (Prasanna Puwanarajah), an investigative journalist for the BBC’s Panorama program. He’s poring over newspaper articles proclaiming Diana “will never be queen” and “tried to take her own life” pitches the idea of a Diana interview to his editor. “What’s more Panorama that a national institution in free fall?”
But Diana already has offers from major players in America, like Barbara Walters and Oprah Winfrey (she’ll get her dramatic royal interview in the end), so what can the BBC give her? The trust and importance that comes with a legitimate news source.
But what Bashir does next is so horrifically unethical, it’s hard to reconcile with that mindset. He forges bank statements to imply that people surrounding Diana and her brother, Charles Spencer (Philip Cumbus), are being paid to spy on her. Why does he do this? It’s not as if his original pitch of legitimacy is made and rejected. We truly never get motivations for why Bashir immediately turned to fraud to get to Diana.
The consequences are devastating. Diana is already deeply lonely and isolated from everyone, prone to anxiety over being watched that could either be legitimate or paranoia. On her way to meet her brother, whom she hasn’t spoken to in two years (he criticized her in a letter, which was then leaked to the press), her brakes stop functioning. She thinks they may have been tampered with, or maybe her car is just due for a service. Which is it? Is she a target or descending into madness? The Crown suggests perhaps both, but Bashir’s deceit only serves to further isolate her, as he convinces her that she can trust no one.
Her acupuncturist’s husband is having heart surgery, and Diana offers to sit with her friend in the waiting room. There, she meets and is immediately taken with his heart surgeon, Dr. Hasnat Khan (Humayun Saeed). She comes back to visit, cheering up patients, hanging around late, until he invites her to have a date by the vending machine during his midnight break.
He was recently visiting family in Pakistan, and she shares how moved she was during a state visit there a few years ago, thinking she could be happy if she just settled down with a nice Pakistani husband. “It’s a nice idea. In practice you might find Pakistani values challenging,” he says, but she argues that everything she endured to become a part of the royal family (proving her virginity, dressing modestly, walking behind her husband and calling him “sir”) was not better. They plan a movie date to see Apollo 13, with her promising it won’t be a circus.
Meanwhile, Eton is within spitting distance of Buckingham Palace, so Elizabeth (Imelda Staunton) arranges for William to join her for tea, just the two of them. Diana asks William to put in a good word for her, and when William brings it up, Elizabeth acts surprised. “Do you worry about her?” she asks, and when William confirms that he does, she says, “It’s not right for a child to worry about a parent.” She’s not wrong, but given the situation with his parents, what does she expect? Later, Elizabeth calls a meeting with Margaret (Lesley Manville), who lives near Diana in Kensington Palace, looking for more intel. Margaret draws parallels between herself and Diana, both sensitive and stylish people, but ultimately says she knows nothing about Diana: “The system isn’t easy for people like us. But that doesn’t mean we talk.”
Diana’s brother sets up a meeting for her and Bashir at his house, and he lays it on thick for her, telling her the royal family sees her as a threat because of her power and popularity, and that they’re working toward the “ultimate goal of driving you from the country and forcing you to live abroad.” He suggests the best course of action is for her to go public with her side of the story, because of course he does.
As he leaves, Diana asks Bashir where he’s from, and he says he was born in the U.K., but his parents are from Pakistan. She attaches an importance to this coincidence–maybe even fetishizing it a little bit–and he clocks it, mentioning it to his editor at a later meeting.
Diana and Dr. Khan catch the movie, with her showing up in sunglasses and a dark wig to avoid being recognized. Afterward, he comes back to her place, and she flirts by asking him to talk her through performing heart surgery. “Thank you, you’ve just mended my heart,” she tells him, and he disappoints her by getting up to leave.
“Don’t I get a proper kiss?” she persists, continuing her pattern of coming off quite child-like. He confesses he doesn’t understand what she sees in him, and she says she doesn’t want him to see her as this big, glamorous, celestial being. (That’s the second time this episode she’s mythologized herself.) “But you are!” he insists, and she says no. “I’m no one anymore. I have nothing. No real friends, no purpose, no role, no family.” She tells him she had her prince, he broke her heart, and she’s just looking for a frog to make her happy (a little harsh, Diana). The whole thing is both cute and sad, which is kind of Diana’s modus operandi.
Diana meets Bashir clandestinely in the parking garage, and he feeds her more faked bank statements and faulty information and then offers that they’re similar, because he’s ridiculed and kept out because of his Pakistani heritage. He even throws out an Asian proverb, and you can see him preying on her loneliness and desperation for connection. “You don’t know what it means to me,” Diana tells him. “To be understood.”
The episode closes with Diana leaving the palace in her car, reporters and photographers watching her as she goes, Edwyn Collins’ “A Girl Like You” (“You give me just a taste so I want more”) playing. The whole episode is example after example of how this woman was ridiculed, abused, gossiped about, used, lied to, and betrayed. And here we are, almost 30 years later, still wanting more.
- The episode does a good job of humanizing Diana, of showing her isolation, but also offers hints at her flaws. “Quite dishy, wasn’t he?” she says of Dr. Khan to her friend, who is literally worried about her husband’s heart surgery. Diana pushes on, mentioning his eyes and hands, never really aware of how self-centered she is.
- When Diana asks Dr. Khan where the heart is, he says in the center, and she says, “Not on the left?” My world shattered, I immediately paused to google. Isn’t it on the left?! And the internet confirms that it is slightly left of center.