The relationship between Prince William and Prince Harry and their frankly more famous royal wives, Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle, has been strained at best in recent years, after Harry and Meghan stepped down as senior royals and told all—or what we thought was all—to Oprah Winfrey. The premiere of Harry & Meghan on Thursday raised the question: How much would the Netflix docuseries say about the rift between the Sussexes and newly minted Waleses? Would the six-part Liz Garbus–directed project further alienate the two brothers, whom the world parasocially nurtured as their own after Princess Diana’s death?
In its first three (of six) hours, Harry & Meghan delves, with granular detail, into the couple’s courtship, the royal family’s tangled relationship with the British tabloids, and Meghan’s estrangement from her father, Thomas Markle. Its handling of William and Kate, thus far, is more nebulous, with subtle—and some not-so-subtle—references. William and Kate exist as subtext throughout, like the elephants in the room.
The first of these are-they-or-aren’t-they moments arises when Harry reflects on falling for Meghan—a biracial, divorced American actor who defied the prototype for a royal wife (noble, British, preferably longtime friends of the family, named after English garden flowers). “For so many people in the family, especially, obviously, the men, there can be a temptation or an urge to marry someone who would fit the mold,” Harry says, “as opposed to somebody who you are perhaps destined to be with.”
Cue the speculation that this is a reference to William and the impeccably dutiful “English rose” Kate—even if, at the time of the Waleses’ marriage, it was novel that Kate was a “commoner.” He could also be talking about his father, King Charles, who married Diana, the firm’s choice for his wife, over his true love and eventual second wife, Queen Camilla, who was initially discounted—yes, in the 20th century—for not being a virgin. However, I consider in both of these cases that, as heirs to the throne, William and Charles—both tasked with continuing the British monarchy—ostensibly had no choice but to marry people who were willing to buy into (and effectively pledge their lives to) the royal family.
Another potential reference to William comes when Harry dives into the racist tabloid takedown of Meghan after the news of their relationship broke in 2016. “What people need to understand is as far as a lot of [my] family were concerned, everything that [Meghan] was being put through, they had been put through as well,” he says. “So it was almost like a rite of passage. Some of the members of the family were like, ‘But my wife had to go through that, so why should your girlfriend be treated any differently? Why should you get special treatment? Why should she be protected?’ And I said, ‘The difference here is the race element.’”
Here, the docuseries simultaneously flashes footage of Princess Diana, Sarah Ferguson, and Kate being hounded by paparazzi. Harry doesn’t name names, but there are only so many “members of the family” whose girlfriends or wives have suffered hyper-intruston by the press. Assuming Prince Andrew would not be included in said discussions about Meghan, that leaves, again, William and Charles.
There is far less subtlety when Meghan uses a story about William and Kate to illustrate a point about the stuffiness of the royal family and the culture shock she experienced among them as an American. “Even when Will and Kate came over, and I had met her for the first time, I was in ripped jeans and I was barefoot. I was a hugger—I didn’t realize that that was jarring for a lot of Brits,” Meghan recounts. “I started to understand very quickly that the formality on the outside carried through on the inside…that there is a forward-facing way of being, and then you close the door”—Meghan exhales dramatically—“but that formality carries over on both sides, and that was surprising to me.” In this case, there is little doubt that by “a lot of Brits,” Meghan is talking about Kate. Is it surprising that Kate isn’t necessarily an effusive hugger? Not exactly, and as far as damning criticism goes, it could be a lot worse. (Let’s see what’s revealed in the series’s final three parts.)
Meghan’s hug anecdote also seemed notable in light of the long-standing skepticism about her unpreparedness for royal life; based on her reputation as a baby feminist activist and self-identified nerd, royal watchers have often questioned her claim that she didn’t google Harry before their first date or fully understand that she’d have to curtsy to Queen Elizabeth, even at a private, post-church gathering at Royal Lodge. For one, Meghan clarifies in the Netflix doc that she did the 2016 version of a Google search on “H”: She scrolled through his secret Instagram, or finsta. As for her incredulity that one of the most famously formal families in the world would be formal behind the scenes, Meghan’s comments suggest that her preparation was based, misguidedly, on her time in Hollywood. She seemed to believe that working royals were akin to actors or performance artists, adopting prim personas in the public eye only to shed them and revert to a fuzzier family mode behind the scenes. In time, she learned royalty wasn’t just a role—it was an entire way of being.