Twelve minutes into her and Harry’s interview on Sunday night, Meghan Markle took Oprah to their new home in California and showed her around. There was the dog, who she “rescued from a kill shelter”. There was a chicken coop populated with “chickens rescued from a factory farm”. “I just love rescuing,” Markle added, as she and Oprah stood outside the wooden coop (“Archie’s Chick Inn”) in the wide expanse of her and Harry’s garden. The unsaid lingered in the warm California air: she’d rescued Harry too, of course, from the cold, clinging embrace of a 1,200-year institution hell-bent on turning him into a sad bird in a gilded cage.
But is that true? Perhaps we should, for a second, entertain the beliefs of middle-aged tabloid men with armpit stains who like to tell you that Harry was “tempted away”, that Meghan “got her claws in” and wouldn’t let go until “Megxit”. The band was going great before Meghan came along! Kate and Wills just living it up off the taxpayer, Philip smashing through the best PR efforts of the most dedicated monarchists on a regular basis, Andrew’s friendship with Jeffrey Epstein, Charles’s love affair with homeopathy and tampons, Fergie’s array of boundary-pushing fashion choices — it was all such a great lark! Then along came Yoko and BOOM. The glory days were over.
And what glory days they were. In Meghan’s words, they were akin to the long, scary days of an abusive relationship, where she had to hand over her “passport, license and keys”, where she was told that she couldn’t have lunch with friends because “you’re overexposed right now” and “it’s time to lay low” despite the fact she’d left the house “twice in four months”. Tears in her eyes, she recounted being held by Harry as she sobbed at night and said she “didn’t want to be alive any more”, adding, “I lost my father. I lost a baby. I nearly lost my name” and that her suicidal thoughts were “real and methodical” and she was “scared”.
Harry, too, had some stern words to say about the royals, who were referred to throughout the interview in a number of not-exactly-reassuring terms such as “the institution” and “the firm”. “I was desperate,” he said plainly. “My biggest concern was history repeating itself.” When in Canada, he said, he tried to resolve things but had “two conversations with my father before he stopped taking my calls”.
“Would you have left without Meghan?” probed Oprah. His reply came swiftly and certainly: “No. I wouldn’t have been able to because I myself was trapped… My father and my brother, they are [also] trapped. And I have compassion for that.” Perfect eyebrows slightly raised, Oprah asked the obvious question: after a life of incredible privilege and unimaginable riches, you felt that unhappy? The prince simply retorted that no one should assume he was happy just because “there were photos of me smiling while I was meeting people”. After all, “when the cars pull up” you know you have to “get dressed, wipe the tears away” and report for duty “on your A-game”. That’s just part of being a prince. The royals, who are “acutely aware of where they stand and scared of the tabloids turning on them,” have an “invisible contract” with the tabloids that were chasing him and Meghan, he added: “There is a level of control by fear that has existed for generations.” His family could have “called the dogs off,” he said at one point when addressing particularly offensive past coverage about Meghan, but they didn’t.
Of course, there is a sense of “Which set of multimillionaires should I feel sorry for today?” when you’re faced with the Harry and Meghan vs Charles, Will et al conundrum, but this was an unexpectedly eye-opening interview. I tuned in half-worried it’d be a love-in about some worthy but boring Netflix shows, a shout-out for the podcast and some vague equivocations about patriotism and stature. Instead, this felt like Harry’s revenge — not the kind that’s best served cold but the kind they’re talking about when they say the best revenge is a life lived well. He knew it was time to leave, he said, when he’d come home every day and see Meghan “crying while breastfeeding Archie”. He thinks Diana “would feel very angry with how this has panned out and very sad”. He feels “really let down” by Charles. He’s working on his relationship with his brother, who took a “different path”. All of them “only know what they know or what they’ve been told”, whereas he has been “educated” by his exposure to the outside world.
Frost/Nixon it was not, but this was a gently devastating piece of television. Those of us who remember the 1997 photographs of Harry and William in children’s suits watching their mother’s coffin go by, complete with a handwritten envelope addressed to “Mummy”, felt some catharsis tonight. As Harry described riding his bike near the beach with Archie flinging out his arms behind him, I thought of Kate Middleton’s perfect blow-dry as she stood on the steps of the hospital less than 24 hours after giving birth. All that freedom gone, and for what? So a few gilded-plate enthusiasts can fill up their houses with kitschy merchandise in celebration of a long-gone feudal system which wouldn’t even put them anywhere near the top? So rich people can say that watching reality TV is common and then tune in to what the Windsors are up to, like it isn’t a consent-free Keeping Up With the Kardashians on crack? So children can grieve through long lenses and women can continue to bite their tongues when their husbands say yes, they’re in love, “whatever love means” and everyone left on a rainy island that voted for Brexit can widen their eyes over commemorative cups of tea? Is it worth it? Was it ever?
What Harry and Meghan got was, in their own words, better than a fairytale ending, and they got it against the odds. Princess Charming rode up on her white horse, kissed her sleeping prince and made him woke. They’re having a baby girl in the summer. They bought a house in the Santa Barbara area with Harry’s inheritance from Diana. They’re still close with the Queen, who’s done a couple of lockdown-necessitated Zoom calls with them and Archie.
And so the royal institution will grind to an end, not with a bang but with Oprah. There might be a couple more generations left in it yet, but someone’s really laid it all bare now — the casual cruelty, the senseless nastiness, the waning relevance, the symbiotic relationship with the tabloids that is the last gasp that keeps the firm alive — and it’s hard to imagine it going on much longer. I doubt those golden jubilee plates will ever have the same sheen again.