In creating a villain in Diana's death "The Crown" does a disservice to the crash's other victim

Dodi Fayed died beside Princess Diana, but by focusing on his father "The Crown" never let him live to start with

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published November 20, 2023 12:00PM (EST)

Khalid Abdalla as Dodi Fayed and Elizabeth Debicki and Diana in "The Crown" (Daniel Escale/Netflix)
Khalid Abdalla as Dodi Fayed and Elizabeth Debicki and Diana in "The Crown" (Daniel Escale/Netflix)

Our ongoing captivation with “The Crown” and the Windsors can be ascribed to our affection for unreliable narrators. If the spin is entertaining enough, we appreciate the deception. Verbal Kint’s seamless transition from a limping crumbled man into a strutting demon at the end of “The Usual Suspects” made us love being duped. Midway through “Gone Girl” Gillian Flynn reveals both her narrators to be liars – the namesake victim is a vicious aggressor, and her hangdog husband is no angel either.

Peter Morgan isn’t anywhere as sinister as that, but he tipped his hand long ago when he told reporters that he views “The Crown” as his “love letter” to Queen Elizabeth II. That doesn’t mean his queen is necessarily warmer than the real one; in the first four episodes of the sixth and final season, Imelda Staunton’s Elizabeth is colder than ever. For reasons.

This is a series that refuses to allow the British royals to look inhumane.

Several times Elizabeth points to Prince Charles (Dominic West) choosing Camilla Parker Bowles (Olivia Williams) instead of remaining married to Diana (Elizabeth Debicki), to explain her froideur.

In the second episode, “Two Photographs,” Elizabeth laments Diana’s budding romance with Dodi Fayed (Khalid Abdalla), the son of flamboyant Egyptian billionaire Mohamed al-Fayed (Salim Daw), by icily saying, “One would almost feel sorry for her if one weren’t so cross with her.”

This is in reaction to the worldwide release of candid paparazzi photographs of Diana and Dodi kissing on a yacht off the coast of Sardinia. They thought they were alone, and they should have been. But Mohamed, or Mou Mou as Diana affectionately calls her patron, makes other plans.

Morgan’s version of events casts the overbearing patriarch as engineering the romance between Diana and Dodi – which is a prevailing theory but, as with many details in “The Crown,” disputed by al-Fayed’s former spokesperson Michael Cole.

More incriminating, however, is the implication that Mohamed tipped off renowned paparazzo Mario Brenna (Enzo Cilenti) that Diana and Dodi were together, providing his yacht’s location so Brenna could capture those famous photos on Aug. 4, 1997. Brenna syndicated those shots to publications around the world, making him a millionaire several times over.

Their value also launched a feeding frenzy, guaranteeing Diana and Dodi would be hunted anywhere they went. Weeks later in Paris, Dodi and Diana’s driver sped into a tunnel trying to evade photographers chasing their car, where it crashed and killed the driver and Dodi instantly; Diana died later of her injuries.

The CrownElizabeth Debicki and Diana and Khalid Abdalla as Dodi Fayed in "The Crown" (Daniel Escale/Netflix)In effect, “The Crown” blames the ambitious social climber of a father for releasing the hounds that would eventually run down his son and the People’s Princess when the real tipster's identity remains a mystery.

In her 2022 book “The Palace Papers,” Tina Brown writes that Diana was the one who let Brenna know where to find her. But both Elizabeth and Morgan know the audience’s allegiance lies with the Princes of Wales. That was true in Diana's day, and much fiercer now that one of her sons exited the royal family and affirmed in a book and a couple of documentaries that his mother was right to run from the institution.

“The Crown” is invested in Diana as a tragic angel rather than a canny architect of her public image, and the best way to protect that portrait is to create a villain. But this is a series that refuses to allow the British royals to look inhumane. Even at his worst, when Josh O’Connor depicted Charles as an envious and verbally abusive husband, we’re made to understand Charles’ spite as a side effect of being denied any agency in his life choices beyond those prescribed by tradition and duty.  

But Morgan can get away with making Mohamed al-Fayed play the heel, rendering the Egyptian tycoon as venal, loathsome and willing to do anything to win British society’s approval. His colonialist worship has deep roots, established in the fifth season’s third episode, “Mou Mou.” A young Mohamed hawking Cokes in his hardscrabble Alexandria neighborhood when suddenly he’s beguiled by the appearance of Edward VIII, Duke of Windsor, and Wallis Simpson – you know, the Nazi sympathizers in the family.

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That night over dinner his schoolteacher father chastises him for worshipping the British. “Since 1882, they have occupied us. Dominated us. Made a mockery of our laws. Trampled on our freedoms. Our dignity. But I don’t save my greatest contempt for them. My greatest contempt is for the Egyptians that look up to the British as gods.”

Later, Mohamed tells his brothers, that these are “strong words from a weak man… I want to match them. I want to be like them. Have power like them. And if we look up to their kings and queens as gods, it’s because they are.”

Years later Mohamed is true to his word when during a lavish black-tie celebration to mark his purchase of the Ritz hotel in Paris, he haughtily orders a younger Dodi to fire the Black waiter in the room – only to reconsider when Dodi tells his father that the man, a Bahamian named Sydney Johnson (Jude Akuwudike), used to be Edward and Wallis’ personal valet.

So Mohamed hired Sydney not only to serve him but to teach him how to be a British gentleman and curry Elizabeth’s favor. To review: Sydney, a Black man, learned everything about what it means to be British from the royals who were fans of Adolf Hitler. He in turn passes those teachings on to Mohamed, an Arab who would do anything to get Elizabeth’s approval.

Even if the details are somewhat accurate, the show’s charming presentation of colonialist endorsement is mind-bending, to put it mildly, but consistent.

The CrownJude Akuwudike as Sydney Johnson and Salim Daw as Mohamed Al-Fayed in "The Crown" (Ana Blumenkron/Netflix)Al-Fayed died in August of this year, and to know a sliver of his history is to realize Morgan does him plenty of favors. None of the many accusations al-Fayed faced related to corruption, shady business deals, or his alleged creation of a false origin story come up in the series. The smaller details acknowledge the discrimination he faced, such as the headline announcing his purchase of London's most renowned department store that reads, “A Tiny sell out gives the Arabs Harrods.”

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But to trace the unleashing of the ravenous public back to Mohamed and his notorious obsession to obtain British citizenship and be seen as fully equal in society is a vigorous laundering of history.  Such forceful insertions prevent Dodi from being a fully realized person instead of a two-dimensional puppet regardless of how tenderly Abdalla plays him.

The show’s charming presentation of colonialist endorsement is mind-bending, to put it mildly, but consistent.

Morgan had an opportunity to rectify one of the great wrongs in this story by filling in the vast blank of Dodi’s history and personality decoupled from Mohamed’s. Instead, Morgan’s invention of Dodi proposing to Diana and her turning him down are more of a comforting indicator of her will to protect her independence than telling us anything about him.  

After the fatal accident, Mohamed mourns that the world has erased his son as it mourns Diana. But “The Crown” does little leading up to that terrible crash to make Dodi more indelible than a detail in her tragic end. He may have captured the princess’ heart or simply been a wealthy friend who showed her a good time. Our unreliable narrator ensures he enters and leaves the same way – as a passenger in a story about more powerful people accustomed to emerging from the wrecks unscathed.

Four episodes of the sixth and final season of "The Crown" are currently streaming on Netflix.  Episodes 5-10 debut Thursday, Dec.14.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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