Where else can a besieged British royal start anew?
There is a quiet yet well-known character in Netflix’s much-discussed Harry and Meghan docu-series, a familiar star that looms throughout the six episodes of the series and shapes much of its storyline. It’s there in many of the scenes, acting as a vortex, a magnet, a universe, a history, a future, a force shaping much of the story of the two main characters of this 21st Century drama. Yet this character hasn’t received much attention for the role it plays in this ridiculous, global soap opera.
However, it is the nature of this character that helps explains so much of the what we see over six hours of still photos, cell phone videos, news clips, private videos, and staged interviews. The character, of course, is California, the Golden State, promoter of dreams, land of second chances and vistas of untamed (and tamed) wild. The place, of course, where one goes to start anew.
Since Netflix dropped the second trilogy of its six-part Sussex docudrama last week, the overall effort has been met by sneers, and, in a few cases, only slightly better reviews than the after the first three episodes dropped two weeks ago. Most reviews noted that the docu-series adds really nothing new to what we already knew about the well-chronicled couple, is filled with score settling and sour grapes, and is so one-sided as to be unbelievable, or maybe not the full story. And, yes of course, it is all that and more. Not surprisingly, most of the analysis of the six programs focused on the two Sussexes as a couple or Meghan this, Meghan that, her treatment at the hands of the racist British press, the Royal family, and the infotainment machine that was out to destroy her.
When Harry and Meghan decide to depart to U.S, it certainly makes sense. According to Harry, his once-close brother, William, broke his trust by having his separate family office plant stories in the press. Worse, Harry implies his brother (presumably) after a family meeting at Sandringham authorized a joint press release absolving William of bullying Harry out of the family and country; Harry says he never saw the release before it went public. Combined with the treatment of his wife by the British press, Harry’s offer, as he calls it, to be “half-in/half-out” seems quaint in retrospect.
Obviously, there was no way this was going to work. Perhaps most importantly, Harry knew he needed a new path. And when it was time to set out on this new path and begin a new life story in the New World, there is only one place that it could happen for his young family: in Illinois, I mean Tennessee. Sorry, the answer is Kansas, er Connecticut. Seriously: could this story unfold any other way without a welcoming California on the other end?
Throughout the six episodes of the docuseries, we see the cliché scenes of California, particularly the oft-chronicled Southern part of the State: the crashing blue waves, the swaying palm trees, the hidden beaches (and cold water) at the bottom of cliffs, the old oak trees of the Santa Barbara hills, and, of course, the manicured green lawn of a mansion in the hills that facilitates the indoor/outdoor lifestyle. We often see the blue Pacific Ocean peaking out behind Meghan on the horizon as she talks to the camera.
While the house where many of the interviews take place is not actually her and Harry’s mansion, we can imagine that their home isn’t much different. The real estate listing for the home we do see in the docu-series isn’t subtle. It notes the massive home’s “vast ocean views, flat grounds, luxe amenities, and incredible design was…executed to embody the California Dream at its finest.” Ah, yes, there it is: the California Dream. The home. The views. The lifestyle….
Of course, for Meghan, the return to California was not a new start. In fact, it was a return home for the actress. She grew up in Los Angeles, went to high school there and split her time between her parents who divorced when she was young. Her father made a living in and around the film and television industry and her mother had a few careers, including yoga instructor, before becoming a social worker.
One of the core concerns by Meghan and Harry–in the docu-series and beyond–surrounds how England treated Meghan because of her bi-racial background. And no moment best captures this than the infamous Daily Mail article which notes that Meghan’s mother lived “(Almost) Straight Outta Compton,” a reference to the iconic 1988 West Coast hip hop song from N.W.A. The article noted that Meghan’s mom lived in Crenshaw, a neighborhood more than 10 miles from Compton “plagued by crime and riddled with street gangs.”
In reality, Meghan’s mother, Doria Ragland, actually lived in Baldwin Hills, a leafy neighborhood with a thriving black middle class. The use of Compton and the historically (though changing) black neighborhoods South of downtown Los Angeles as synonymous with violence and African-American poverty has a long a history intertwined with the entertainment and media industries. Needless to say, the Daily Mail knew exactly what it was doing when it mentioned Compton, part of a metropolitan area long shaped both by redlining and the post World War II migration of Black Americans drawn West by hopes of new beginnings financed by the defense department.
In contrast to his wife, for Harry, moving to California was a new start. He not only left his family, his home country, his friends and everything he knew in England. But is there any other place on Earth that would have worked for him? The other choices that Meghan and Harry looked into–New Zealand and South Africa among them, viewers are told–just don’t carry the same sense of implicit renewal that the Golden State continues to convey.
And Harry seems to have embraced the lifestyle of California like a native, wearing cargo shorts and T-shirts as he chases his kids around the Montecito hills and elsewhere. As he hops into his Audi SUV (presumably an electric or hybrid) to drive on Shoreline Drive in Santa Barbara to conduct an interview, he seems he could be any other Hollywood executive tired of Los Angeles and kicking back an hour or so north of Hollywood.
Yet one gets the sense from Harry that his move to California is about much more than becoming a cliché. He notes how Meghan’s treatment by the royal family and the British press reminded him about how they treated his own mother, Princess Diana. He remembers how she (and he and his brother) were harassed and badgered constantly during his childhood. Her death in a tunnel in Paris, after being chased by paparazzi, is never far from his mind. “I didn’t want history to repeat itself,” he exclaims.
He committed himself to doing everything possible to protect his wife, his children and himself, he notes repeatedly. If it meant leaving everything he knew, so be it. In that way, Meghan was the perfect partner, so different than so many of his other British paramours who would have kept him in place, going nowhere. She was his path to renewal. Not only was she American. She was a Californian.
Towards the end of the six part documentary, Harry notes, as he drives along a Southern California highway, “This is one of the places my mum was going to end up living, potentially, you know.” And, yes, we do know. Like for her son, there are only a few places where Princess Diana could have gone to be truly happy after she rejected the British royal media machine. California clearly would have been at the top of her list. In the northern or southern part of the State (close to the coast), she would have felt at home.
The past few years haven’t been kind to the Golden State and its failures have been on display for all to see; more people have moved out of the State than have moved in, and the State has even lost a seat in Congress. Homelessness and economic inequality blight the State, and California is as divided as the country between its coastal cities and its agricultural heartland. But despite the state’s struggle, the pull of the California Dream remains as strong as ever.
Had she lived, one could imagine Princess Diana enjoying Christmas with the Sussexes in Montecito, enjoying a holiday meal, then walking it off on Santa Barbara’s Butterfly Beach under palm trees swaying in the Winter breeze, celebrating her son’s choice to give his family a new start in a place that still honors that story like none other. Later this week, as the Royals gather for Christmas as they have for generations in England, out in California, it will likely be Harry and Meghan and their kids and Meghan’s mom (maybe Oprah or Tyler Perry will stop by for dessert) welcoming their new life in the Golden State as the world waits for the next shoe in this drama to drop with Harry’s autobiography, Spare, scheduled for publication in January.
Whatever is to come next, it’s clear, though, that Harry is never leaving.