Oprah Winfrey can be many things in her capacity as an interviewer: Serene. Nurturing. Familiar. Probing. Occasionally naive in the way that only someone as rich and famous as her can be.
What she almost never is, though? Flummoxed. Yet with that one quick syllable, and the expression that launched a thousand memes to go along with it, no other word better describes her response.
This was the moment of Oprah With Meghan and Harry: A CBS Primetime Special where it became clear that Oprah’s interview with the royal couple would wildly exceed the already formidable hype leading up to it. Meghan, the biracial actor-turned-duchess, had just revealed that in the run-up to the birth of her son Archie, someone highly placed in the royal family had expressed concern about how dark the baby’s skin would be. And Oprah’s face spoke for so many of us:
“What?” was a reaction not only to the institutional racism made explicit by Meghan’s revelation, but to her subject’s willingness to spill tea about her in-laws. This was not going to be some stage-managed, tearful, ultimately hollow piece of image management, but a full-throated airing of the grievances of the sort usually saved for Festivus.
There were lines that Meghan and Harry seemed to draw and names they chose not to name — when Harry joined the interview’s second hour, for instance, he declined to elaborate further on the skin color conversation, though he confirmed that it took place. But on the whole, they seemed to treat their relationship with the other royals the way a forest ranger might look at a raging forest fire, where lighting yet another three-alarm blaze is the only way to prevent everything from being destroyed. Other than Queen Elizabeth herself — whom both Meghan and Harry painted as being exceedingly kind to them — no one escaped without scorch marks. Meghan was mostly praiseworthy of sister-in-law Kate Middleton, while also explaining that the tabloids got the “Meghan makes Kate cry over flower girl dresses” story exactly backwards. (Kate, she said, had later apologized.) Harry suggested a distant relationship with his brother William, and expressed disappointment that his father — who had been through a similar experience with how the family and the media treated Princess Diana — had shown so little empathy for their situation, to the point of refusing Harry’s calls for a while.
Most of their anger, though, was reserved for the levers and gears of the monarchy itself, which they referred to at various points as “the institution” and “the firm.” The monarchy had failed them on multiple levels, the couple argued: refusing to provide a princely title (and, more importantly, the lifelong protection that goes with it) to Archie; refusing to provide Meghan the kind of support against the British tabloids that other royals received; and, most egregiously, denying her request to seek treatment for depression that was turning into suicidal ideation.
The list of royal sins ran wide and deep, in ways that made the conversation feel relevant well beyond the specific problems of this fabulously wealthy couple. This wasn’t just celebrity gossip, but a story about mental health, about institutionalized racism and inertia, and about how images — say, Meghan and Harry looking happy and serene on a night out when she had actually pleaded with Harry to take her, for fear of what she might do to herself if left home alone — can lie. At one point, Meghan even mentioned going to HR for help and finding none, a sadly common circumstance that you would never expect from a woman whose purported fairy-tale wedding was watched by millions(*).
(*) Meghan’s confessed that she and Harry had their real, legal wedding in private several days before the televised ceremony at Windsor Castle, a notion that will ring sympathetic to couples of more modest means who nonetheless find their own nuptials growing beyond their comfort.
The special’s first hour in particular was a perfect match of interviewer and subject. Oprah’s not the ideal interrogator for every kind of guest, but there is no one better at getting the ultrafamous to drop their guard and say things they wouldn’t to anyone else with a TV camera. Oprah is one of them — she literally lives in the same SoCal neighborhood as Meghan and Harry — while at the same time retaining enough of her journalism training to gently but firmly nudge her guests in the direction she needs them to go. Even the moments when Meghan and/or Harry chose not to reveal something proved telling: Given everything Oprah had gotten them to say about various royals, for instance, it wasn’t hard to zero in on Charles and/or William as the most likely perpetrators of the offensive skin-color question.
Meghan, meanwhile, is an actor with her own kind of media training. She understands how the PR game is meant to be played, and thus was in a better position than most non-royals would be both to recognize the position the firm kept putting her in, and to articulate it to Oprah and her audience. She’s also an American who did not grow up in awe of the royals(*), who has been through divorce and other personal strife. She’s not someone conditioned to hold back for the sake of decorum. And her openness no doubt has been a big influence on her husband, who was a bit skimpier with specifics when he joined the conversation, but who nonetheless made clear how wronged he felt he, Meghan, and Archie have been by the crown.
(*) The flip side is that she came off as willfully ignorant when she admitted not looking into Harry’s family more thoroughly in the early stages of dating him, though it’s a fairly minor mistake compared to the things allegedly done to her.
The Crown itself came up briefly at one point, as Oprah got her guests to admit that they’ve both watched at least some of the Netflix drama, whose most recent season covered the first decade of Charles and Diana’s marriage, including Harry’s early childhood. The Crown is sold as a warts-and-all portrait of the monarchy, even though it’s clear that creator Peter Morgan has enormous affection for the institution itself, if not for all of the people within it, and for what the burden of title can do to the ones he likes. The Meghan and Harry interview, though, painted a picture of an institution so calcified as to perhaps be unsalvageable, even as the glorified and expensive PR firm that the royalty has essentially become. The Netflix drama is already scheduled to end well before its fictionalized palace catches up with our present version, but it’s also hard to imagine Morgan being willing to fully confront all that was said and implied in this interview. (Also, Morgan’s best work on the show, and in his other films about Queen Elizabeth, have involved recreating events that took away from the public eye, whereas we now have a whole lot of detail about this situation.)
But the interview wound up transcending all the Twitter jokes about how The Crown might attempt to dramatize it. And it transcended the usual scope and agenda of this kind of carefully orchestrated sit-down. This felt like the type of event that television rarely offers anymore in a post-monoculture world (early ratings suggested an average of 17.1 million people watched it on Sunday night), and one where the steak — the nature and larger meaning of Meghan’s complaints — wound up being far more important than the sizzle of these two talking at all. This interview will shape perception of the royals for years to come, even as its lessons apply to a much wider world than the one inside Buckingham Palace.
“What” just happened? Something pretty great, it turns out.