Archetypes failed not for lack of trying (Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

June 29, 2023   6 mins

In a tiny variation of the origin story of America, another British empire has crumbled within a few years of attempting to set up shop on US soil. Archewell Audio, the brainchild of Meghan Markle and (the artist formerly known as) Prince Harry, is officially kaput on Spotify — as is the Sussexes’ $20-million deal to create podcasts on the platform. The CEO of a top Hollywood agency reportedly trashed the Duchess at Cannes: “Turns out Meghan Markle was not a great audio talent, or necessarily any kind of talent”. And Spotify executive Bill Simmons ripped into the Sussexes on his own podcast. “The Fucking Grifters: that’s the podcast we should have launched with them,” he said. “I gotta get drunk one night and tell the story of the Zoom I had with Harry to try and help him with a podcast idea. It’s one of my best stories.”

I, for one, eagerly await the big reveal. But it’s hard to imagine that whatever Harry suggested could be worse than what Archewell ultimately produced. Apart from a 33-minute holiday special, released in December 2020, the couple’s sole Spotify output was Archetypes, which described itself as an effort to “investigate, dissect, and subvert the labels that hold women back”. Having listened to it, I can confirm: the above is less a mission statement than a strategy akin to the one employed by high-school students looking to pad the word count. (“Webster’s dictionary defines an archetype as ‘a very typical example of a certain person or thing.’ In this essay I will
”.) Meghan appears in conversation with women who, like her, have done extremely well for themselves — the first two episodes feature Mariah Carey and Serena Williams — but who, like Meghan, can still pluck a narrative about being held back by misogyny from even the most stratospheric level of success.

The Archetypes post-mortem has included damning allegations about Meghan’s lack of involvement, including that she pawned off the actual interviewing onto a producer and then recorded herself asking the questions later. Andy Cohen, host of The Real Housewives, who appeared in the final “binary breaking” episode (so-called because, unlike previous episodes, this one had men in it), has described this as “an insane rumor”; from the perspective of a famous person, like him, it is. It’s very clear, listening to the podcast, that Meghan did indeed interview her celebrity guests. It’s equally clear, however, that these are the only guests she talked to.

The academics, journalists, or even just less-famous celebrities whose voices are included on Archetypes were apparently pre-recorded with a producer, with Meghan’s reactions spliced in afterward — sometimes with unintentionally hilarious results. “I mean, isn’t that all so interesting?” Meghan coos, after a lengthy diatribe from the episode’s featured professor about “women and femmes and minoritised people” and “normative social constructs and normative social patterns”. (If by “interesting” you mean “indecipherable”, then yes, very.) And yet, the podcast needs these voices, not only to give it the gloss of a serious exploration of its subject matter, but to counteract the substanceless quality of Meghan’s interviews with fellow celebs.

Of course, Meghan is very busy and important and not obligated to talk to anyone she doesn’t want to; of course, she’s entitled to only speak with people as famous as she is, while leaving her producers to deal with the rabble. But this is undeniably at odds with the relatable image she’s been attempting to sell since Megxit, whether it’s one-on-one with Oprah or to millions of viewers on Netflix: the image of the royal princess turned humble truth-teller. Meghan (who, lest we forget, started out as an actor) is not so much an engaged host as playing the role of one, and hence Archetypes is not so much a podcast as an incredible simulation thereof. You know that saying about a stupid person’s idea of a smart person? This is like that, except it’s a narcissist’s idea of what it would be like to be curious about other people’s lives. When news broke this week that Harry’s own favourite (albeit sadly unrealised) podcast idea was to interview Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump about their childhood trauma, was anyone surprised? At the end of the day, the Sussexes invariably circle back to the only topic either of them are interested in: themselves.

Not that I blame them. This is, if nothing else, a solid business strategy: the relentless commitment to monetising one’s own life story is itself archetypal of the modern age, not to mention classically American. And despite the entertainment value of Bill Simmons describing the couple as “grifters”, this is not quite the right word for what Meghan is, nor for what she tried to do with her now-defunct podcast. Grifters are typically in it for the money, but the nature of the Spotify contract more or less meant that she could have farted into a microphone for an hour and still get paid, but Archteypes is what she made. She chose the podcast medium; she chose this particular format. Perhaps it is worth asking why.

Is it just that this type of vaguely woke social commentary is cheap and easy and ubiquitous, the lowest-hanging fruit on today’s cultural landscape? Or is it that in our attention economy, wading into the shallowest point in the culture wars — where the activism of the keyboard warrior meets the relatability of the lifestyle influencer — is one of the few ways left to make a name for yourself that doesn’t involve reality television?

Other creators — almost always women — have tried in various ways and forms to leverage this approach to content. Sometimes it works, at least for a while: remember when Hannah Gadsby’s audience-scolding anti-comedy special Nanette was the most celebrated cultural product of 2018? Sometimes, as with Chelsea Handler’s Netflix documentary about reckoning with her white privilege, it’s an unmitigated disaster: the Rotten Tomatoes rating for Hello, Privilege. It’s Me, Chelsea is a dismal 11%. It helps when the creator, or host, is willing to make it personal, and on this front, there are glimpses within Archetypes of what could have been a successful product — one that interwove Meghan’s own struggles with its broader feminist theme.

The problem, in the end, is not Meghan’s story. It’s Meghan herself.

A hallmark of the best podcasts, and what is sorely missing from Archetypes, is a sense of intimacy. The content of an enjoyable podcast is often secondary to the connection you feel with it, whether it’s a sense of sitting in on a lecture from an expert who is passionately obsessed with his subject — as in My Favorite Murder or The Rest Is History — or of overhearing a conversation between interesting people who are also interested in each other — as in Blocked and Reported, or The Unspeakable.

To be clear, Archetypes failed not for lack of trying: Meghan dutifully mimics the format of other, better podcasts, leaning into the microphone and addressing the audience in a direct, confessional tone. But these moments are so obviously scripted — in the sense that a practised actress with a trained voice is reading lines off a page — that they ring hollow. The overall impression is of somebody who knows all the words, but can’t hear the music; a person more concerned with image than connection; a woman who wants to present herself as relatable while speaking only to people as famous as she is. It’s ironic, for someone who fled the UK to escape the constraints of a highly managed life. She seems more boxed-in than ever.

There’s an interesting moment, in the final episode, when Meghan laughingly declines Andy Cohen’s offer to develop a Real Housewives-style series just for her. It’s interesting because, in some ways, this does actually seem to be what she wants: to be the simultaneous hero, author and star of her own life story, reclaiming her narrative in the manner of a Kim Kardashian or a Paris Hilton (also a guest on Archetypes). But to do this, and to make it entertaining, would require ceding control of her image — and it would require being unscripted, sloppy and real in public in a way that she’s clearly uncomfortable with. The Real Housewives do not care what you think of them. The Sussexes clearly do. Harry is currently fighting three lawsuits with British newspapers.

It’s no surprise that Meghan was drawn to the idea of podcasting, the dream of a conversation over which she has total control. But for Archetypes to work, its host would have had to recognise that the point of interviewing other people is to tell their stories, not to use them as a vehicle for telling, and retelling, your own. But even Meghan’s dialogues with celebrity guests have a funny way of circling back to become all about Meghan herself — her Cinderella story, her identity struggles and her yearning to be affirmed and accepted, first by Hollywood and then by the Royals.

And here, though evidently without meaning to, the podcast does manage to fulfil its promise on one front: if you were looking for a 12-hour portrait of the archetypal narcissist, you could not do better than this.

Kat Rosenfield is an UnHerd columnist and co-host of the Feminine Chaos podcast. Her latest novel is You Must Remember This.