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In the penultimate episode of The Crown season four, Diana (Emma Corrin) and Charles (Josh O’Connor) perch in silent discomfort inside a palace drawing room, each contemplating the inevitable death of their marriage. You imagine they’re finally going to rip each other to shreds and euthanize this sham of a union, but they’re soon led into an even stuffier parlor to be dressed down by the queen and Prince Philip. Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman), solemn and precise, isn’t interested in her son’s or daughter-in-law’s health — rather, she’s concerned about the integrity of the monarchy. If a royal marriage fails, according to her, so does the public’s faith in their ancient institution. Diana devotedly absorbs the scolding, even when Elizabeth shames her for casual dalliances with low-born men while her own son carries on a brazen and long-term love affair. The young woman promises to do better, love Charles better. She submits, lying to herself just for a bit of meager affection or tolerance from a trusted elder.
The Crown posits that a vulnerable 19-year-old like Diana chose this family, seemingly the most rock-solid coterie in all of Britain, after growing up in a broken and neglectful home. She wanted roots, so she grafted herself to the most dendritic and deeply entrenched family tree in all of Western civilization. The series emphasizes that, regal or not, an individual doesn’t typically marry just a singular person but an entire ecosystem of personalities, emotions and egos. This is something Meghan Markle, the real-life daughter-in-law of Princess Diana, has sadly learned all too well over the past few years.
The concept of “chosen family” — the people you form close bonds with even though there’s no biological tie — means lots of different things to lots of different people, and this broad theme is at the pith of this year’s Emmys race. While family of choice remains concomitant with the needs and cultures of some queer people ostracized from their own, it also applies broadly across TV storytelling. Many of the 2021 drama series contenders project a heartening viewpoint of chosen family, reminding us that found connections can help people rebuild their lives and identities anew after trauma. Conversely, others showcase that the “chosen family” of who we marry can also end up entrapping folks while hopes for a future die on the vine.
Feeling emotionally disoriented is more an opportunity than a detriment for characters on Disney+’s space Western The Mandalorian, NBC’s family melodrama This Is Us and HBO’s steampunk fantasy The Nevers. While these dramas are steeped in the suffering caused by intergenerational abandonment and orphandom, their writers never treat their protagonists like lost little lambs. Instead, the leads eventually find some measure of comfort or power in accepting their fates and inviting new people into their lives.
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