Artwork by Rhea Brar

(More) love, lust and letdowns: Bridgerton Season 3 Part 2

And here we are. After a long month’s wait (made longer by a very tiring Trinity), the second instalment of Bridgerton Season Three has finally been released to Netflix. Unable to exercise restraint, I’ve already consumed the four new episodes in one day. While some of the qualms I raised in my review of Part One were satisfyingly resolved, this was still not the best series of Bridgerton (that honour goes to Season 2, with special mention also to Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story), although it was equally not the worst (I am really not a Season 1 fan).

The Whistledown dilemma: resolved?

Where the complex paternal histories of the Duke and Anthony proved to be temporary foils to romance in Seasons 1 and 2, it was Penelope’s scandal sheet writing alter ego that brought complications this season. Part Two’s dominant focus was thus on the build-up of this revelation to Colin and the rest of the ton, as Eloise threatened to tell all, before a desperate Cressida Cowper took to impersonating Whistledown to fend off her own unwanted fate.

The showrunners faced a dilemma in solving this issue, though: what would happen to Lady Whistledown, whose havoc-wreaking presence has been a given throughout the series, once the truth was out? In the book Romancing Mister Bridgerton, Penelope abandons her writing persona after marrying Colin. But this would hardly have made for a satisfying on screen resolution. For, as Penelope acknowledges, Whistledown is power. Should she really give this up merely to assimilate into her new role as a wife, especially when this would mean retreating into the shadow of her author-to-be husband? 

Series 3 grappled with all of these questions, as Penelope was forced to contemplate the worth of Whistledown. As Eloise reminds her, the column runs on what is essentially “just gossip”, her pen often doing more harm than good. But, for a long time, it also provided an outlet for the stifled wallflower, giving her a voice, an identity and an income. 

For Colin, too, the truth leads to self-reflection, as he contends with his own jealousy and insecurity. Initially, he is more bothered about the insult that Lady Whistledown levelled his way at the start of the season, than with what I expected to be the elephant in the room: Whistledown’s exposure of his former flame Marina’s pregnancy. If his wife is independent, he also questions “then what good am I to you?”. The series thus explores interesting questions about the masculine response to female careers at the time.

In the end, Penelope decides to own her past mistakes and confess the truth before the ton, in an improvement from the book, where Colin apparently nominates himself as her spokesperson. Despite the fact that she was backed into a corner by Cressida’s blackmailing and Queen Charlotte’s investigations, it was a pleasant surprise to see Penelope tell this truth on her own terms, shedding her wallflower status once and for all as she literally takes centre stage. Henceforth, she will continue her column, but signing off as Penelope Bridgerton.

On the other hand, the collective response to this revelation was a bit ridiculous. How realistic is it that the queen would simply forgive her? And that society would not treat her much differently? After she gives her speech, Pen is even allowed to walk off alone – as if nobody cares or wants to hear further explanations from her! I assume the following seasons will examine the long-term effects of this, but for now it feels like the necessity of a happy ending led to an overlooking of real consequences.

Love and lust

Although actress Nicola Coughlan promised a very romantic series, the moments at which Penelope and Colin were happily in love were actually disappointingly few and far between. Where Colin’s jealousy of Penelope’s relationship with Lord Debling dominated in Part One, his anger at her secret overshadowed the second half. I suppose this is true of all Bridgerton series; the plot relies on complications and angst until the last 5 minutes when everything sorts itself out, but the pay-off did feel a tad measly.

One notable exception was the much-hyped erotic ‘mirror scene’, which made an early appearance in episode 5. I can’t decide whether it was the broad daylight or just the very sudden nature of this scene, but something about it felt slightly (dare I say it?) awkward. The six-minute duration and the fact that Penelope spends a fair portion of it looking terrified probably doesn’t help. But, ultimately, this is more realistic than the intense eroticism that Bridgerton often strives for elsewhere (especially for a ‘first time’ scene), and Colin and Penelope’s communication was refreshingly welcome to see. Most importantly, Nicola Coughlan has spoken about the empowering nature of this scene for herself and other women. 

The wedding scene was a highlight, even if Colin and Penelope were not entirely on good terms at the time. As fans had hoped, a classical rendition of Coldplay’s Yellow featured when Pen walked down the aisle in a beautiful blush-pink dress. At their wedding breakfast, Colin and Penelope then performed a spontaneous dance to an equally perfect instrumental cover of You Belong With Me. As they dance, the onlookers fall away, seemingly leaving them the only two people in the room – the same technique is used in the 2005 film version of Pride and Prejudice, and I have to admit I fall for it every time. 

An improvement on subplots?

In my last review, I criticised the aimless subplots of Part One. Fortunately, there was some development in this second half. Following a pregnancy reveal, Kate and Anthony planned a trip to India, to enable Kate to connect with her past. This was a welcome detail, given that she was otherwise expected to completely assimilate into the Bridgerton family.

Benedict’s tedious relationship with Tilley Arnold did eventually serve a purpose, proving to be a roundabout way of exploring his sexuality, through their polyamorous relationship with Paul Suarez. Benedict’s rejection of Tilley’s increasingly serious interest does, however, leave his status as the potential lead of next season in doubt. Is he ready for marriage?

Despite Violet’s initial reservations, John and Francesca were married. I quite liked the difference in tone here compared to other Bridgerton couples, as Violet faced a new model of what love could be: not always instant and intensely passionate, but based on true companionship. However, this plot point was then seemingly discredited, with Francesca having a surprisingly strong reaction to John’s cousin, Michaela Stirling, in the final episode. 

Fans of the original books may recognise her as the likely gender-swapped counterpart of Michael Stirling, the main love interest in Francesca’s book. Could we see a same-sex leading couple in future? (We did, of course, have the brilliant side couple, Reynolds and Brimsley, in Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story. I’m still waiting for their spin-off.) Within the space of about 10 seconds, Masali Baduza makes an impact as Michaela Stirling (I am already a fan based on her performance in Noughts + Crosses), and I for one am intrigued to see more from this character.

A formidable trio

I will end my review with Lady Danbury, Violet Bridgerton and Portia Featherington, because this trio was my favourite part of this season. We see the long-lasting trauma of Lady Danbury’s marriage create tensions with her brother, which in turns reveals more about her troubled past relationship to her father, and how this has shaped who she has become. Meanwhile, the ever-wise Violet has an endearing chance at her own new love story. 

Portia perhaps has the best development of all. Morally grey like all the most interesting characters, we nevertheless understand why she has acted as she always has. Though misguided, she is unfailingly driven by love for her daughters, as well as disillusionment with her own loveless, insecure married past. This results in some moving scenes between her and Penelope, which reveal the pair to be more similar than either has really ever noticed before. In such scenes, the acting of Nichola Coughlan and Polly Walker becomes the true standout.