Brace yourself for a bleaker 'Bridgerton' in the new 'Queen Charlotte' spin-off
It's not surprising that Bridgerton, with two successful Netflix seasons down and more to come, already has its first spin-off. Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story is intellectual property upon intellectual property — a new series extending a previous series based on Julia Quinn's series of books. This time around, we're flashing back to see the youth of Queen Charlotte, the dry-witted, often icy monarch played by Golda Rosheuvel, who has presided over the marriage market for two Bridgerton seasons. (One interesting change: Shonda Rhimes' Shondaland production company makes Bridgerton, but she didn't create it and hasn't been the showrunner. Here, she is.)
The voice of Julie Andrews is back as our narrator, who tells us that Charlotte's story is "fiction inspired by fact" — our Charlotte being a heavily reimagined version of the real Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, who was married to George III. Like the real Charlotte, our Queen Charlotte is from Germany. She lives there with her brother Adolphus until he enters into a betrothal contract with George's mother Augusta, providing that Charlotte will become George's wife and England's next queen. The two meet on their wedding day under whimsical romantic circumstances, and they fall in love — but clearly, George is hiding something. It takes a few episodes to suss out, but if you know the story of the real George, it will not surprise you that what George is hiding is a series of very difficult struggles with his mental health — what he calls "fits."
The early stages of the George-Charlotte relationship work well, and naturally, their attraction eventually blossoms into some great Bridgerton sex. (It is to the credit of this season that it assumes sex being enjoyable and mutually fulfilling is a valid thing to care about and a significant element of many relationships.) India Amarteifio as the young Charlotte and Corey Mylchreest as young George have exceptional chemistry and are, in the great tradition of everyone in this orbit, stunningly gorgeous.
But the story of George's illness is an awfully heavy lift for this series, which is tonally a mix of whimsy and melodrama. In a laudable effort to take the subject matter seriously, Queen Charlotte ends up being not only a story about an often excruciating mental illness, but a story that acknowledges the barbaric treatments that anyone in George's position might have expected at that time. It's fair to call these scenes torture, which is tough thing to combine with the voice of Julie Andrews and the swooning passages of fantasy that are part of this world.
Individual scenes work very well — not only the early and thoroughly delightful romcom material between Charlotte and George, but also the obligatory and always welcome Bridgerton scene where a man's resolve to restrain his feelings breaks and he confesses that he cannot live, cannot breathe, cannot bear to be in the same room with his beloved, so great is his passion for her. If you're going to have a signature scene, make it one you do very well.
Queen Charlotte also gets great work from Arsema Thomas as the young Lady Danbury, played as an older woman by Adjoa Andoh. Perhaps more than with Charlotte, who doesn't always seem like the same person as the older Charlotte, this portrait of young Agatha feels like a persuasive story of how the woman we already know from Bridgerton became who she is. Young Agatha is trapped in an unhappy marriage, but you can see how she is on the path to a kind of independence that will make her unusual when she's older.
Charlotte's story is also an opportunity for more examination of race than Bridgerton has offered. That series has simply posited Charlotte as a queen who is Black, whose presence and influence has brought about an almost-but-not-quite frictionless multiracial society. That provoked a lot of interesting discussions of race and Regency romance, especially because a lot of the show's Black characters weren't at the center of the action. Queen Charlotte goes much more directly at the question of how Charlotte's race was received by George's family and subjects and the white ton — which suggests that maybe this frictionless society looked to be so only from the point of view of its white characters.
Between severe mental illness, race, a very cute/hot romance, and the usual Bridgerton-ian examinations of society and protocol, it's a whole lot to pack into six episodes. What's more, my actual favorite part is one of the subplots: the friendship between Lady Danbury and Violet Bridgerton that takes place in their older years, when they are both widowed. Their discussions of loneliness and independence, their consideration of sex and partnership — these scenes felt like the most precious ones in the series to me, and perhaps the parts that work best.
I'm not sure the whole thing succeeds as, in fact, A Bridgerton Story, in part because it gets awfully grim in the second half, and trying to mix material that's that grim with stuff that's more soothingly romantic can seem a bit forced. But the performances are wonderful, the consideration of race is very welcome, and the interiority of women in the later parts of their lives is rarely so sensitively considered. Just be ready for a ride that's a bit bumpier than you might expect.
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