Bridgerton season three review: Why Penelope Featherington deserves better

The third season of the hot Netflix show has all the same ingredients, but doesn’t pack the same punch

Nicola Coughlan, left, and Luke Newton in a scene from Bridgerton season three. Photo: Netflix
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“Leave me alone, I’m bingeing on Regency-era period drama,” I messaged in a friends' group chat at the weekend after several missed calls to invite me to an impromptu dinner at a ridiculous hour.

Bridgerton was back and nothing was going to deter me from consuming all four episodes, the first part of season three released by Netflix last week.

Why do I love it?

The amazing costumes and set designs, the unique blend of classical and modern pop music, the complex love lives of the Bridgerton siblings and lots of scandal and gossip.

Above all this though, I’ve found myself tethered to my TV in a state of binge-watching ecstasy each season because of the clever storylines and brilliant, fleshed out characters.

But after episode two of season three I was considering texting my friends to ask if they were still out for dinner.

While the new season has used the same ingredients that made the first two delicious, something is amiss and the meal this time is confusing. How do you get it wrong when the recipe is right there – in a novel no less?

As an avid reader, I’ve come to terms that creative liberties are a fact of life. Novels and their many mediums of adaptation are different beasts. They should be enjoyed as separate things.

However, as a reader, it’s infuriating when the important and powerful details of a novel are mutated beyond recognition.

“Matchmaking mamas are united in their glee – Colin Bridgerton has returned from Greece!” reads the first line from chapter one of Romancing Mr Bridgerton, the fourth novel from the Bridgerton book series by Julia Quinn.

And much like matchmaking mamas are rubbing their hands together as a new prospect enters the marriage mart, Bridgerton fans around the world were beyond excited when the trailer for season three was released by Netflix last month.

Finally, the story of fan favourite, Penelope Featherington, is the main focus of the season. Her love story with close friend Colin Bridgerton has been closely watched by audiences since season one.

Nicola Coughlan, the Irish actress who plays Featherington, has said in several interviews that this season will put "nerds in the spotlight". This is the trope we have been expecting in season three – nerdy friends falling in love.

What’s so brilliant about Bridgerton is that each season is an exploration of rom-com trope.

Season one was all about "fake dating", where Daphne Bridgerton and the Duke Simon Basset engaged in a fake courtship that led to real love and marriage. Season two took on the "enemies to lovers" trope, between Anthony Bridgerton and Kate Sharma. While the two couldn’t stand one another at the start of the season, they found themselves in a steamy entanglement.

What we expected for the often described “perennial wallflower” but fiercely clever Penelope and the charming and geeky Colin with his complex and sensitive inner world, was a nerdy friends to lovers story done well.

What we got instead was a lacklustre build up in part one of season three. The first four episodes were confusing in both plotline and character development. Colin Bridgerton is back from his travels across Europe over the summer a changed man. He is worldly, charismatic and now understands women. This transformation was heavy handed and bordered on cringe.

In the novel, Colin and Penelope don’t see each other for almost a decade. Not only is Penelope at 28 considered a spinster at this time, but his transformation feels more informed. And while the novel sees them reconnecting as friends, their bond is genuinely fused by Colin’s travels and his interest in writing – two points that the show acknowledges through cheesy obvious ways.

Despite the wonderful performances by Coughlan and Luke Newton who plays Colin, the show fails to depict their actual friendship. Instead, the showrunners presented us with the “Love Mentor” trope with Colin attempting to teach Penelope how to attract a husband – he’s an expert now in the matters of love after a summer travelling, apparently. This is clumsily fused with the friends to lovers storyline, and results in a confusing timeline of events and a story for which no one asked.

What makes the show also frustrating to watch is the stark difference in Colin and Penelope’s lives. Colin is the worldly bachelor everyone wants while Penelope is the wallflower everyone mocks. She’s also desperate.

I’m under no illusion that this difference in gender roles, the embedded sexism in regency era society was a very real thing (obsessed Jane Austen fan here). But what’s so loveable about Penelope in the books is that despite her dire situation in society and her feelings for Colin, she was never desperate, never needy, never a victim.

Penelope was a spinster, but this status in the novel awarded her more freedom and allowed Colin to see her in a different light – a crucial plot point in their relationship.

The show, however, turned Penelope into a pick-me girl with no real power. It’s like the showrunners forgot that Penelope is Lady Whistledown, the anonymous gossip columnist who publishes her own popular scandal sheet. She makes her own money and has made enemies with the Queen! Penelope may appear to be a wallflower but she secretly isn’t.

Bridgerton season three - part one

Directors: Various

Starring: Nicola Coughlan, Luke Newton, Jonathan Bailey

Rating: 3/5

The only silver lining is that it seems the remaining four episodes of the season, set to be released on Netflix on June 13, will amp up the drama about Penelope’s identity as Lady Whistledown.

Even if the dramatic pace of the show picks up in part two, it doesn’t negate the fact that the show runners have misunderstood what makes Penelope special. It would have made more sense to give Penelope more agency and a shrewder outlook on life in this season, instead of a sad transformation scene at a ball or for her to desperately beg Colin to kiss her.

Penelope deserves better.

Part one of season three of Bridgerton is now streaming on Netflix.

Updated: June 06, 2024, 8:57 AM
Bridgerton season three - part one

Directors: Various

Starring: Nicola Coughlan, Luke Newton, Jonathan Bailey

Rating: 3/5