Romance Blooms for Penelope in Season 3’s First Half

Warning: This review contains spoilers for season 3 of Bridgerton.

“Whoever it is that makes the finest match of  this year, let us hope their pairing brings some titillation.” This sentiment is expressed in the first half of Bridgerton’s third season by narrator Lady Whistledown, voiced as always by Julie Andrews in a tone that makes you think of a dry sherry being sipped with slow, savoring satisfaction. And maybe a butler is approaching with biscuits on a salver. 

After a detour to the 18th century for Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story, we are back in le ton—19th-century Bridgerton proper—for more entertaining flirtations between titled, eligible bachelors and the young women (also often titled) who dream of journeying with them to the altar. 

 You may find yourself wondering, though, how Lady Whistledown defines “titillation.”

Because, gentle reader, the four episodes that makeup Part 1—devoted to the affair of Penelope Featherington (Nicola Coughlan) and Colin Bridgerton (Luke Newton)—are in fact a good deal less sensational than those in seasons 1 and 2.

You know the drill: You expect to be charmed as you watch a string number of society balls, where the occasional etiquette faux is passed off with blushing cheeks, shining eyes and a nervous titter. Then, at some point, decorum is thrown out the window and — talk about pairing, Lady Whistledown! — costumes are torn off, spit is swapped and your own erotic fantasies are ignited by the likes of Regé-Jean Page’s Duke of Hastings. 

Not so much this time. Although, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Part 1 feels more snuggly and romantically conventional, which might be just what you need as you recover from fellow Netflix hit Baby Reindeer. 

This is also, more or less,  the approach that the material demands. Penelope, despite her bright personality, lively intellect and flawless complexion, has always been treated as one of the less matrimonially promising of the Featheringtons, and her romantic prospects wouldn’t seem too far off from one of Jane Austen’s more problematic heroines—like Persuasion’s Anne Elliot. You’re sure (or pretty sure) that love will ultimately claim Penelope, but it won’t be a walk in the park. 

To some degree, Penelope has cleverly taken advantage of her marginalization in high society. Forced to be an observer of the gentlemen and gentlewomen swirling by in their finery, she’s become that very secretive, never-seen Lady Whistledown, herself, author of the teasing gossip sheet that everyone reads so addictively.

But it’s not as if Penelope were Nora Ephron—what’s the endgame of all this scribbling? There’s no money, no status. No husband, no children. At least not in Part 1.

Leaning in: Coughlan and Newton.

Liam Daniel/Netflix

This time out, Penelope is embarking on (and dreading) her third venture into what she refers to as the husband-hunting “mart” — the annual launch of the season. But a deft piece of plotting promises to come to her rescue: Colin — who, in the past, wounded her by saying she wasn’t worth being courted — offers to teach her how to charm the men. Her confidence bolstered, she makes an appearance in a gown of deep, dark shimmering greens — stunning, really, if a bit beetle-like by the standards of le ton. 

But Penelope’s platonic friendship with Colin becomes strained. For one thing, their bond nearly moves — surges — onto another level when she plaintively asks him to be the first and, perhaps, last man to lock his lips with hers: “I do not wish to die without never having been kissed.” Colin wholeheartedly obliges. But now what? 

It also doesn’t help that, putting on her Lady Whistledown hat, Penelope feels she has no choice but to write about her personal situation in the next issue of that Lady’s publication. (Penelope doesn’t know about Colin’s occasional recreational visits to a pair of prostitutes. Imagine if she had to cover that!) The story proves to be an embarrassment for Colin: No man of marrying age, it is sneeringly observed about town, should be lending himself out as a young woman’s life coach. This journalistic double-dealing — double-dipping? — is an entertaining narrative complication. Let us hope, as Lady Whistledown would say, that it’s pursued further in Part 2, which launches in June.

Then, a thunderbolt. To the pleased astonishment of her mother, Lady Portia (Polly Walker),  Penelope finally has a breakthrough in the marriage mart: She manages to draw the tepid romantic notice of one Lord Debling (Sam Phillips). This Debling is a decent, pleasant-looking but fundamentally dull naturalist whose interests include the great auk (which —sorry to say, My Lordship — will become extinct in the course of the century). At any rate, he’s expected to spend a good deal of time away from his estate on this expedition or that, which would leave his now-wealthy new bride free of his less-than-scintillating company. 

Frankly, this sounds like a perfect match. But Bridgerton believes in a true union of hearts and minds — and it’s not our job to tell Penelope how to live. 

Meanwhile, there are other potential romances: Francesca Bridgerton (Hannah Dodd), who plays the harpsichord beautifully, has several handsome suitors hovering around her, and Benedict Bridgerton (Luke Thompson) is drawn to Lady Tilley Arnold (Hannah New), a steely blonde who seems to have studied comportment under Charlize Theron.

Penelope and Colin inevitably arrive at their own moment of intimacy, although it’s only slightly wilder than a date on The Bachelorette. But Coughlan’s performance is lovely, especially when Penelope betrays such sweet vulnerability by saying things like, “Sometimes my character gets lost between my heart and my mouth.” Newton has commanding hair, almost as good as Harry Styles’, and the ability to look amorously stirred when Colin watches Penelope licking sugar off her fingers.

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The first part of Bridgerton season 3 premieres on May 16, and part 2 drops on June 13. Seasons 1 and 2 of Bridgerton — as well as its spinoff, Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story — are now streaming on Netflix.

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