Rare is the prequel that adds so many layers to its subtext that it actually manages to justify existence, but there are, of course, exceptions to every rule. Regency-era romance Bridgerton gets dialed up a notch as it examines racial politics and erotically-charged emotional drama in irresistible spin-off, Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story. Showrunner Shonda Rhimes explores the life and loves of Queen Charlotte, the big-haired bubble of personality whose presence lorded over previous seasons of the mother show. Along the way, Queen Charlotte recontextualizes everything we knew about this eccentric figurehead. Historical accuracy has never been a thing in the world of Bridgerton—this new series is sure to point that out right away, declaring itself to be “fiction inspired by fact,” and very much not a history lesson. If one removes that from the equation, the only thing left is to enjoy this fast-paced miniseries.
Everyone around her thinks young Charlotte (India Amarteifio) should just be happy that she has been chosen to continue a royal bloodline. As she makes her way to wed the mysterious King George (Corey Mylchreest), Charlotte struggles with adhering to beauty standards and wifely expectations. Why should her only purpose be as a veritable baby-maker? What no one told her was that she would be the first spark in “the great experiment” to commingle white and black races amongst the royals, creating a domino-effect of societal changes. Her skin color is being viewed by some as “a problem,” and her rigid new mother-in-law, Princess Augusta (Michelle Fairley), has a particularly prickly personality, to put it lightly. Charlotte is told to “shut up, do her duty, and be happy,” but how is one supposed to enjoy an arranged marriage beyond simply enduring it?
Fearing her future husband to be a “troll,” Charlotte tries to make a daring escape on her wedding day, only to have her attempts thwarted by none other than George himself. Suffice to say, his chiseled-jaw, brown eyes, and Adonis-esque features certainly do not appear to indicate that of a troll or monster. George manages to both surprise and impress her as he emphasizes his interests in astrology, sciences, and farming. The first episode depicts the seeds of their relationship in a picture-perfect way, complete with a signature Bridgerton instrumental set to Beyonce’s “Halo.” Chemistry between actors Amarteifio and Mylchreest promises a steamy, epic love story.
When it comes time to consummate their marriage, George retracts deeply into his astrological studies. Frustrated and frazzled, Charlotte turns to her loyal servant, Brimsley (Sam Clemmett), who has promised to stay five paces behind her indefinitely. He helps connect Charlotte to firecracker Lady Danbury (Arsema Thomas). On the fringes of the wealthy (and decidedly white) elite, Lady Danbury is committed to seeing through the necessary changes to help extend the little “experiment” of racial mixing to a more permanent arrangement. In exchange for high standing and throwing balls at their property, Lady Danbury exchanges vital information to Princess Augusta.
Anyone even vaguely familiar with the story of “Mad King” George and his wife, Charlotte, will have an inkling of the narrative’s direction across the season. However, Queen Charlotte surprised me around every bend in its landscaped courtyard. George and Charlotte’s relationship becomes not just intimate and erotic, but sweet and adorable. Rhimes lets us root for this tragic coupling on the same level as Daphne and Simon, or Kate and Anthony. Even the iconic portrait that history buffs will recognize as depicting George and Charlotte gets a special highlight in one of the episodes. In this viewer’s opinion, the series’ single greatest achievement comes by way of the fourth episode. A much-needed flip in perspective changes what came before irrevocably.
Whilst the late-teen years of young Charlotte are unfolding, so too is a storyline set post-season-two of Bridgerton. Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel) desperately seeks an heir to the throne. Despite birthing a whopping fourteen children, Charlotte has not a single legitimate grandchild. The familiar voice of Lady Whistledown reminds us that the future of the monarchy remains uncertain as Charlotte doubles down on her efforts. Adult Charlotte has a coldness to her that does not become evident until we witness the full breadth of her past.
Little nuggets of Bridgerton-family updates arrive courtesy of Lady Violet Bridgerton (Ruth Gemmell). Proof that this Queen Charlotte spin-off is a raging success lies herein, where exploring the storied history rewards and compliments the present. Each character we already know, including Lady Agatha Danbury (Adioa Andoh), is given a shocking amount of depth. Taking small interludes away from the young iteration of these characters serves only to strengthen their appearances peppered throughout. Lest one misses the sideburns, extravagant hairdos, or beautiful jewelry, they all heavily feature during these segments.
At only six episodes in length, Queen Charlotte is breezy and delightful: the ideal Netflix binge. A sequence as intimate as Charlotte and George conversing behind a bed against a wall nearly brought me to tears. A surprising level of emotional resonance, a central queer romance depicted with nuance, exceptionally good characterizations, and immaculate costuming are the shining emeralds adorning this royal crown.
Leap over the wall and stroll down memory lane when Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story debuts exclusively to Netflix on Thursday, May 4th.