Bittersweet and Romantic, Queen Charlotte Is a Bridgerton Prequel That Often Surpasses the Original

TV Reviews Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story
Bittersweet and Romantic, Queen Charlotte Is a Bridgerton Prequel That Often Surpasses the Original

These days, it’s understandable if the word “prequel” makes you nervous. Film studios, streamers, and television execs always seem to be looking for an easy cash grab when they decide to dig around in the past of popular stories in the name of profit. There’s truly no such thing as a sure thing in the entertainment industry, but for a lot of people who have decision-making power in this space, the promise of a familiar IP, characters whose names viewers have at least partially heard before, and a pre-built universe for creatives to play around in is the next best thing. And sometimes it works—and works well. But for every Andor, there’s a Kenobi; for every Better Call Saul, there’s a Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies.

So, when the news first broke that Netflix would be expanding the onscreen world of its mega-popular period drama Bridgerton, many people (read: me) were likely more than a bit apprehensive. Sure, Golda Rosheuvel’s Queen Charlotte has always been an entertaining standout in the series’ first two seasons, but was that enough reason to focus an entirely separate show on her story? Particularly when we already know some of the broad strokes of tragedy that will come to touch her life by the time the main series takes place? Could a seemingly throwaway origin story really have anything all that meaningful to say?

Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story not only provides a resoundingly confident yes to all those questions, the prequel series actually manages to provide an important narrative and emotional context for the larger world in which it is set. Deftly weaving an origin story for its titular fan-favorite character through and alongside a present-day tale of love and duty, in which Rosheuvel’s Charlotte attempts to convince her squad of offspring to produce a royal heir, this is a delightful, frothy romp with a deceptively bittersweet center. And unlike the rest of the Bridgerton onscreen universe, this is a story that is willing to wrestle with larger issues than just romance.

Queen Charlotte A Bridgerton Story

The story begins with the young Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (India Amarteifio) on her way to marry King George III (Corey Mylchreest) of England, a man she has never met and whom she does not particularly want to wed. Thankfully, Charlotte’s initial encounter with her betrothed before their wedding is basically one of the most adorable meet-cutes of all time, and the air between the two fairly crackles with chemistry. George’s kind demeanor and surprisingly down-to-earth charm make for an excellent foil to Charlotte’s headstrong and outspoken nature, and the two are clearly made for one another from their first moments together. So much so that it makes things all the more frustrating when George inexplicably begins putting up emotional walls and keeping secrets from his new wife; though, to be fair, Queen Charlotte handles the subsequent misunderstandings and tension between the pair with unexpected deftness. (And a fair amount of angry sex.) 

The young queen’s arrival in her new country also kicks off something of a firestorm in the palace, because Charlotte, you see is Black, and the upper echelons of English society are most certainly not. One of the most intriguing elements of Bridgerton’s first season is its almost effortlessly integrated London, one that we repeatedly hear is due to Charlotte and George’s marriage, an event that supposedly ended racism in its wake. In Queen Charlotte, we see the seeds of this societal revolution planted, and although I’m not entirely sure the show spends enough time on the larger public repercussions of Charlotte’s coronation—-we see multiple characters being openly racist, but precious few doing anything other than accepting party invitations by way of establishing their more tolerant bona fides—-but the show deserves some credit for tackling issues that the mothership series has been rather loath to address directly. 

Here, we learn that England’s integration ultimately boils down to little more than an attempt by the crown to save face. Not realizing that she betrothed her son to a foreign princess of a much darker skin tone, the Dowager Princess Augusta (Michelle Fairley, who makes every moment she’s on-screen count double) devises “The Great Experiment,” which elevates some of London’s wealthiest families of color to the peerage and grants them land and titles. These newly recognized members of the ton are suddenly able to be invited to Charlotte and George’s wedding, and a young Agatha Danbury (Arsema Thomas) is given a position among the new queen’s ladies, all to make the British aristocracy look more progressive and open-minded than it actually is. Queen Charlotte is surprisingly honest about the deeply transactional nature of this elevation and the ways in which the success or failure of the titular monarch’s reign is inextricably tied to how other people who look like her will fare in England. After all, for the Danburys and families like them—rich and royal in other ways though they may be—what the crown can so easily give, it can also take away.

Much like its parent series, Queen Charlotte has its flaws: the Bridgerton universe continues to display almost zero real understanding of British or royal politics, the pacing is wildly uneven at times, particularly in the series’ back half, and as much as I love all incarnations of Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh), her backstory takes some truly inexplicable swerves in its final episodes that are difficult to understand. There are some uncomfortably dark scenes involving Regency-era ideas about medical treatment and mental illness. 

But, at the end of the day, it is Charlotte, whether played by Rosheuvel or Amarteifio, who makes this show worth watching and who stands out as one of the best, most complex characters in the Bridgerton universe to date. It’s not an accident that she—at both ends of this story—is the character through whom we see the institution of marriage, and through whom we are given a model for what that kind of relationship should really look like, beyond all the courtship and sex and matchmaking that leads up to a wedding day.  

Queen Charlotte is most certainly a love story, but not precisely in the way that most viewers will likely expect. Rather than embrace the familiar beats of many romantic stories of this ilk—the idea of love at first sight, soulmates, destiny, or some generally undeniable attraction that inexorably pulls us toward another person—-this is a series that embraces the idea of love as an action. Here, love isn’t something you feel, or fall into. It’s something you do. Something you choose. Something you work at and reaffirm every day of your life. Even—and perhaps most especially—when it’s hard to do so. There are moments when Queen Charlotte is achingly romantic, in a way that has nothing to do with the banter-filled flirting or steamy sex scenes we’ve come to associate with Bridgerton. Instead, it’s about what comes after the happily ever after: The work and tears and hurt and joy and sacrifice that are the building blocks of an actual life together. For better and for worse.

Queen Charlotte premieres Thursday, May 4th on Netflix.

Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin