Obviously loads of spoilers ahead.
Gossip Girl waited for six seasons before confirming the identity of its actual Gossip Girl. But Bridgerton couldn’t last more than one before spilling the beans about who Lady Whistledown is. Which kind of makes sense. A show in which everyone’s hot to rip each other’s clothes off would naturally be just as eager to yank the mask off its secret disseminator of all the rumors that are fit (or unfit) to print.
That’s exactly what Bridgerton does in one of the last scenes of episode eight. Eloise (Claudia Jessie), convinced that Mrs. Whistledown is Genevieve Delacroix (Kathryn Drysdale), the town modiste, dashes to the printer to warn her that some of the queen’s minions are planning to ambush her before she publishes her next newsletter. Eloise successfully does so but doesn’t see who Whistledown is, only realizing the next day, after her brother Benedict (Luke Thompson) mentions that he spent the previous evening with Genevieve, that she couldn’t possibly be the modiste. In a flashback to the night before, we see something Eloise did not: Lady Whistledown lowering her hood to reveal that she’s actually …
Nah, just kidding, Andrews is the voice of Whistledown’s writing on Bridgerton. The woman who’s actually, secretly Whistledown is … Penelope Featherington (Nicola Coughlan), the most overlooked Featherington daughter with the deepest crush on Colin Bridgerton. Bet you didn’t see that coming, did you?
Oh, you read the books? Never mind, then, you definitely saw it coming. Everybody else, though, may have been a bit blindsided. The series did a quite skillful job of tossing enough Whistledown candidates into the realm of possibility — Genevieve, Queen Charlotte, even Eloise herself — that many viewers may not have begun to suspect Penelope.
If you’re like me, you may have mixed feelings about dropping this piece of information in season one since, assuming Bridgerton runs for additional seasons, the mystery surrounding the gossip columnist could have been milked for a good while longer. (In Julia Quinn’s book series, Whistledown’s identity isn’t revealed until the fourth novel.) On the other hand, the disclosure is in keeping with the qualities that Bridgerton establishes for itself throughout the first season: Its plot developments come quickly, the changes of heart for its characters come even more quickly (loved it when Simon announced two seconds after going down on Daphne in a stairwell that he’d emotionally detach from their marriage if she turned out not to be pregnant), and the twists never take a holiday. There may be shades of Jane Austen in this Shondaland joint, but it is first and foremost a soapy romance, and soapy romances run like action movies: on engines that are always revved and ready to get to the next destination.
The fact that Penelope is Whistledown does set up some enticing places for Bridgerton to potentially visit in future seasons. Eloise clearly doesn’t know that her best friend is secretly a one-woman TMZ. The prospect of her finding out should create some tension in future episodes, particularly since Eloise clearly admires Lady Whistledown and may feel pangs of jealousy, or even disappointment, when she realizes her idol is actually Penelope. The need to continue keeping this secret from the rest of the Featheringtons and Colin, not to mention the queen, should also provide plenty of fodder for Bridgerton to explore.
Whether it seems too soon or just right to reveal Penelope’s side hustle at this stage, the fact that Penelope is Whistledown works as a clever touch for a few different reasons. This season is rife with deceptions and cover-ups, most notably the scheme by Daphne and Simon to pretend to be courting each other so that Daphne can attract more suitor options. The Lady Whistledown/Penelope element fits right into that overarching narrative modus operandi. Penelope is engaged in an even more complicated ruse, one that involves presenting a false identity and disseminating information that doesn’t necessarily reflect the objective truth. By the season’s end, we realize that we’ve been conned by Penelope just as effectively as everyone within the series has.
Now that we know Penelope is the writer of that Bridgerton zine, we can see in retrospect how she used her role to bend the season of spouse-hunting to her liking. When Lady Whistledown declared Daphne to be the “diamond” of the debutante scene, she was actually helping the family of her best friend and the man she loves. It’s also very possible she was elevating Daphne in an effort to make her two dismissive and suitor-desperate sisters look bad.
It’s a testament to Penelope’s integrity that she didn’t plaster the news of Marina’s pregnancy all over the place right away, proving that she values her relationships over a good scoop. But it’s also clear that Penelope will use her alter ego to reset situations back on to what she perceives as a fairer course, which is why Lady Whistledown eventually does break the news that Marina is expecting, protecting Colin from walking blindly into their marriage. Of course, Penelope also succeeds at keeping Colin single and available for herself, so she is not always purely guided by a moral compass.
As Whistledown, Penelope is an unreliable narrator, not only because she’s hiding behind a pseudonym but also because she’s not transparent about the biases that dictate what she publishes. This is a slightly different twist on the sort of unreliable narration found in Jane Austen’s works, like Pride & Prejudice and, most especially, Emma. It takes a while to realize that Emma’s characterizations of events may not be fully accurate because what she tells the reader is based on her incredibly blinkered worldview. The same can be said of Penelope, who, like far too many of the young women on this show, doesn’t even understand how sex works, let alone what could be motivating all the people in town. Yet everyone takes what she declares as gospel, without knowing who she is or who her sources are.
In her regular life, Penelope is viewed by many, including her own mother, as a person who can be skipped over, a sweet young lady who’s too mousy and awkward to attract a viable suitor for herself. She’s deemed irrelevant. But as Lady Whistledown, she snatches her relevance and claims it. To allude to another Netflix favorite from this year, everyone on Bridgerton thinks they’re playing chess, but it’s really Penelope who is dictating what move each player will make next.
What Bridgerton does on a broader scale is correct the balance of what has traditionally been imbalanced in such period pieces, particularly by giving Black men and women the same stature and agency as the white people who typically dominate shows and movies like this. By placing Penelope in the Lady Whistledown role, it’s correcting an imbalance of another kind, taking someone deemed forgettable by a society fixated on beauty and status and making her the most powerful person in that society.