Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story Recap: The One About the Mad King

Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story

Holding The King
Season 1 Episode 4
Editor’s Rating 2 stars

Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story

Holding The King
Season 1 Episode 4
Editor’s Rating 2 stars
Photo: Liam Daniel/Netflix © 2023/LIAM DANIEL/NETFLIX

Charlotte, Reynolds, and Brimsley are scrubbing George of mud from his, uh … let’s call it “a nighttime jaunt to the garden,” because much like the Dowager Princess, my girl is none too pleased with her hired help at the moment. She demands to know what is happening, and like sands through the hourglass, we are going back in time, baby!

Here’s the thing about this episode — it is a retread of the last three episodes, but from George’s perspective. One could argue it is needed because, well, what do we know about our erstwhile king? He likes stars and farming? He is good in bed? He suffers from a nonspecific mental illness that he will grapple with for the rest of his life? If you were hoping to learn a lot more about the latter, you are in luck!

Allow me to put on my Nonspecific English Degree hat on (literature, maybe? I truly couldn’t say) and provide you with a quick background on King George III and his “madness.” In 1966, mother-and-son psychiatrists Ida Macalpine and Richard Hunter published “The Insanity of King George III: A Classic Case of Porphyria.” They claimed the king’s medical records showed that he suffered from acute porphyria, a genetic blood disorder that can cause, among other things, hallucinations, depression, and paranoia. I personally learned about it from an episode of House (“Honeymoon”), but I suppose that is neither here nor there. The theory always had detractors, but it held enough sway in popular culture that by the time Alan Bennett’s 1991 play The Madness of George III toured in the U.S., Frank Rich specifically called out the disease in his review — research from the last decade points to the more widely accepted theory that the king was bipolar. At the end of the day, we will never know for sure, and that is the opening that Queen Charlotte slipped through to create the depiction of the mental illness we see in this episode.

Over the course of the various flashbacks, we come to understand that George suffers from a host of symptoms. He garbles sentences, he collapses, his hands shake, he has periods of silence where it seems as though he cannot remember how to speak. No one wants to commit to depicting any specific illness, and, look, your mileage with this is going to vary. This would certainly bother me in a contemporary show, where real medical practices would likely be utilized. Here, one of the doctors immediately suggests trepanation, colloquially known as “drilling holes in the skull,” so the nonspecific grab bag of symptoms bothers me a bit less. Also, this show has created its own alternate universe of racial equality, so it’s a little easier to take with a grain of salt.

And still, it is a punishing episode. After spinning back in time, we end up a week before George’s wedding. He is annoyed at being called out of his beloved field to talk to his mother about his upcoming nuptials, and as he insists he does not need to marry, his words start making less and less sense. Princess Augusta gathers a host of doctors in a room that looks straight out of one of the more upsetting Dr. Who episodes. They surround George, who is silently sitting in a chair as they debate his care. Out of the shadows comes Dr. Monro, who has the absolute unmitigated gall to suggest that the king’s condition is not physical but due to nerves. This, of course, is treasonous to suggest, and everyone reacts with the appropriate outrage. Dr. Monro is unbothered by this and grabs George’s face to give him an old-fashioned talking-to. “You command an entire kingdom. You can command yourself too.” George blinks and seems, if not fine, certainly more in command of his own mind.

I must confess that this tricked me. Did I truly think that Queen Charlotte was going to introduce talk therapy and mood stabilizers to this AU England? Probably not, but I don’t know; they’ve given us some of the most intricately crafted wigs I’ve ever seen! Anything is possible! Moments before the wedding, Brimsley murmurs to Reynolds that Charlotte is straight-up MIA. Hearing this, George starts teetering on the edge of what I will refer to as “panic attacks” hereafter for everyone’s benefit, and escapes outside for a bit of air. Dr. Monro is there and reassures George that he is perfectly all right. Then he backhands him.

It does not get any better! In fact, I would boldly call the majority of this episode “a super bummer.” Aside from the truly great strings cover of “Déjà Vu” as we flash back to Charlotte and George’s wedding night, this episode veers rather close to spooky Regency-doctor torture porn. Charlotte gets up and has her meals alone while Dr. Monro repeatedly dunks George’s head in an ice bath. Charlotte wanderers through the orangery while George is tied to a chair and … leeched? Is that the proper tense? “In here, you are just another animal in a cage, and just like an animal, I will break you.” It is all deeply unpleasant, and it goes on for so long. It’s not that I don’t appreciate getting more details about where George has been during the last few episodes, but we don’t get to know him better here, largely because his mouth is full of bite stick. He eats gruel and gets his face threateningly shaved by Dr. Monro, which … come on, give us some credit, we get that the guy isn’t on the level; this detail just feels extra heavy-handed in an episode that’s already plenty heavy-handed.

The only thing we learn about George is that he is willing to put himself through all of this to be healed and whole for Charlotte. It’s the message around all of this mental-illness depiction I like the least, the idea that someone who struggles with mental illness isn’t worthy of love until they are “normal.” I trust you can hear how big and sarcastic those air quotes are. Still, it is Charlotte’s declaration that George can be himself with her that gives him the strength to free himself from this nightmare experiment. In keeping with the theme of heavy-handed metaphors, George literally takes the straight razor out of the doctor’s hands, finishes shaving his own face, then dismisses Dr. Monro before skipping off to Lady Danbury’s ball.

And we know this victory is a hollow one. After the ball and the (presumed) subsequent sex, George stumbles into Dr. Monro in the kitchen, where he is making a poultice for Charlotte. The king is furious. He fired this man; how dare he be in the kitchen cooking up an ominous green sludge for his wife! Dr. Monro coolly responds that the queen is pregnant and happened to hear that the king’s doctor is around. This revelation leads directly to the outburst we saw in the last episode, and by the time George wakes up, Charlotte has already gone to see Princess Augusta. No big deal! I’m sure she just wants to get to know her mother-in-law better!

“Has Your Highness ever tried cutting mutton with a dull knife?” Charlotte asks after bursting into the room. Ah, not a time for bonding, then. Charlotte has also noticed that the windows have been sealed, the shed that contains the gardener’s shears remains locked, and, most damning of all, King Lear is missing from the library. To her credit, Princess Augusta tries to play this off, claiming she is not a Shakespeare enthusiast. First of all, ma’am, I hoped you would have better taste! Second of all, that’s the one about the mad king. Still, she keeps it together while Charlotte rants about how this whole time, she thought she was the one who was damaged when really the king is mad, and that’s why they had to come pluck her out of the middle of nowhere, Germany. The word “mad” is a bridge too far for the Dowager Princess, who admits that, yes, fine, she did plan to let Charlotte discover “the rough edges of his nature” in her own time. I’m no queen or anything, but that does seem like a big risk to take. Or rather, a big risk to take and assume that your son’s wife would not, you know, circle back and say, “So … the ‘yelling at the sky’ thing? Is that something you are familiar with?” But then again, I’m sure Princess Augusta figured this random Black girl would be so grateful to be plucked from obscurity that she would never question any “rough edges.” Clearly, she had not counted on Charlotte.

If you can believe it, George is standing right outside the door and has overheard, if not every word, let us assume a very good many of them. His hand starts to tremble, and he walks the slow march of the damned back down to Dr. Monro’s haunted quarters. “Strap me back in.” Hmmm, something tells me this isn’t going to go great!

Sorrows, Sorrows. Prayers. 

• There’s no presentish timeline in this episode, so instead, perhaps you would like to know why the king’s mother is Dowager Princess and not Dowager Queen? If you guessed “because she never served as queen,” you are right! King George’s father, Frederick, died before his father, King George II. Thus, Augusta was only ever the Princess of Wales and Dowager Princess after her husband died.

• Something I thought was very sweet in this otherwise painful episode was how much Reynolds really loves George! Sure, if you think about it for half a second, it’s troubling, given that every second of his day revolves around this man and his needs and he is paid to do so. Nevertheless, I was touched, and that is my truth!

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