Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story Series-Premiere Recap: The Great Experiment

Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story

Queen to Be
Season 1 Episode 1
Editor’s Rating 4 stars

Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story

Queen to Be
Season 1 Episode 1
Editor’s Rating 4 stars
Photo: Liam Daniel/Netflix © 2023/LIAM DANIEL/NETFLIX

 This is the story of Queen Charlotte from Bridgerton. It is not a history lesson. It is fiction, inspired by fact. All liberties taken by the author are quite intentional. Enjoy.”

There is nothing quite as satisfying as hearing the dulcet tones of Julie Andrews as Lady Whistledown ushering us back to the ton and the Bridgerton Cinematic Universe. However, it’s important to recall that this is not a traditional Bridgerton story in the way the past two seasons of the show have been. Whereas those were mostly faithful adaptations of Julia Quinn’s best-selling Regency romance series, Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story is something entirely different. We learned in Bridgerton season one that the nobles of color throughout the ton are the result of King George’s marrying Queen Charlotte and elevating people of color into the aristocracy; this has been the background for the alternate-universe Regency England we have come to know and love. This new prequel(ish) series, created by — who else? — Shonda Rhimes, will tell the story of this great romance and how Charlotte became the queen we know and love today. Got it? Great.

Let us away to Mirow, Germany, where smug British palace footmen are smirking at the staff of a gorgeous, mostly CGI mansion. Charlotte listens outside a door as quiet negotiations are taking place. As papers are signed, she turns away with a look of disbelief and shock, then throws a bust in front of her to the floor. India Amarteifio (whose beauty marks have been penciled in to match those of Golda Rosheuvel of Bridgerton, you’re welcome!) is immediately captivating, perfectly pitching a version of the younger Charlotte’s strong will and temper that tracks beautifully with the queen she later becomes.

Both her strong will and temper remain as Charlotte and her brother, Adolphus, travel to England for her wedding. Adolphus knows his sister is pissed, so he does what any good big brother would do — he needles her. Specifically about how still she is sitting, which, bro, what do you want from her? You’re in a carriage, not a luxury sleeper car. “I am forced into a ludicrous gown that is so stylish that if I move, I might be sliced to death by my undergarments,” Charlotte informs him from her rather uncomfortable-looking position. I’m no mathematician, but it’s at least 40 degrees of tilt. “Oh, how joyful it is to be a lady,” she intones drolly.

Charlotte doesn’t stop there. Now that she’s warmed up, she has at least a tight five in her about this marriage. She is (fairly!) distrustful and disdainful of both the process and the way her brother is treating her. To his credit, he lets her rant for quite some time before he snaps: “I know no one who looks like you or me has ever married one of these people, ever. But I cannot make an enemy of the most powerful nation on earth. It is done.”

Adolphus’s words are still ringing in my ears as Charlotte is inspected by Princess Augusta, who checks her hands and teeth before finally declaring that Charlotte’s hips will make lots of babies. It’s unsettling for two reasons. One: can anyone watch a white woman inspect a Black woman like that and not think about slavery? Two: Michelle Fairley has one of the more severe faces to grace the screen (a compliment), and it is always a joy to watch her utilize it so well. (Free idea: Put Michelle Fairley in a project with Michelle Gomez, call it The Michelles, and take my money.) Charlotte has a gown she would like to wear to her wedding; it is from Paris, and it is the height of fashion. Princess Augusta manages, through clenched teeth, to hammer the significance of a traditional gown as various important men frown behind her: “It will be more in … our fashion. For our family.” There is basically a blinking sign over her head that reads, “The color of your skin is QUITE modern enough, thank you very much,” and Charlotte relents. What else is she to do?

Princess Augusta and her advisers take a moment to gather themselves, by which I mean to discuss just how brown Charlotte is. “Quite brown” seems to be the main takeaway. One adviser attempts to point out that he did say she had “Moor blood” (Othello is shaking!), but nonetheless, “quite brown” is too brown for the palace. Alas, trade deals are already in place, and the wedding is today (????), and thus it is too late to cancel. Princess Augusta has clearly taken a PR communications course because ol’ girl has spin down to a science. “It is only a problem if the palace says it’s a problem,” she says. Then she decrees that they must issue additional invites to the wedding for Charlotte’s court, of course. No matter that the wedding is today — who doesn’t want to attend a royal wedding?

Honestly, a white woman deciding racism is over because it happens to benefit her at that exact moment is … well, kind of believable! Justice rarely occurs because someone wakes up and realizes the error of their ways. Such things happen because they are politically expedient or because the benefits outweigh the negatives. It’s clear the rest of the court does not agree, but Princess Augusta insists that this is what the king wants, and despite the fact that we have not seen him yet, the court agrees with “the king.”

Invitations are delivered to wealthy people of color, who happen to include the absolute love of my life, Agatha Danbury. Arsema Thomas is so immediately charming and radiant it doesn’t matter that she has one of the most undignified entrances ever to grace the small screen: She’s staring up at the ceiling as she is rather forcibly slammed into the mattress by her much older husband. Technically, they are having sex, but the look on her face is somewhere between “actively dissociating” and “writing a grocery list.” It seems the invite to attend the royal wedding has put quite the pep in Mr. Danbury’s step!

When they arrive at the palace, Princess Augusta swings by to greet them and drop some titles on them, as if it’s just a thing that happens every day. Though the new Lady Danbury is confused as to their sudden good fortune, everything falls into place when she catches a glimpse of Charlotte. The look on her face is not quite as simple as #RepresentationMatters; it’s more a realization of how much there is to be gained— and how much she could lose. “Be careful, ma’am,” Lady Danbury murmurs to the now Queen Charlotte as she and Lord Danbury make their way through the reception line. She is simply stunning, and I love her already.

But Christina! you cry, rending your garments. What of King George? What of our young lovers? Is this not a romance!? What are we doing here? And to you, gentle reader,™ I say … it’s complicated! We have seen glimpses of King George throughout the first two Bridgerton seasons, so we know he suffers from some kind of mental illness, much as the king did in real life — which makes even more tragic the utterly charming moment he and Charlotte share in the garden as she contemplates escaping her own wedding in a dress she hates. Charlotte hasn’t seen hide nor hair of the man she is to wed, and she has decided he must be a troll or a beast. She isn’t afraid to volunteer this information to a charming stranger as she searches for a way out, and wouldn’t you know it? This charming stranger is, in fact, the very king she’s supposed to wed!

Her attempt to escape delights George because he knows which cinematic universe he’s in. He has the perfect glint in his eye as he teases Charlotte about the things she said before she knew who he was. (“You may be too beautiful to marry me. Given that I am a troll.”) It is hard, while he’s being this charming, to recall that he’s also that King George, the one portrayed by Jonathan Groff in all his ranting, spitty glory. But charm me he does as he tells Charlotte to call him “just George,” and he charms her enough that she will marry him — and she’ll wear the “à la mode” dress she got from Paris. Better luck next time, Princess Augusta!

This blossoming goodwill and hope last through the ceremony and the requisite BCU sun-dappled kiss. They last through the dancing as Charlotte and George stare into each other’s eyes. They even last through the post-wedding carriage ride scored to Beyoncé’s “Halo” and riiiight up until George escorts Charlotte to her new home and basically tells her, “You live here, I live somewhere else, catch ya later!” When she tries to push back, he shuts down and refuses to budge, shouting that he is her king and she will obey. “My mistake,” she says. “I thought you were just George.” Ouch.

Sorrows, Sorrows. Prayers.

• I was so thrilled to see there is still a “present day” storyline featuring Queen Charlotte, Lady Danbury, and Dowager Viscountess Bridgerton! Despite the fact that Queen Charlotte and King George had 13 children, only one son managed to wed and have an heir, only to lose both his wife and son in childbirth. There are no royal heirs, and as Lady Whistledown gleefully informs us, perhaps it is time for Queen Charlotte to get a taste of the hell that is matchmaking for your children.

• Equally delightful is Brimsley, the queen’s man who has been lingering a respectful five paces behind for her decades. I confess I got a little emotional when young Charlotte, fresh off the humiliation of her wedding night, mutters that the two of them will spend the rest of their lives together and then we fade to the present and see that they have done exactly that. And not for nothing, Brimsley has … quite a vibe with the king’s man, so let’s all keep an eye on that, shall we?

• It is worth remembering that (spoiler?) Lady Whistledown is technically Penelope Featherington. I couldn’t stop wondering if this was a creative-writing exercise she thought up for herself. Something to occupy her time?

• “It is treasonous to interrupt my beauty sleep. You are lucky my face is a rare jewel.”

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