Bridgerton season three part two review: The wheels are starting to come off the carriage

What’s a Regency girl boss to do? That’s the question that hangs over the second part of Bridgerton’s third season on Netflix (or, at least, over the two episodes that critics were permitted to watch before its release date).

In the final moments of series three’s first half, the perennially overlooked Penelope Featherington (Nicola Coughlan, who is the true diamond of this season) escaped the friend zone in the most Bridgerton way possible: by snogging Colin (Luke Newton), the long-time object of her affections. In a moving horse-drawn carriage. To the musical strains of an orchestral cover of Pitbull’s “Give Me Everything”. The marriage proposal that came soon after from Bridgerton brother number three was, in theory, a happily-ever-after straight out of Penelope’s wildest dreams. But, when we rejoin her for the second instalment, she is soon questioning whether she can continue her secret side hustle as high society’s premier gossip columnist, Lady Whistledown, once she is a respectable married lady.

Is she prepared to give up the freedom – and power – that her anonymous scribblings afford her? “Your name is about to be Bridgerton, you cannot be both,” warns Eloise (Claudia Jessie), her erstwhile best friend and prospective sister-in-law.

Season three is ostensibly Penelope and Colin’s story – and yes, that much-vaunted sex scene, the one that Coughlan has described as “amazingly empowering” to film, is classic Bridgerton raunch. But the dynamic between Coughlan and Jessie’s characters is arguably more compelling, and certainly does more to drive along the plot of part two. Eloise is one of the very few people with the power to unmask Penelope, but she is clearly riven with uncertainty about whether to use it (until an imposter starts attempting to pass off Whistledown’s work as their own, that is).

Seeing the embers of Eloise’s old affection for her former pal gives these episodes some much-needed emotional heft, and the two powerhouse performers make this a friendship worth rooting for. Elsewhere, though, the drama is underwritten, and too much narrative space is given to flimsy plot lines that are hard to engage with. The marriage mart travails of younger Bridgerton sibling Francesca (Hannah Dodd), who seeks steady-eddy companionship over a grand passion, might be intended as a counterpoint to her siblings’ dramatic romances, but don’t always make for captivating television.

The uncertain pacing makes you wonder why Netflix decided to chop season three into two slightly underwhelming segments, rather than letting the entire series play out in one go: this approach seems to have accidentally drawn attention to the show’s weaknesses. After all, it’s not as if Bridgerton has ever been the sort of drama that relies on high-wire narrative tension and gasp-inducing twists. It’s pretty much the period drama embodiment of “no plot, just vibes” – so it feels slightly garbled when attempts to raise the stakes are chucked in, like when Penelope claims that Lady Whistledown is a voice for the voiceless, as if she is the mouthpiece for some sort of underground resistance rather than a 19th-century Gossip Girl.

Eloise (Claudia Jessie) is one of the few people with the power to unmask Penelope (Liam Daniel/Netflix)
Eloise (Claudia Jessie) is one of the few people with the power to unmask Penelope (Liam Daniel/Netflix)

But when the series does lean on the strengths of its multi-generational ensemble cast, there is still a lot to like. Polly Walker is a standout as Penelope’s dreadful mother Lady Featherington. Her machinations have stepped up a gear now that her daughter has acquired a wealthy fiance, and watching her flounce around in bonkers outfits (Regency couture by way of Karen Millen) is a delight. There’s even something approaching a touching moment between her and Pen, too. And given that she has spent most of her screen time so far acting as a sounding board for her children’s romantic dilemmas, it’s nice to see Lady Violet (Ruth Gemmell) enjoy a flirtation of her own with Lord Anderson (Daniel Francis).

When an inevitable cliffhanger comes towards the end of episode six, it doesn’t feel particularly exciting or well-earned. Instead, it seems as rote as the dance steps that the characters perform in the ballroom. The wheels are starting to come off the Bridgerton carriage – and the final two episodes will need to be pretty dramatic to get things back on track.