In the first season of the hit Netflix series “Bridgerton,” Lady Agatha Danbury (Adjoh Andoa) proclaims: “We were two separate societies divided by color until a king fell in love with one of us.” It is the first time race is ever overtly mentioned on the show. Since then, many have wondered to what extent race factored into the fictional Regency-era series, especially as it relates to Queen Charlotte (Golda Rosheuvel).
“Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story” not only fills in the gaps of how “Bridgerton’s” Queen rose to power, but it also shares how she navigated that rise through the hazardous terrain of politics, royalty, mental illness and race. It achieves this through a humanizing character portrayal that delivers a surprising emotional punch. In addition, Shonda Rhimes’ six-episode prequel gives agency to supporting characters of the Bridgertonverse.
The series transitions back and forth from the Georgian period, where a Young Queen Charlotte (India Amarteifio) and Young Lady Agatha (Arsema Thomas) begin their friendship (and Violet Bridgerton is a child), to the familiar Regency era in the winter following the events of “Bridgerton” Season 2. Here, the older versions of the characters fill in exciting moments from their lives over expository walks and tea.
Although the character of Queen Charlotte did not exist in the Bridgerton novels, she did live in real life during the Georgian era of England’s history. The real Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz was of mixed heritage and was betrothed to King George III of England, a monarch who suffered from porphyria, a rare hemoglobin disorder that can result in confusion, hallucinations and even seizures.
But “Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story” is not a history lesson. Lady Whistledown’s first words of the series describe the story as “fiction inspired by fact.” However, where previous “Bridgerton” narratives waltzed around the concept of race, queerness and colorism, “Queen Charlotte” weaves it into the bejeweled brocade of her story.
We first meet young Princess Charlotte while she’s on a carriage ride leaving her estate. Her brother, Prince Adolphus (Tunji Kasim), has just signed her life away to a man and country she doesn’t know. Although Charlotte has grown up with a title in Germany, she has no designs on royalty, queendom and, least of all, England.
It’s quickly apparent that a decision was made to marry the new King off as soon as possible and that a foreign bride seemed the most suitable option. However, someone forgot to inform the English Royals of Queen Charlotte’s Moorish heritage.
Shocked by how “brown” Princess Charlotte is, the King’s mother, Princess Augusta (Michelle Fairley), is the bride-to-be’s harshest critic. Concerned, but not wanting to postpone the wedding, the Dowager Princess devises a plan she dubs “The Great Experiment.” She hastily bestows titles on many of the ton’s Black and brown residents, and then invites them to the royal wedding seated across the aisle from white members of the aristocracy.
Her separate but equal plan is not a commentary on race relations, but rather an act of charity to acknowledge the future queen’s heritage, unite the kingdom and impress Parliament — even if only temporarily. Overnight, Agatha and her husband become Lord and Lady Danbury, placing Young Lady Danbury on the path to becoming Bridgerton’s second most powerful woman.
On the day of her wedding, Charlotte is so distraught that no one will tell her anything about the man she is to marry that she runs away. Her escape is thwarted by Young King George (Corey Mylchreest) of all people, just as she contemplates scaling the palace garden wall and making a run for it. George and Charlotte are instantly smitten with each other, their love seemingly written in the stars.
Secrets and deception plague the newlyweds’ relationship from the start, as George pushes Charlotte away to keep her from finding out his secrets. Those secrets come to the surface eventually, while the couple juggles producing an heir with figuring out their future as couple and the fate of all involved in the “Great Experiment.”
The future Queen Charlotte faces a similar dilemma in the Regency era after her only granddaughter, and heir to the throne, dies in childbirth along with her mother. While the queen found a way to fulfill her royal duties and produce 13 children, she spends most of the season trying to get her young adult kids to marry and provide a legitimate heir for the royal family line to live on.
In the past, Charlotte’s loneliness and confusion lead her to confide in Lady Danbury. The pair become fast friends, which Princess Augusta attempts to exploit by demanding Danbury pump the queen for information in an effort to maintain control over her son.
The parallels and intersections of Young Lady Danbury and Young Queen Charlotte drive most of the plot. Danbury was a toddler when she was promised to her husband after she came of age. As a consequence she endures unfulfilling sex and a relatively loveless marriage out of a sense of duty. Meanwhile Charlotte and George, although physically attracted to each other, can’t move past the walls George has erected to protect his secret. But in true “Bridgerton” fashion, the couple still manages to have hot angry sex every other day in an attempt to produce an heir.
“Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story” has all the trappings of the flagship series’ fare, including steamy bathtub sex, orchestral pop remakes (Beyonce’s “Halo” included), and stunning period costumes, bustled up and dripping with jewels. And although the series offers just six episodes, multiple chapters sport long pearl-clutching run times.
However, unlike previous installments, the tone of the prequel is more deliberate, with less of the frivolity found in the main series. Is “Bridgerton” still a world of heteronormative wealthy European privilege? Absolutely. But Rhimes should be commended for providing context and purpose to Queen Charlotte’s origins, as well as a proper backstory for how the Regency era’s more inclusive ton came to be.
Amarteifio does an outstanding job playing Young Queen Charlotte, and exudes both Rosheuvel’s confidence and the feeling of a young girl entirely out of her depth. Her chemistry is palpable with Mylchreest, who does a beautiful job wandering through the wilderness of King George’s mind without being campy.
And it’s hard to believe that Young Lady Danbury is one of Thomas’ first roles out of acting school. Her acting ability belies an actress with much more experience. The only character that seems out of place is her husband, the gratingly cartoonish Lord Danbury, who at some 40 years older than Agatha, is more concerned with social climbing than with actually spending time with any of his children, preparing them for their future or respecting his wife.
Ultimately, Charlotte and George carve out an unbreakable bond within a world with little privacy and a society that refuses to accept them as they are. Their love story is emotional and challenging, but they triumph on their terms.
“Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story” premieres Thursday, May 4, on Netflix.