'Bridgerton' Season 3's First Half is Everything... With One Big But

Nicola Coughlan and Luke Newton in "Bridgerton" Season 3

Nicola Coughlan and Luke Newton in "Bridgerton" Season 3

(Photo: Netflix)

After two seasons and a successful spinoff, we know what to expect and enjoy from Bridgerton: marriage plots and romance tropes galore, delicious drama among second- and third-tier characters, contemporary Top 40 songs re-arranged to suit Regency period country dances, juicy gossip collected and distributed by Lady Whistledown, varying degrees and quantities of on-screen sex, lush costume and set design, and even more gossip. Like any Shondaland series worth its salt, Bridgerton is committed to its aesthetic and reliable in delivering on the themes and concerns that drive its characters. 

What it is not is a series that can successfully be split in half, with the four episodes of Season 3’s first half arriving on May 16 and the remaining four landing a whole month later, on June 13. Given the permanently anxious state of streaming—and, one imagines, the viewership success of the most recent season of Stranger Things and The Crown’s final season—it’s not hard to understand why Netflix is repeating the strategy. It’s just, as Lady Whistledown might say, deeply vexing.

When last we saw Bridgerton, Anthony, Viscount Bridgerton (Jonathan Bailey) was marrying the enemy-to-love-of-his-life, the former Kate Sharma (Simone Ashley), and Lord Anthony’s sister Eloise (Claudia Jessie) was experiencing a hideously nasty and heartbreaking best friend breakup with Penelope Featherington (Nicola Coughlan), who she discovered is the ton’s often-scathing gossip purveyor in chief, Lady Whistledown. As Season 3 opens, several months have passed. Anthony and Kate are back from their honeymoon (geographically speaking, anyway), and everyone else in the ton is returning to town for the debutante season and marriage mart. 

Claudia Jessie, Luke Newton, Ruth Gemmell, and Hannah Dodd in "Bridgerton" Season 3

Claudia Jessie, Luke Newton, Ruth Gemmell, and Hannah Dodd in "Bridgerton" Season 3

Liam Daniel/Netflix

This season moves along at a brisk pace: in short order, we meet a handful of new debutantes, establish that Anthony’s sister, the reserved pianist Francesca (Hannah Dodd, replacing Ruby Stokes), is to be the Bridgerton family’s next sibling to marry; attend recent world-traveler Colin’s (Luke Newton) glow-up as a witty rake; see that the Featheringtons have survived and are even thriving following the departure of the dastardly and doshed-up Cousin Jack Featherington; thrill to Penelope Featherington’s strides toward sophistication and self-possession; and observe that Eloise is now quite chummy with…Cressida Cowper (Jessica Madsen). Well, well. 

Unfortunately, this set of episodes doesn’t get much past these tantalizing developments and setups. That’s not to say the pacing falls off after the first episode. It’s more that the mid-season hiatus highlights the challenges of creating a binge-worthy eight-episode season that is also two distinct mini-seasons based on its release schedule, but that must also shift seamlessly to being a single, satisfying eight-episode arc immediately thereafter. I am dizzy, and it’s not because I’ve had too many glasses of boozy punch after the last four dances with my many suitors.

Forget a tall order; these narrative requirements are sky-high. The first four episodes succeed in being very easy to watch all in one go — never let it be said that this show doesn’t understand how to hook and hold viewers! — but once Colin and Penelope finally get together, one only wants to watch the next episode. However! That love scene — a fierce argument that turns steamy during a carriage ride home from a ball — occurs in the fourth episode. There is no moving directly on to Episode 5 or the inevitable conflict (and eventual reconciliation – call me a cockeyed optimist, but I’m rooting for those two) that will follow for Colin and Pen. 

Luke Newton as Colin Bridgerton, Nicola Coughlan as Penelope Featherington in a darkened corner in Bridgerton Season 3

Luke Newton as Colin Bridgerton, Nicola Coughlan as Penelope Featherington in Bridgerton Season 3

Liam Daniel/Netflix © 2023

A cliffhanger is one thing, but this is a hard stop! Scarcely anything else of note has unfolded in detail or at the pace it should because every other plot point and character beat in the first four episodes exists primarily to set the table for the events of the last four rather than in service of the season’s story as a whole. This may well be a problem that ceases to exist in a month — these structural cracks might not show once the two halves of the season are fit together. 

But it’s a problem now, as Bridgerton’s most devoted viewers will dive right into what’s available this week, and I’m not sure it’s a problem that can be fixed in the context of a series meant to be watched in as close to one sitting as possible. 

The Crown tried to square the circle in its final season by using siloed, mostly single-chapter storytelling that often felt thin and was undertaken at the cost of character development. Bridgerton is more successful, but if Netflix wants to grab and maintain control of the cultural conversation over weeks or months, it would do better to admit the obvious and move to the successful weekly release model used by Disney+, Hulu, Max, Peacock, Starz, AppleTV+ and most dramatically, for FX’s recent creative and ratings triumph, Shōgun. (Even the AMC Networks’ niche streamers have basically accepted weekly installments are where it’s at, and Paramount+ as well, for the remaining time that it exists.) Weekly episodes, what a concept! Swallow your pride, Netflix, and get with the times.

Nicola Coughlan and Hannah Dodd in "Bridgerton" Season 3

Nicola Coughlan and Hannah Dodd in "Bridgerton" Season 3

(Photo: Netflix)

Thankfully, quite a bit works in the first half of the third season of Bridgerton, which ultimately makes it worth one’s while to watch. Francesca Bridgerton’s struggle is an interesting one — in addition to finding a suitable match, she needs to convince the Dowager Lady Bridgerton (Ruth Gemmell) that while she looks forward to marriage, she’s not hung up on making a love match. Unlike Anthony, who was determined not to marry for love due to the trauma he suffered witnessing his father’s sudden death and his mother’s subsequent plunge into grief, Francesca is simply very practical. 

Mostly, she’d like some peace and quiet after living for so long among her loving, boisterous family, and seems to genuinely believe that that will be enough to suit her. Fair! But how is she going to thread the needle of being selected as Queen Charlotte’s (Golda Rosheuvel) sparkler (she’s decided that those gems are over because Edwina wasn’t successful as last season’s diamond) and get anyone to understand what she sees in the equally reserved and very sweet John, Lord Kilmartin (Victor Alli)? The two of them seem to communicate via telepathy, and there could be some real love there, but they’re not legible as a sparkling match to everyone else.

It’ll be fascinating to see how inheritance factors into the plot lines of the Featherington and Mondrich families; I predict that solicitor Walter Dundas (Edward Bennett) so pointedly introduced as being “charged with ensuring that all lines of succession all run smoothly within our great families,” will prove to be a narrative Chekov’s gun down the line. But what will become of the eligible and straight-shooting Lord Debling (Sam Phillips) now that he’s realized Penelope could have agreed to his proposal but would always pine for Colin? 

Jessica Madsen as Cressida Cowper, Claudia Jessie as Eloise Bridgerton dsit in the opera box in 'Bridgerton' Season 3

Jessica Madsen as Cressida Cowper, Claudia Jessie as Eloise Bridgerton in 'Bridgerton' Season 3

Liam Daniel/Netflix © 2024

Also, there’s the little matter of Cressida Cowper, who is emerging as a far more complex character than I thought possible, possessed of the nastiness we’ve seen in previous seasons, sure, but also guarding over a well of profound loneliness in her own family and abject horror at the prospect of being married off to a much older man. She’s conniving, and we’re beginning to see why. Also, I simply refuse to believe that a woman who is so adventurous and witty in her selection of fabrics and design elements in both dress and hairstyle can be fully vapid. There’s a real spark in there; here’s hoping it bursts into a bright light.

Bridgerton, Season 3, Part 1, streams with four episodes on Netflix starting Thursday, May 16, 2024. The rest of the season will arrive on Thursday, June 13, 2024. Season 4 has already been greenlit.

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Sophie has been happily steeping in the potent brew of British TV since her parents let her stay up late on a Thursday watching the Jeremy Brett adaptation of Sherlock Holmes. She loves mysteries, espionage thrillers, documentaries, and costume dramas, and if you're not careful, she might talk your ear off about the Plantagenets. Sorry about that in advance! 

You can find Sophie on all the platforms as @sophiebiblio and keep an eye on her bylines from all over the internet via her handy portfolio.

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