'Bridgerton' Season 3 could've been a reflection of reality than escape from it

It could have gone so much further than just cotton-candy romance

69-Nicola-Coughlan-as-Penelope-Featherington Nicola Coughlan as Penelope Featherington

Get your satin slippers ready, ladies. For the ton is back with the season’s first dances. The first part of Bridgerton season 3 is out, and it is as delectable as ever, immersing us once more into the world of stays and petticoats, feathered hats and powdered wigs, tulle and topaz, men with titles and women setting their caps at them.

The show has often been called a floozy fantasy, popcorn escapism and distraction from the real world, perhaps not entirely without reason. After all, who wants to read about geopolitics or global warming when you can instead listen to Lady Whistledown’s verdict on the viscount’s new waistcoat. Yet Bridgerton, especially season 3, has such potential to be more―not to be a distraction from reality, but rather a reflection of it. Because it has at its heart not a heroine who is picture perfect.

Penelope Featherington (played by a brilliant Nicola Coughlan), on the other hand, is awkward, clumsy and overweight. She is the wallflower who literally stays near the wall at every ball or gathering of the ton, the spinster decidedly ‘on the shelf’ after two seasons out. In other words, she is the embodiment of each of our deepest fears. Despite our circumstances―whatever they might be―there is a Penelope in each of us. It is the voice in us that is constantly striving for contentment, yet always reaching for more.

That is why season 3 of Bridgerton has such unexploited potential. It could have gone so much further than just cotton-candy romance. Penelope’s pain could have been harvested into something purer. So many themes that we grapple with today―body shaming, anxiety, social ostracisation, and the pressure to belong―could have been explored more thoroughly. Penelope could have been a metaphor for our times. Bridgerton’s bow has been pulled back just enough for the arrow to hit a happy ending. Yet, if it had been pulled back just a little further, the arrow might have travelled beyond, to somewhere far more fulfilling.

Some might say that Bridgerton would not be Bridgerton without its snob value. It is a world where women do nothing but search for husbands and learn embroidery (in order to find a husband), and men do nothing but go pheasant hunting, gamble, and discuss their ‘conquests’ over whist and whiskey at the gentleman's club. But must all that forced laziness translate into side plots that really lead nowhere? Like the love triangle between Francesca Bridgerton, Lord Samadani and the Earl of Kilmartin; or Benedict Bridgerton’s illicit affair with Lady Tilley Arnold. Even the sex scenes, like Kate and Anthony’s bedroom romp or Colin’s threesome, are somewhat gratuitous. Sex for sex’s sake often lacks sex appeal.

And it is not like there is no precedent for a more layered exploration of themes in Bridgerton. The Bridgerton prequel Queen Charlotte―that dealt with King George’s deteriorating mental illness―was a masterpiece in nuanced story-telling. It took the topic of mental health and spun it into gold, never letting the solemness of the subject take away from its levity. All Queen Charlotte lacked was a happily-ever-after, and Penelope’s story made leeway for that; if only it also had space to air out her pain and her pathos. In fact, the pain would only have heightened the joy in the end. Suffering has a way of making life―and regency romances―sweeter.