Review: Believe the talk of the ton: ‘Queen Charlotte’ rules in this ‘Bridgerton’ prequel

A queen sits in a parlor holding a small brown dog in her arms.
India Ria Amarteifio is young Queen Charlotte in “Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story.”
(Liam Daniel / Netflix)

Clutch your bosom and reach for the smelling salts. “Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story” has finally arrived, and the prequel is the best “Bridgerton” yet.

For the uninitiated: “Queen Charlotte” follows two previous seasons of Netflix’s whimsical drama about romance, matchmaking and carnal pursuits among England’s Regency-era aristocracy. The first season was a playful, revisionist history at its best: The ton was a colorblind mix of races, the queen was Black, and twee orchestras performed 21st century pop hits at 19th century balls. It was great fun watching society’s ladies and gentlemen follow prudish etiquette while contending with the show’s contemporary ideas around love, free will and shameless hookups.

The prequel, also from showrunner Shonda Rhimes, expands upon the charm of Season 1 of “Bridgerton,” and makes up for the meh of Season 2, with a strong cast, fresh storyline and, most importantly, a new complexity and depth. True sacrifice and struggle are at the center of Charlotte’s love story and her ascent to power in a series that still honors the delights of frivolity. The queen’s hair, and the scandal, reach new heights in the prequel.

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King George and Queen Charlotte are standing and holding hands, gazing at one another.
In “Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story,” viewers get the back story to how the queen ascended the throne. Corey Mylchreest, left, with India Ria Amarteifio, is young King George. Michelle Fairley, far right, is Princess Augusta, the king’s meddlesome mother.
(Liam Daniel / Netflix)

Golda Rosheuvel reprises her role as Queen Charlotte, the mature, matchmaking-obsessed monarch who is desperately trying to marry off her adult children so they’ll produce an heir to the throne. Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh) and Lady Violet Bridgerton (Ruth Gemmell) also factor greatly into this story. And no, Simon (Regé-Jean Page) does not make an appearance here.

The prequel moves between two timelines, and the talented India Ria Amarteifio plays a younger version of the queen, who is just 17 and a German princess when she’s paired with a young King George III (Corey Mylchreest). It’s a match made for political purposes, yet in this volume of the “Bridgerton” saga, there are qualms about a mixed-race marriage. But the union is vital to Britain’s survival, so they proceed with “The Great Experiment” (in other words, a merging of races). Many in the court are displeased with the betrothal, and practically hold their noses as they watch the couple walk down the aisle. The parallels to Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, are undeniable.

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Love blossoms between the couple, but he has a secret, which isn’t that hard to figure out given the actual history of George III, who was known as the mad king. The young Agatha Danbury (Arsema Thomas) is an early confidant of Charlotte’s, and her story is rich unto itself, from her arranged marriage to a man easily three times her age to becoming a power broker of the ton, as British high society was called. She is instrumental in breaking down color barriers, and even though she has no love for her aged spouse, her bold actions toward integration afford him a moment in the series that’s a profound comment on the insidiousness of racism among the “cultured” class.

Brimsley stands behind Queen Charlotte, who is sitting on a couch with a dog on her lap.
Brimsley (Hugh Sachs), left, Queen Charlotte’s (Golda Rosheuvel) secretary, has a love affair of his own in the prequel.
(Liam Daniel / Netflix)

Losing oneself in the fantasy of “Bridgerton” formerly meant that the show didn’t really have to go into any great depth to explain how a Black woman ascended to the throne, or how the color of one’s skin was utterly overlooked in an otherwise close-minded, tradition-bound society. But in the prequel, the question of how that fanciful picture came to be is answered, and the reveal is more intriguing than the great unveiling of Lady Whistledown’s true identity in Season 1. And the finale of “Queen Charlotte” is truly emotional — surprising for a franchise that seemed to promise from the beginning that it would never take us too deep.

Lighthearted romance and romps in the gilded bed still play starring roles, and the prequel offers plenty of splendid scenery — including robin-egg-blue carriages, velvety red curtains and exquisite gowns of all shades. There are also a bounty of strikingly beautiful young folks who populate the scenery. And there is finally a gay love affair in the “Bridgerton” franchise, perhaps in response to criticisms that the series lacked a same-sex relationship, but the subplot does not feel engineered or obligatory. It naturally dovetails with all the other affairs of the heart that make “Queen Charlotte” a royal success.