[Warning: The following contains spoilers for the finale of Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story. Read at your own risk!]
There is an abundance of options for ways to expand the Bridgerton universe — there are a whole bunch of interesting side characters in the Netflix series, even more in Julia Quinn's novels, and a rich, vivid world ready to act as a backdrop to stories that could happen either before or after our main Bridgerton timeline. So when it was announced that the Netflix show's first spin-off series would be a prequel that told the story of a young Queen Charlotte (India Amarteifio) and her marriage to King George III (Corey Mylchreest), I thought to myself…cool, cool, cool, these people are masochists. Prequels are hard, guys. Better Call Saul is an anomaly, OK? House of the Dragon had to set itself literal centuries before Game of Thrones to keep it interesting. A frothy, sexy romance series jumping a few decades in the past to focus on a love story that we already know gets an extremely tragic ending is a risk, to say the least. While watching the six-episode limited series Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story, some of those common prequel traps are evident, and it's easy to begin asking what the point of this specific story really is, but by the time I hit the final scene of the series — a gorgeous, heartbreaking, romantic moment between our two monarchs that ties the past and present together — those issues faded into the background and the reasoning behind telling this story was clear. In the end, it turns out, the risk was worth it.
We've learned a lot about Queen Charlotte (the elder version played by Golda Rosheuvel) through her supporting stint on the first two seasons of Bridgerton: Her hair game is unmatched; her insults are devastating; she hates the ton's resident gossipmonger, Lady Whistledown; and she is one half of a couple with a famed love story that supposedly fixed racism but has a tragic twist — King George (the elder version played by James Fleet) suffers from some sort of mental illness and dementia so bad he doesn't even remember who he is anymore, let alone the woman he loves. Season 2 gave us a memorably heart-wrenching scene in which a manic George bursts into a room where Charlotte is discussing the stalled wedding of Anthony Bridgerton (Jonathan Bailey) and Edwina Sharma (Charithra Chandran) with Edwina, her mother Lady Mary (Shelley Conn), Lady Bridgerton (Ruth Gemmell), and Lady Danbury (Adjoa Andoh). Confused, he believes it to be his and Charlotte's wedding day, and Edwina is left to calm him down, reminding him of his and Charlotte's great love, while Charlotte stands by, devastated, holding back tears. Let's get deeply invested in how this gutting love story began, right? Well, as it turns out, maybe, yes? It turns out maybe we're the masochists.
It's not that sad love stories aren't compelling; it's just that they aren't necessarily what Bridgerton has been about up to this point. Both seasons have stayed fairly tried-and-true to the romance genre: They follow a courtship that leads to a wedding at some point and a happily ever after. Queen Charlotte begins with a wedding; the premiere kicks off with Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz discovering that her brother Adolphus (Tunji Kasim) has signed betrothal papers agreeing to his sister's marriage to the King of England, and off she goes — there's a wedding before the end of the episode. Queen Charlotte isn't about courtship or some type of fated, magical love that ends in a happily ever after. It's very much about making a marriage work, it's about choosing to love someone every day, even — especially — when that's hard, and it's about an ever after that is much more complicated than happy. That's a jarring concept to accept when you turn on something billing itself as "A Bridgerton Story," but once you realize what they're doing, it's actually a pretty smart move: By dumping some of the Bridgerton formula, Queen Charlotte becomes its own show.
That's not to say that there aren't a lot of Bridgerton touchstones here. We still hear the dulcet, if biting, tones of Lady Whistledown (voiced by Julie Andrews) in some of the present-day plot about Queen Charlotte trying to get one of her 13 (!!) children to produce an heir and continue her and George's bloodline. We definitely get some steamy sex scenes from various couples throughout (let's hear it for the footmen! let's hear it for bathtubs!). And the chemistry between our leads, from the moment George finds Charlotte trying to escape their wedding by climbing over the garden wall, is palpable. Amarteifio and Mylchreest flirt and fight and fall for each other with the best of them. There's a moment when George says to Charlotte, "I'm very good with buttons" that I still haven't recovered from, and on its own that sounds insane, but if you know, you know. Still, there's a depth to what's going on between them that's essential for this whole series to work, not just because they're the central couple, but because outside of their romance, a lot of Queen Charlotte feels a little shallow.
Up to this point, Bridgerton has mostly ignored any discussions of race aside from quick mentions of how Charlotte and George's marriage helped integrate high society. Queen Charlotte tackles the subject a little more head-on, and yet it still feels like too timid an approach. And for a series about the King and Queen of England, the show basically ignores the global power these two characters have. Political intrigue? This show's never heard of her. On a more emotional level, the series begins to dive into what Charlotte's love for and loyalty to George — her mission to stand by and protect him above all else — did to her relationship with her children, but it only skims the surface. For better or worse, it's clear the focus of this show is the relationship between Charlotte and George — and Amarteifio and Mylchreest are easily up to the task of making that relationship as compelling as possible.
It's the nuance and dynamics in Charlotte and George's relationship that help mitigate those pesky prequel issues. Since we know how this story plays out, a lot of the tension that would normally drive the stakes of the main action is deflated. The series takes several episodes to let Charlotte in on George's mental illness; instead, he tries to avoid her and argue that things are better this way without explaining why, and people surrounding Charlotte are coy as to what's really going on. But anyone who has seen Bridgerton knows exactly what's going on, so the "reveal" of George's first big breakdown isn't much of a reveal at all. Later, when Charlotte flees to Lady Danbury's and insists she wants to leave England altogether because she was lied to, we know she's not really going to leave. We know that in the present day, she has chosen to stay with her husband all of these years, and, even more so, that she still very much loves him. Because we already know the broad strokes of how this all goes, it can feel like the show drags a bit as it stretches out some of these story beats. It's in these moments that you might start to wonder, Why this story?
And then you remember what Bridgerton is all about: romance, baby. Yes, even though Charlotte and George's story is ultimately heartbreaking, it is utterly romantic — just in a different way than we've seen in this world before. And that's not a bad thing! Even between the two Bridgerton seasons, we got love stories that were pretty different at their core — Season 1 was about sex and desire; Season 2 was about longing — so in that sense, this spin-off follows the Bridgerton tradition. And honestly, what's more romantic than choosing to love someone day after day? In the finale, written by Shonda Rhimes (who wrote five of the six episodes) and directed by Tom Verica (who directed all six episodes), there's a scene after George has had another breakdown, this time right before he's supposed to give a speech to Parliament, assuring them that he's up to the task of being a ruling monarch. Charlotte finds her husband under their bed, where he feels safe — where he can block out all the other noise in his head. He worries he can only give her half a life because he is only "half a man," sometimes here and sometimes completely gone, but Charlotte climbs under that bed next to him and takes his hand, promising that together they'll make the most out of what they have. It's not the first time we've seen Charlotte choose to stand by George, but it is the definitive time; she'll never doubt it again.
The final scene in the episode calls back to this moment. In the present day, Charlotte has just learned that her son Edward is having a baby (that baby will end up becoming Queen Victoria), and that after so long worrying that she wouldn't be able to give her husband this one thing — to ensure the continuation of his bloodline, which, as she was reminded repeatedly, was pretty much her one job — she can finally give him the gift of knowing their story will continue on (only "A Bridgerton Story" can get away with romanticizing bloodlines). She rushes over to where he lives away from society to tell him the news; it's the first time we see the two monarchs together in the present day. But George, as we know, is fully gone. So Charlotte tries one last thing to get his attention: She climbs under their bed.
We've only seen them do this once before, but we know that this must have been their safe space throughout their marriage, the space where George would always come back to his Charlotte. The scene under the bed is as romantic and heartbreaking as it gets. Charlotte tells George the big news — "Your line will live on" — and he turns to her to correct her, "Our line," before grabbing her hand. It's a correction he made to her before, many years ago. He's having a lucid moment, and Charlotte suddenly sees him as the young man she fell in love with. She sees him for who he is today, too, and they kiss. "Fancy meeting you here," he says, before almost asking, almost reminding himself, "You did not go over the wall."
"No George, I did not go over the wall," she assures him. George sees Charlotte as her younger self, and they are there, under that bed together, as they were back then. They are side by side, a team, as they've been all these years. Knowing that this moment will be fleeting makes it devastating but all the more romantic. And that final shot of just two sets of feet sticking out from under the bed feels like a lovely little reminder that this is not the love story of two monarchs but the one of "just George" and just Charlotte. And that is a story worth telling.
Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story is now streaming on Netflix.