This post contains detailed spoilers for Bridgerton
Finding a perfect match is high on the agenda of the new Netflix Regency romance Bridgerton. This is a society that equates a woman’s worth with the man she marries, rather than any other accomplishment. But as with other Shondaland shows, it isn’t only the hot and heavy or unrequited love pairings who make us fall head over heels. More than a decade ago, Grey’s Anatomy introduced audiences to the notion of “You’re my person,” a phrase that has such strong pop culture penetration that even a non-Grey’s viewer knows of its platonic potency. Signaling the soulmate bond between Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo) and Christina Yang (Sandra Oh) it points to true love extending beyond fairy tale expectations. Enter Penelope Featherington (Nicola Coughlan) and Eloise Bridgerton (Claudia Jessie) who don’t work in a high-pressure environment like Seattle Grace, but do have to contend with the limitations of 19th-century living. Rather than eyeing up the same suitor, these BFFs have other complicated matters to deal with. Namely, the identity of the notorious Lady Whistledown (voiced by Julie Andrews) who has set London aflutter with her gossipy observations.
Despite living across the square from each other, the Bridgerton and Featherington families could not be more different. The widowed Lady Violet Bridgerton (Ruth Gemmell) married for love and has a house full of children who mostly like each other — siblings squabbles aside — whereas the Featherington home is lacking warmth. Penelope’s mother Portia (Polly Walker) is scheming but her motivations are predicated on a society that only values women as a marital commodity. The Bridgertons are revered, whereas their neighbors are viewed with disdain. While there is little love between the matriarchs, Penelope and Eloise’s friendship is apparent from the first time we see them waving at each other in “Diamond of the First Water.” What follows is a coming-out event to kick-off the debutante season that will determine future betrothal and potential spinsterhood. Eloise is not part of this ritual — her debut is set for the following year, much to her displeasure — but Penelope is making her official entrance into society. Her heart is already set on one of her bestie’s older brothers, unfortunately, it is only Eloise that seems to notice her.
Before we get to the big final episode reveal (because that will certainly impact the dynamic), let’s get to the heart of why this friendship stands out as one of the most enticing relationships in a romance-heavy world. Unlike her older sister Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor), Eloise has lofty dreams to break the bonds of rigid expectations to marry well and have children. She wants the opportunities offered to her brothers who are free to travel or create art and she is not afraid to voice her opinions. “Suppose I desire something different?” Eloise asks Benedict (Luke Thompson) while sneaking a late-night cigarette in the garden. Discussing her lack of agency, it should be noted that while middle-child (of eight) Eloise is not permitted to do whatever she wants, she has less pressure on her puffed shoulders because her other sisters are happy to partake in these rituals. She finds solace in her bestie, but the Featherington sisters are not as coveted as their neighbors, and therefore Penelope doesn’t share the same privilege — it also doesn’t help that Lord Featherington (Ben Miller) has secretly gambled their fortune away.
Similar to the plotting of a love (and lust) connection, this complex relationship has plenty of highs and lows across the first season highlighting how a friendship can be equally as exhilarating as a lusty will-they-won’t-they. Chemistry is vital even without intense stares and smooching, which Coughlan and Jessie have oodles of. Peneloise — a true sign of a favored relationship is the word blend nickname hashtag — aren’t without obstacles threatening to come between them and Lady Whistledown could be the biggest of them all. “Not everyone can be a pretty Bridgerton” Penelope snaps in “An Affair of Honor” when Eloise comes calling with her latest theory about the identity of the gossip magnate. Penelope is preoccupied with her doomed Colin Bridgerton (Luke Newton) crush and initially, this brutal dismissal of her oldest friend appears to be fueled by her broken heart.
There is more to this rupture than a differing opinion regarding marriage and Penelope is hiding more than her unrequited feelings. This dream of independence in a world lacking options means grasping at freedom where possible. For Eloise, uncovering the blind item writer is her key to success, but little does she know this person is closer than she could ever expect. While these BFFs aren’t going to fall out over boys like Blair Waldorf (Leighton Meester) and Serena van der Woodson (Blake Lively), the Gossip Girl comparisons are apt when considering the power of the anonymous scribe. Unlike the haphazard planning behind the Upper East Side blogger’s identity, Lady Whistledown’s real moniker can also be found within Julia Quinn’s source material. Season 1 ends with the reveal that it is Penelope who has been spilling society truths — including the scandalous goings-on within her own home — and this deceit will no doubt hit Eloise the hardest.
Trust (or the lack of) is a major theme throughout the series that will spill into the next. Considering how much detective work Eloise has put in to unmask Lady Whistledown to benefit her bestie, the duplicitous actions of Penelope are hard to forgive. However, Penelope is using standing as the often unseen Featherington to elevate her status beyond one tied to matrimony. Eloise has long admired Whistledown’s independent spirit and when the dust settles, she might even be proud of her friend. It goes without saying that the Duke (Regé-Jean Page) and Daphne are the dazzling duo of Season 1 — although this is said with caveats — but the friendship roller coaster is the relatable heart that hits new heights with the juicy finale cliffhanger.
Much like the heroines of Austen’s Regency-set stories, the complex relationships between women are just as vital as the romance at the heart of the story. The Bennett sisters or Emma’s various friendships (and frenemies) display deep bonds while also harboring feelings that are less becoming — such as envy. Elizabeth Bennett’s relationship with her oldest sister Jane is just as pivotal as her romance with Darcy. In a recent interview with R29, Nicola Coughlan spoke about this aspect of the Peneloise arc pointing to a conversation with the Bridgerton series author, “Julia Quinn said to Claudia [Jessie] and me: ‘Look, these books are about romantic love, but a huge part of them is about female friendships, and that love. This is the friendship that underpins the whole series.’” Finding your person isn’t the husband who will whisk you off to his ancestral home, rather, they are who you can count on to hunt down a gossip maven — even if that maven is you.
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