Through all the pining glances across ballrooms, steamy dalliances in gardens, and pointed barbs whilst promenading in Bridgerton, one fearless writer sees all.
Lady Whistledown is high society’s very own Gossip Girl, the author of an anonymous gossip column who isn’t afraid to call it like she sees it. Throughout the first season, Lady Whistledown’s quippy voiceover (done by the ever regal Dame Julie Andrews) cut through the drama and provided some delicious plot fuel of its own. The Queen of England was bent on discovering the identity of the writer who dared question her choices, while headstrong Eloise Bridgerton was determined to find Lady Whistledown and share her own scathing critiques of high society. The gossip itself was just one source of pressure in Bridgerton. Lady Whistledown’s anonymity and all-seeing eye tension feel like it was coming from anywhere, maybe even everywhere.
[Ed. Note: This piece contains major spoilers for the end of the first season and Penelope’s plotline in season 2 of Bridgerton.]
But in the last few moments of Bridgerton season 1, the mystery is revealed: wallflower Penelope Featherington is actually the ton’s most scandalous gossipmonger.
The question is … do we care?
The biggest element Bridgerton loses by having Lady Whistledown’s identity out in the open is the drama that comes from her anonymity. It’s a game not just for Eloise, Queen Charlotte, and the other characters, but for us as an audience. By revealing that hand all too soon, so much of that tension is zapped out and replaced by a tedious plotline about Penelope trying to run her gossip pamphlet.
Aside from the main romance at hand, there are many working plots in Bridgerton. (One could even argue that there are too many.) In the first season, most of these were necessary in order to establish the main players in the series and give more context to why the central characters were the way they were. Daphne’s desire for a love match, for instance, is bolstered by the various withering marriages and purely strategic relationships, especially within high society. Sure, some of these extra plotlines were more interesting than others, but as a whole they worked pretty well — even if they did make the episodes incredibly long.
In the second season, the episodes are just as long in order to jampack all these loose ends together. But for whatever reason, some of the more interesting characters and plotlines from the first season — like Anthony’s opera singer mistress and the queer painter who invited Benedict out to some lavish sex parties — are no longer present. Their absence leaves more time for the other players, which could flesh them out more, but unfortunately the remaining plotlines are rather dull all things considered. And the big reveal that Penelope is Lady Whistledown is possibly the worst offender, since it doesn’t do enough to deepen the character or the challenges she faces in the structure of high society or dive more into who she is as a person and what her motives are.
Most of Penelope’s plotline involves her either managing her gossip empire or pining over Colin, who keeps telling her she is the person he trusts most in the world and he cannot imagine life without but, like, totally platonically. The latter is grating, but the former involves long treks across London and trips to the dressmaker and the print shop. There are so many scenes around Penelope keeping her business afloat and doing more or less of the same thing. She wants to be seen, and sees Whistledown as a way of accomplishing that, however roundabout. But knowing that isn’t enough to hang a whole character on, let alone a reveal of this magnitude.
Penelope’s side hustle is also framed with particularly grating #girlboss energy — she is an independent woman with her own business! Except … she is just hiding money underneath her floorboards and not really doing anything about it? Even though her family is broke?! What is her endgame? Why do we need to know her identity right now in the middle of a story about Anthony and Kate, when it would be best indulged later down the line? If the show follows the books, then each Bridgerton child gets their chance to shine — and (book spoiler) Penelope will be Colin’s love interest in the fourth season. That is the perfect time to dive into her double life, instead of a season focused on two characters she barely interacts with, and whom Lady Whistledown doesn’t do much about.
What Whistledown does do is get found out by Eloise. This comes after Penelope makes the difficult decision to publish a scathing rumor about Eloise in order to save her from the queen’s wrath. But Eloise is wounded and hurt that Penelope not only published those words but also went behind her back this entire time. Their resulting fight is devastating for their friendship, and it seems to reinvigorate Penelope to pick up her Whistledown quill yet again. It is likely that their fallout will shape a lot of the future seasons and prompt Penelope to reconsider her goals and values; it may even give her an axe to grind. But that’s doing more work than they need to.
If Lady Whistledown were simply a mysterious, disembodied voice (played, again, by the singular Julie Andrews) then not only would it shave down some of these episode times, but also the intrigue of Eloise’s whole mission would be heightened — with the risks and the fallout more disastrous. Eloise can continue to sneak away to print shops and meet charming apprentices, and Penelope can continue to advise her against it, which would ultimately make for more intriguing tension that could build up later down the line. But revealing the mystery so early on in the show’s run does a disservice to the delicious long con that only multiple television seasons can provide. But now that we know who it is … what more can it offer us?
The second season of Bridgerton is available on Netflix.