Jessica Madsen as Cressida Cowper in season 3, episode 5 of Bridgerton.

‘Bridgerton’ Season 3 Broke Our Hearts With This Character’s Arc

Of the many issues I have with Bridgerton season 3, Cressida Cowper’s (Jessica Madsen) character arc is a disappointment I won’t recover from any time soon. 

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Making her debut in season 1 alongside Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor), Miss Cressida Cowper has been a mean girl for as long as we’ve known her. And they gave her the full Mean Girl™ treatment, too, with her over-the-top hairdos, the campiest dresses, and expressions that often look as though she has an evil voiceover happening in her head at all times.

But in season 3, something changed. With Eloise (Claudia Jessie) and Penelope’s (Nicola Coughlan) platonic breakup, Eloise and Cressida were the new besties in the ton. It was hard for everyone, including Eloise’s family and friends, to understand why she’d want to be friends with Cressida. After all, wasn’t she a bully? How did they even become friends in the first place?

Cressida Cowper tries to be Lady Whistledown

We get all our answers as the season unfolds. Eloise mentions how, over the summer, when she was sad over her rift with Penelope and alone because of what Lady Whistledown wrote about her and Theo, Cressida was the only one who was nice to her. And through this friendship with Eloise, who is quite the feminist and belongs to a loving family, we see a different side of Cressida emerge.

The truth about Cressida is the truth about most mean girls—they’re products of the patriarchy, a problem that does still exist in the Bridgerton world, even if racism is already a thing of the past (to a certain extent, at least). In a world controlled by men, where women have no agency, the only way they can get some is to find a rich husband—hopefully of their choice—to give them something to lord over other women who are below them on the food chain. 

Bridgerton. Jessica Madsen as Cressida Cowper in episode 307 of Bridgerton.

In Cressida’s case, that was Penelope, who was in a similar situation with no prospects in her third season. When Cressida sees Pen’s makeover at the ball, she realizes Penelope is her new competition, and instantly acts on her worst impulses to sabotage her. In fact, Cressida even admits to Eloise the next day: 

“It has been difficult to find a husband. It has been more difficult to find a friend … But the season has a way of coming between young ladies, pitting us against one another. I suppose I’ve fallen prey to it … once or twice. I admit, I’ve often not been kind.”

Cressida Cowper (Bridgerton season 3, episode 2 “How Bright the Moon”)
Bridgerton. (L to R) Jessica Madsen as Cressida Cowper, Claudia Jessie as Eloise Bridgerton in episode 305 of Bridgerton.
(Liam Daniel/Netflix)

Of all the subplots happening in Bridgerton season 3, my favorite was hands down Cressida and Eloise’s friendship. You can see how they were both changed by the other. Eloise was able to look past Cressida’s hard exterior and her own privilege and see a girl who was scared and lonely because she was not as loved and supported by her family as Eloise was. Cressida didn’t have a mother like Violet who’d defend her daughter against anything, and if she didn’t have any prospects, she’d be married off to some old lord by her bully of a father.

Cressida, on the other hand, showed surprising self-growth. In episode 2, “How Bright the Moon,” the day after she steps on and tears Penelope’s dress, she and Eloise have a frank discussion while promenading. Eloise tells Cressida she could consider being less blunt with people. And, later on, when Eloise tells Cressida about Colin (Luke Newton) helping Penelope find a husband, Cressida chooses not to gossip about it to the other ladies. 

It was all going so well that, between parts 1 and 2, fans began suggesting that Cressida Cowper was queer-coded, and would be revealed to be in love with Eloise. In that hypothetical scenario, her jealousy of Penelope was because Eloise was her friend. After Eloise called on Cressida during calling hour, these suspicions only grew stronger.

Bridgerton. (L to R) Joanna Bobin as Lady Cowper, Jessica Madsen as Cressida Cowper in episode 305 of Bridgerton.
(Liam Daniel/Netflix)

However, when Bridgerton season 3, part 2 released, most of these theories flopped. We knew Cressida would claim to be Lady Whistledown and eventually be unmasked as fake. But the reason behind her lying was a good setup for her redemption. She was doing all this because she wanted to be financially independent enough not to have to marry a man old enough to be her grandfather. We finally understood Cressida. We understood why she thought she didn’t have any other choice. (Though I never understood how Cressida could bribe a print shop worker to reveal clues about Whistledown’s identity when the Queen’s A-Team couldn’t do it!)

And yet, her full arc threw a season’s worth of character development down the drain. I was expecting Cressida to be empowered since that was the theme of the season; maybe she’d end up marrying Lord Debling (Sam Phillips), or at least get some money, somehow, so she could live far away by herself. Instead, not only did Eloise forget completely about their friendship, but Cressida was also disgraced and sent away with her aunt, essentially cast out of society. 

It seemed less like a Bridgerton happy ending and more of a Game of Thrones-style ending, where they redeem a grey character and get you to care for them, only to break your heart by hurting them. I do hope we haven’t seen the last of Cressida Cowper—in the books, at least, there’s more to her story than this.

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Jinal Bhatt
Jinal Bhatt (She/Her) is a staff writer for The Mary Sue. An editor, writer, film and culture critic with 7+ years of experience, she writes primarily about entertainment, pop culture trends, and women in film, but she’s got range. Jinal is the former Associate Editor for Hauterrfly, and Senior Features Writer for Mashable India. When not working, she’s fangirling over her favourite films and shows, gushing over fictional men, cruising through her neverending watchlist, trying to finish that book on her bedside, and fighting relentless urges to rewatch Supernatural.